Playing Past is delighted to be publishing on Open Access –Sports and Coaching: Pasts and Futures [ISBN 978-1-905476-77-0]  – This wide-ranging collection of papers, which highlight the richness and diversity of studies into sport and coaching, has its origins in a symposium hosted by Manchester Metropolitan University’s Institute for Performance Research in June 2011. The contributors come from different disciplines and include some of Britain’s leading scholars together with a number of early career researchers.


Please cite this article as:

Tegan, T. Narrative, Development of Soviet Sport and the Components Which Ensured Its Success, In Day, D. (ed), Sport and Coaching: Pasts and Futures (Manchester: MMU Sport and Leisure History, 2012), 85-104.





Development of Soviet Sport and the Components Which Ensured Its Success

Tegan Carpenter


The increasing number of successes achieved by Soviet sportsmen in sports has particular political significance today. Each new victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sport system (Riorden, 1999: 57).


The Soviet Union first appeared at the Olympic Games in 1952 and to the surprise of many, particularly the Americans, they were an irrefutable success. In what was perceived as a relatively short period of time, although in reality they had been preparing and developing an efficient sporting system since the 1930s, they were able to challenge America who had long been considered the world leader in sport. Prior to end the of Second World War, Soviet authorities had established that they could utilise the Olympic Games and other international sporting events to demonstrate the superiority and dominance of the communist way of life. However, in order to achieve this they required a carefully developed and directed sporting system which would ensure the success of its Soviet athletes. The foundations of such a scheme had begun to emerge long before the outbreak of WWII but the timing and environment were not yet conducive to guarantee its success. However, the debilitation of other nations as a result of the War encouraged the Soviets to roll out and implement their system on a global scale. The resources and support offered to its athletes clearly paid dividends because up until its dissolution in 1991, the Soviet Union had ‘won’ every summer Olympic Games they entered with the sole exception of 1968. They are also considered one of the most versatile nations in Olympic history, competing in all winter and summer sports, and winning medals in twenty one of the twenty three sports represented at the 1988 Games (Riorden, 1993). The Soviet Union’s Olympic campaign culminated in a total of 1010 medals of which 395 were gold, 319 silver and 296 bronze. This chapter will trace the early development and influences on Soviet Sport and attempt to establish what factors played a vital role to ensure that the Soviet Union became such a success at the Olympic Games

Sport organisation- Pre WW2

For the most part, prior to the Revolution in 1917, sport was a relative unknown to the majority of Russian people because sport was primarily reserved for wealthy individuals or the military as many workers were not entitled to join sports clubs (‘Russians Enter’, 1951). Despite this, Tsarist Russia had been one of the founding members of the modern Olympic movement although Russian athletes did not compete in the Games until London and Stockholm in 1908 and 1912 respectively. After a reasonably successful Games in London, in which five Russian contestants achieved one gold and two silvers placing them fourteenth overall, the Tsarist government saw the opportunity to achieve prestige through sporting success and encouraged the establishment of a Russian Olympic Committee in 1911. The newly formed committee provided backing to send a larger team to Stockholm which was to consist of 169 athletes covering all events on the Olympic programme. On the day the team were due to sail to Stockholm, however, many athletes failed to arrive and, as a result, a compromised and much smaller team was sent to the Games. The team only managed to achieve one silver and three bronzes and this result was perceived as anything but a success; the poor performances in Stockholm had exposed the ‘backward state’ of Russian sport and society. The failure of its athletes had implicated Russian prestige and in an attempt to remedy the situation and improve the state of physical wellbeing amongst individuals the Tsarist government developed a state organisation to manage sport, known as the Office of the General Supervisor for the Physical Development of People in Russia (Riorden, 1977). The outbreak of World War I in 1914 and the need for a large number of physically fit soldiers further emphasised the need for physical training and increased education. These two key aspects, nationalism and militarism, which had been prominent in early Russian competitive sport would develop into commodities of great significance in the Soviet sport system (Parks, 2009).

Russia had organised their own ‘Olympiads’ in 1913 and 1914 and it appeared that, with proper training and organisation, their athletes had the ability to demonstrate superior athletic performances on the international stage, although it would be another forty years before Russian athletes representing the USSR participated in the Olympic Games again (Shneidman, 1977). Following the Russian Revolution in 1917 there was an increasing resistance towards ‘bourgeois’ and elitist sports competitions, in particular the Olympic Games, which it was believed were designed to ‘deflect workers from the class struggle and to train them for new imperialist wars’ (Riorden, 1993: 25). During the 1920s the Soviet Union tried to avoid the infiltration of Western interpretations of sporting competitions labelling it as ‘capitalist and exploitive’. Instead, focus was placed on an alternative system of sport ‘based on a distinctly proletarian brand of sport and physical culture’ which shunned individualism and competition (Keys, 2006: 159). Physical culture was developed as a means to promote healthy living and increase education surrounding hygiene; both these factors were encompassed within the notion of physical education, which became a dominant ideology in the early 1920s. There was a belief within the Communist party that physical education could play a vital role in influencing younger individuals and in turn reduce anti-social and anti-Soviet behaviour. As such principles of sport and physical education had been based on Lenin’s own ideals, following his death in 1924 sport in Russia lost its direction and underwent a period of instability (Riorden, 1977; Shneidman, 1978). Prior attempts to establish a system of mass participation in sport that was ‘class based, collectivist and mass orientated’ now failed to contend with the capitalist bourgeois centred sports culture and as a result, opposition towards elitist sport gradually diminished in the late 1920s and early 1930s in favour for a more utilitarian approach (Keys, 2006: 159). As Riorden notes (1977: 122) if the 1920s ‘may be described as having been dominated by physical culture, the 1930s were to be a decade of competitive sport’.

In the 1930s competitive sports became widespread; feeding into and helping advance Stalin’s industrial drive and acting as a means to mobilise the population to prepare for potential military action (Riorden, 1977). Various actions taken during the 1930s shaped and developed Soviet sport into the system that became widely recognised during its period of international sporting success from the early 1950s until the late 1980s. In April 1930, physical education and sport were placed under greater government control and as such an All-Union Council of Physical Culture was established and charged with the responsibility of sport in the Soviet Union; essentially it would act as a Ministry of Sport (Shneidman, 1978). As part of this, all well-established local sport clubs were transferred to local workplaces and voluntary trade-union sport societies were developed. These newly founded sport ‘collectives’ began to spread around the country and were essentially formed to help discover and train proficient athletes; the Soviet Union’s professionalised sport system was beginning to emerge and was gradually building momentum. Physical education now had a dual purpose, not only was it helping to produce healthy workers to fuel growing industry it was now also acting as a means by which talented athletes could be selected to participate in top trade-union teams. In order to allow these teams or ‘sport societies’ to develop and raise sporting standards, district and regional competitions were established in popular sports such as soccer, basketball and ice hockey (Riorden, 1977: 126-127).

Another significant development in Soviet sport was the establishment and integration of a uniform ranking system known as the ‘Ready for Labour and Defence’ (GTO) programme. The aim of the system was to provide sporting targets and incentives to participants which in turn would allow for identification of exceptional athletes. It was hoped that assigning classifications to individuals according to their sporting prowess would encourage coaches to spot and train talented performers. In order to manage the increasing levels of sporting activity in the country, an expansion of sporting facilities was required. ‘Giant stadiums in the form of vast amphitheatres’ were being constructed which would evoke and fuel feelings of ‘civic pride and patriotism’ amongst spectators and participants (Riorden, 1977: 149).

Previous hostility towards Western sport was officially reversed in 1934 when the objective to ‘catch up and overtake bourgeois records’ was launched. However, unlike Western, particularly British sport, which continued to have a strict adherence to amateurism, the Soviet Union viewed its principles from a position of indifference and failed to fully embrace the ethos. The initial aim of Soviet sport was to surpass half of all world records within three years but it soon became apparent that the enormity of such a task would make it virtually impossible to achieve. Instead, the new mantra was to ‘bring worldwide glory to Soviet sport’ by achieving as many top finishes as possible in international competitions (Keys, 2006: 172).

Paralleling this was the introduction of a second tier to the GTO badge which came with the coveted titles of ‘Master’ of sport. It was hoped that these new developments would entice more Soviet citizens to participate in sport so that success on the international stage could be secured. In order to ensure the success of its athletes, the Soviet authorities began to monitor the progress of Western sport by establishing a foreign department within the Physical Culture Council which intercepted and translated training manuals, journals and newspapers in order to examine foreign training methods. Despite this shift towards an acceptance of Western sporting methods and competitions in the years before WWII, the Soviet Union still failed to demonstrate a desire to join the Olympic movement and International Sporting Federations. This possibly stemmed from a fear of losing the tight control they had over their sports teams because if the Soviet Union had made attempts to join international sporting federations they would have been obligated to compete against all member countries whereas currently they were in a position to choose. Also, the Soviet government only wanted its athletes to compete in sports in which they were guaranteed to excel and by joining federations such as the IOC and participating in the Olympic Games there would have been an expectation for them to send as many athletes as possible covering a wide range of sports (Keys, 2006).

With so much emphasis now being placed on sport, winning and achieving records, it is unsurprising that rigorous sport programmes began to penetrate Soviet sport. In order to produce a large contingent of talented athletes these individuals were being placed in programmes of intensive training and were rewarded accordingly if they achieved the desired results. However, as the rewards and prestige of winning competitions increased so too did the assistance provided to athletes who were increasingly taken out of the workplace and placed in full time training facilities. In an attempt to embrace some of the attributes of Western amateur sport, in January 1937 the Moscow Committee on Physical Culture of Sports Affairs condemned such practices although the illegal assistance provided to athletes continued to be a widespread problem. In 1939 it was reinforced that ‘half-trained sportsman should not receive extra money for fictional ‘work’, they should not receive subsidies and all manner of gifts for success in competition’ insisting that such practice was ‘bourgeois’ and should not be allowed to ‘creep into Soviet Sport’ (Riorden, 1977: 133).

Despite warnings and the condemning of such practices, assistance to athletes persisted and gradually became commonplace amongst sporting societies. Although these practices were never fully removed from Soviet sport, during the immediate period before the outbreak of WWII many similar systems and methods were curtailed in an attempt to direct resources to prepare for military conflict. Soviet involvement in the War began in June 1941 and it was at this point the direction of the entire Soviet sports movement shifted. Having previously been geared towards excellence in elite sport, now all sport societies, government sport departments and physical education in schools switched towards the development of military attainment and military preparedness. Although Soviet athletes continued to participate in some sporting competitions throughout the War, for the most part, this was done purely to boost morale (Riorden, 1977).

Even though the foundations of what developed into the ‘Big Red Sports Machine’ can be traced back to the 1930s, during this time the Soviet Union did not have the wide ranging success in sport to have considered them a major power in the sporting world. Although many resources had been devoted to sport during the 1930s it was still not considered a primary state objective and it was not until the period of the ‘Cold War’ that it emerged as a key state priority. Despite the fact that many facilities were being developed during the 1930s they remained in short supply and available sporting equipment was often of poor quality. Such factors, coupled with lack of funding, low standards of living and hygiene had a detrimental impact on the quality of sporting performances that Soviet athletes could achieve. However, the performance and ability of the Soviet Union in WWII had reinforced to Soviet authorities that functionalising sport and placing physical education and physical training on a military basis had been ‘absolutely right’ and as a result, following the end of the War in September 1945, more money and resources were directed towards sport. Victory in the War had also restored pride in the Soviet people; the sacrifice and period of struggle during industrialisation had paid dividends. Sport was now to take a more prominent role within society as it became a peaceful means through which the Soviet Union could demonstrate their superiority (Riorden, 1977: 159).

Sport organisation – post-WW2

Massive government aid, based on recognition of the value of sport as a political and ideological weapon, has contributed to the successes of Soviet sportsmen (Foreign and Commonwealth Office, 1980).

During the Second World War, Soviet military power was so strong that it had successfully penetrated Central and Eastern Europe which had resulted in the creation of ten aligned Soviet states. As the rest of Europe had been debilitated due to the War this provided the Soviet Union with the opportunity to dominate and as a result the balance of power both in Europe and globally was altered (Riorden, 1993). The Soviets had a new target; they were determined ‘to catch up and overtake the most advanced industrial powers’, particularly America who had once been considered the most powerful political and military force in the World. This threat to American power ensured that after WWII had ended, these two nations who had once been allies would embark on a war of their own, coined the ‘Cold War’ (Riorden, 1977: 161-162). Far from being a militaristic battle, the Cold War was an opportunity for each of these superpowers to gain allegiance from other nations via psychological conflict and propaganda. As a widely supported policy of ‘peaceful co-existence’ had been launched soon after the War, there was a realisation regarding the potential benefits of success in international sport and therefore the sporting arena developed into a commodity of great significance because sporting arenas gave the Soviet Union the opportunity to exert influence over America without fear of military repercussions (Riorden, 1974: 571; Bourne, 2008: 362). Allison and Monnington (2005: 116) suggest that the Soviet drive to win international competitions was also a ‘hearts and minds’ campaign which could be used to convince individuals outside of its boundaries of the qualities of the Soviet ‘way of life’. It functioned as a demonstration of the power and success of the Soviet Union, particularly when it is considered that apart from the space programme, sport provided the only opportunity to demonstrate superiority over the World’s most advanced capitalist nations (Riorden, 1993). It was therefore inevitable that sport would become an integral part of the Soviet quest for global prestige. International sport and athletes had now become intertwined with both Soviet and American political philosophies, whereby they were being used to sell their ideologies to the world. National prestige was now inextricably linked with success in sport and international competition now had far-reaching political and educational implications (University of Birmingham, 1956).

In order to ensure sporting success, the Soviet government established that the administration of sport required improvement and as such they undertook a period of reconstruction. It had been determined that a more productive form of athlete incentive was required if they were going to secure top results, something which Riorden (1977: 162) refers to as, ‘material interestedness’. In October 1945 the Council of People’s Commissars of the USSR developed a financial reward scheme to award monetary prizes to individuals who achieved ‘outstanding sports results’. Whereas previously, such financial rewards had been considered illegal in the Soviet Union, they were now widely accepted. The use of bonuses and increased salaries for athletes, which were awarded according to their sport ranking, began to encourage the emergence of an exceptional breed of elite athletes. The improvement and progress of such athletes was ensured with the development of Sports Schools which enlisted the services of fully qualified coaches (Senn, 1999). By establishing training facilities and offering financial incentives to athletes they were contravening the rules of amateurism according to the IOC and many other international sporting federations (ISF). However, and somewhat surprisingly, the Soviets had shown little desire to seek inclusion within the IOC. Even after they had received an invitation from Sigfrid Edstrom to join the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) in an attempt to incorporate them into the Olympic family, they still regarded it with indifference; the Soviets were determined to keep other nations guessing about their Olympic and sporting intentions (Beamish and Richie, 2008).

By late 1946 the Soviet Union had begun to participate in many international sporting competitions and started to develop plans to expand their involvement in international sport. Their speed in achieving this was unquestionable. For example, at the end of 1946, the Soviet Union was represented in only two international athletics bodies but during 1946-1955 that number had increased to twenty-seven (Epsy, 1979; Washburn, 1956). This clearly demonstrates the power and speed of mobilisation of the Soviet nation; although they had not been heavily involved in international sport for almost two decades and had lost countless individuals during the War they still had the ability and the resources to ensure they achieved participation on the international stage. Despite this, the Soviet authorities remained apathetic regarding the issues of amateurism and Olympic participation, until they arrived at the European Championships in August 1946. The Soviets were not members of the IAAF and therefore, under the regulations, they were not eligible to participate, but David Burghley who was acting as head of the IAAF, granted them permission to compete. A similar instance occurred at the International Weightlifting Championships in October 1946 in which they were granted entry despite not being affiliated to the appropriate sporting body (Senn, 1999). Avery Brundage commented,

My own guess is that the real object of the Russians is to humiliate the West. Every time they force a Federation to break its own rules in order to let them compete, Russian prestige is increased and Western prestige is decreased. The trouble at the moment is that about half the countries don’t want to annoy Russia, and any country which is anxious to obtain a World Championship or World Congress is reluctant to annoy the Eastern Bloc (Epsy, 1979: 28).

Each time the Soviet athletes were granted the right to compete even though they were not eligible, the Soviet sport system was provided with increasing authority, although in reality their system was not considered legitimate due to the payment of athletes and state controlled sport schools (Beamish and Ritchie, 2008).

There was a growing realisation that in order to exert the greatest impact on the sporting stage, the Soviets would need to compete in the world’s most widely recognised sporting contest, the Olympic Games. However, in order to achieve this they would need to join affiliated sporting federations and by January 1947 they had made their intentions clear when they made a request to join the International Wrestling Federation (IWF) and the IAAF although Soviet authorities attached several conditions to their induction. They declared that Russian had to be introduced as an official language of the federations, the executive board would need to include a Soviet representative and they also requested the ejection of ‘fascist’ Franco-Spain. Brundage, for one, was enraged by such ‘unprecedented’ demands and commented that their conditions exceeded ‘the requirements of common courtesy and no other country has ever been so favoured’ (Creamer, 1956: 30-32). He warned Estrom that any application made by the Soviets to ISFs ‘must not be given any special consideration’ emphasising that their athletes would not be admitted to international and Olympic competition without positive confirmation that they were amateurs (Creamer, 1956; Senn, 1999: 87). Although the Soviet sporting authorities had previously successfully manipulated other sporting federations in to letting them compete without fully adhering to regulations this would no longer be possible. If they wished to compete legitimately in international sporting competitions including the Olympic Games they would now have to meet all the rules and policies regarding participation or at least give the impression that they were, particularly with those relating to amateurism (Riorden, 1993). Therefore, in January 1947 the Soviet government reversed its earlier decree ‘on remuneration of sporting attainments’ stating that Soviet athletes would no longer be entitled to monetary rewards for sporting success, with prizes consisting of medals and badges in the future. They also appeared to address the issue of occupational status declaring that the title of ‘professional entertainers’ was no longer a legitimate profession and that athletes would in future be classified as a ‘student, serviceman or physical education instructor’ (Riorden, 1977: 163). Despite this declaration, it would soon became apparent that these ‘students’ and ‘soldiers’ were in fact state-sponsored professionals but at the time, because the Soviet Union gave the impression that they had now met all the requirements of membership, they were admitted to join the IAAF in December 1947 (Riorden, 1977; Elderman, 1990). However, the Soviet Union did not participate in 1948 Games because they had failed to initiate provisions to develop a National Olympic Committee (NOC) and under the Olympic Charter this was a prerequisite to participation in Olympic competition (Epsy, 1979). Soviet authorities had sent a delegation to the London Olympics to monitor Western athletes. Soon after the completion of the Games the Soviet government declared that if they had participated they would have placed second overall, only marginally behind the United States (Keys, 2006). Inspired by such a revelation and a realisation that by successfully beating Western countries on the international sporting stage the Soviet authorities could advertise the perceived benefits of socialism to the rest of the world, the Communist Party Central Committee published policy targets in December 1948 stating that their overall goal was to ‘win supremacy in the major sports within the next few years’ (Riorden, 1978: 30). By successfully attaining this, it would provide ‘irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the decaying culture of the capitalist states’ (Riorden, 1999: 57). After such a declaration and an apparent alteration of sporting policies in order to adhere with the Olympic Charter it was inevitable that the Soviet Union would soon attempt to join the IOC. However, Olympic officials were apprehensive about admitting the Soviet Union. Western officials in particular would have much preferred that the Soviets remained excluded completely as there was a belief this would eradicate potential problems which could arise in the future if they were allowed to compete. Brundage appeared adamant that although Soviet athletes now gave the outward appearance of being amateur they were still aligning themselves to professional principles; he commented ‘from the Western point of view we must question ourselves if the Russian athletes can be considered amateurs. We must face the fact that many of them are professional’ (Epsy, 1979: 35). Despite trying to deny Soviet entrance into the Olympic Games on the grounds that they were in some way violating the amateur doctrine, it would appear that their motives were more politically driven. There was much uncertainty surrounding the Soviet Union at this time and many countries were fearful of their motives, therefore there was a desire to prevent them from competing to ensure that they did not gain any further power by achieving success on the international sporting stage. There was an underlying fear that if the Soviet Union were allowed to compete in the Olympic Games not only would it bolster their position of power in the global sense it would also increase their sense of authority amongst its own citizens. If they were granted the right to participate in the Games it would demonstrate to their residents the level of power that they possessed over other nations and as such would solidify their position of authority and further increase support for the regime.

However, other members believed that if the committee allowed Russia to join the movement and ensured they adhered to the Olympic principles then, in turn, her ‘Satellite States’ would do the same and as result this would boost the overall authority of the Olympic movement. There was also an underlying fear amongst some that they could not realistically prevent the Soviet Union from joining the IOC because they was now one of the most powerful nations in the world. In 1951, as expected, the Soviet Union submitted a bid to enter the Games and despite apprehension, the Soviets were welcomed into the Olympic movement with a vote of thirty-one in favour and only three against. By admitting the Soviet Union to enter the Olympic Games the founding principles of the Olympic movement had been disregarded because as Allison (1994: 92) suggests, because of the very nature of the Soviet Union there was one condition of Olympic competition that they would never be able to meet. NOCs are required to be autonomous and independent of the state but within the Soviet Union this would have ‘contradicted the fundamental doctrine’ of the government. By accepting the Soviets into the Olympic Games the IOC had chosen ‘its universalist aspirations over a fundamental principle’ and from this point onwards the Games would be significantly different (Epsy, 1979: 35).

The Soviet Union and the Olympic Games

At the XVth Summer Olympics in Helsinki the Soviet Union made its debut. Two emerging superpowers, the USA and USSR, would now confront each other on the international sporting stage for the first time and as a result ‘the cold, calculated pursuit of victory emerged as a dominating principle’ (Beamish and Ritchie, 2008: 19-20). The extent of preparation of Soviet athletes soon became apparent. Soviet sporting authorities had ensured that not only would Soviet athletes compete in every event except field hockey but they had also put measures in place to guarantee success. Where Soviet athletes had previously only excelled in a limited number of sports the new system structure and increased resources would be conducive to ensure favourable results in a multitude of sports. However, despite the Soviet athletes achieving an early lead in the medal table, the American team eventually recaptured top place. Even though they had not attained the most gold medals, what the Soviet athletes had achieved was remarkable. Despite lacking previous experience against high-level competitors, they had managed to attain more silver and bronze medals than the Americans. What dented American pride and prestige the most was that according to the official scoring system the ‘Olympic Bulletin’ the Soviet Union and the United States were considered tied for points (Riorden, 1974: 588). As a result of the intense rivalry between the US and the USSR, a strong sense of nationalism was present at Helsinki. Bob Mathias, American decathlon champion, described the atmosphere amongst the American team:

There were many more pressures on American athletes because of the Russians than in 1948. They were in a sense the real enemy. You just loved to beat ‘em. You just had to beat ‘em. It wasn’t like beating some friendly country like Australia. This feeling was strong down through the entire team (Epsy, 1979: 38).

This rivalry would now become commonplace in future Games because where the America athletes had dominated for so long, primarily because of their large pool of talented athletes, the disinterest of the Soviet Union towards sport all together and the concern of the majority of Europe focused on recovery from two World Wars, the emergence of the Soviet Union and their use of sport as a means to demonstrate the superiority of the communist way of life would result in a shift of athletic success away from America (Hunt, 2007).

The Melbourne Olympic Games in 1956 were particularly notable for various reasons. Political events which occurred prior to the Olympics resulted in the staging of two separate boycotts; Spain, Netherlands and Switzerland initiated a boycott as a result of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and Egypt, while Lebanon and Iraq boycotted as a result of the Anglo-French involvement in the Suez Canal crisis. They were also the Games that allowed the Soviets to demonstrate the outcome of an intense four-year drive to ‘win’ the Olympics. Following Stalin’s death in 1953 the new Soviet leadership under Nikita Khrushchev improved and further developed the established sporting policies by filtering more money and resources into the state-run system which ensured widespread cultivation of elite ‘amateur’ athletes. This increased coordination of the system would ensure that sporting prowess of its athletes was increased, which in turn would further boost Soviet prestige (Keys, 2005: 5). The investment was deemed a success when the Soviet athletes achieved ninety-eight medals which compared favourably with the American’s seventy-four. This 40 per cent increase on their previous gold medal tally demonstrates the speed and power of the Soviet’s ability to mobilise and direct resources to achieve success at the Olympic Games, which undoubtedly provided a boost to Soviet prestige and built pride amongst Soviet citizens. Allison and Monnigton (2005: 117) conducted an interview with Georgian citizens in 1991 in which it was reported that although they now deeply regretted it, at the time ‘the sight of three Soviet athletes, complete with flag and anthem, standing triumphantly on the Olympic podium did make them feel proud to be associated with the Soviet Motherland’. It would appear that the initial fears of the IOC regarding Soviet involvement in the Olympic Games had some basis in fact. Sporting success on the international stage had provided the Soviet Union with a means to not only gain support from its satellite states but also demonstrate its growing authority to the rest of the world.

Components of Soviet success

The emergence of the Soviet Union, in which sport was used to demonstrate the superiority of the communist way of life, created an increased emphasis on winning and breaking records and this caused a shift in the role which sport played. The Soviet Union began to devote resources in order to achieve success, which was achieved via a sophisticated and comprehensive sports system. Although drug taking and blood doping amongst athletes in countries such as the Soviet Union was endemic during the Cold War it would be tenuous to suggest that their success rested solely on the use of performance enhancing substances. As Beamish and Richie (2008) highlight, the Soviet Union were never alone in their use of substance and unethical training methods and the use of performance enhancing ergogenic aids was merely a small part of a much larger sophisticated system. They suggest that four main factors contributed to their success; the systematic and scientifically guided selection of children for a particular sport, the placing of these young athletes in fully equipped facilities with methodological and structured training programmes, which were guided by networks of qualified scientists associated with research in human performance ,and finally the concentration of effort and resources to selected sports.

However, such a list is not exhaustive because another major contributor to Soviet success was the focus it placed on its female athletes. For example, at the Montreal Games in 1976 Soviet women comprised 35 per cent of the entire Soviet team and contributed thrity-six of the total 125 medal tally. In comparison, the American and British teams’ female athletes consisted of only 26 and 20 per cent respectively. Also it is interesting to note that during the seventeen track and field meets between the USA and USSR during the periods of 1958 to 1981, in which the Soviets amassed a higher points total on thirteen occasions, Soviet men only won five times whereas the American men won twelve. However, the Soviet women only lost on one occasion, winning all the other sixteen meets. Without the presence of Soviet women the USSR team would have lost the majority of events (Riorden, 1985).

The success of female athletes in the Soviet Union and other Eastern Bloc countries was achieved by directed research into the female body and the potential of performance enhancement. This allowed for the development of training schedules which would actively complement the female metabolic potential. A sports official from the Eastern Bloc commented ‘we give our men no preference in training. While other nations can produce men’s teams as good if not better than ours, they lose to us overall because they are not tapping the potential of their women’ (Riorden, 1985: 123). Although the American media initially made attempts to minimise the importance of women’s events, the emergence of successful Soviet women resulted in a realisation that if America were to regain control in international sport they too would need to direct greater focus and resources towards to development of female athletes. How women’s sport was approached around the world was fundamentally altered, particularly after the emergence of the Soviet Union at Helsinki in 1952 (Beamish and Ritchie, 2008).

The extensive and technical sport science techniques being implemented in the Eastern Bloc countries during the Cold War were for the most part designed and developed by Soviet researchers. Kalinski and Dunbar (2000) suggest that due to the inaccessibility of journals, lack of familiarity with the language and the secrecy surrounding such work, this research was scarcely known by those in the West. In Russia, the free development of scientific ideas and research was suppressed in the early 1950s due to the actions of the Joint Sessions of the Academy of Science and the Academy of Medical Sciences of the USSR. This, coupled with the pressures exerted as a result of the Cold War, meant that communication between Soviet Union and Western scientists virtually ceased. From this point onwards, what was occurring in the Soviet sport system became a mystery and caused much speculation regarding the reasoning behind their success. Many individuals began to question the Soviet sport system and how they had the ability to produce athletes that were so superior to the rest of the world.

In an attempt to clarify this, Speak and Ambler (1976) visited the Soviet Union in 1975 to observe the sporting and physical education programmes in use. It was noted that the State would select gifted sporting children and develop their talents in well-equipped facilities under the guidance of many ‘excellent’ and ‘qualified’ coaches. Also, it was observed that the Soviet knowledge of sports medicine was particularly advanced and widespread, far outranking anything previously observed in the West. Each Sport School had a suite of medical rooms in which ‘many physiotherapists’ were available to assist and children were ‘tested six months after they begin to attend, to establish whether they have enough potential to continue.’ There were various rooms that were supervised by a qualified doctor which included ones for treatment, diagnosis and massage, but perhaps the most beneficial and advanced use of these rooms was the ability to establish whether illness or injury was the ‘result of physiological deficiency or overtraining’ (Speak and Ambler, 1976: 23-35). It was clear that Western and Soviet sport systems had been founded on different political, economic and cultural principles when Speak and Ambler highlighted an incident at the Leningrad Sports School between the director of the gymnastic school who was a former Olympic champion and a group of three young (aged 14, 13 and 11 respectively) female gymnasts. ‘The quality of the work appeared to be of international calibre and the coaches were very, very demanding. At one stage the coach told the girl, ‘you’ll do it until you cannot stand’ (Speak and Ambler, 1976: 36). Although it was acknowledged that the work was not overly physically demanding just very repetitive, this highlighted the exact nature of the relationship between the athletes, coaches and the system. The athletes were being utilised as a means to an end, cogs within a much larger machine, and this is not to say that they were undervalued or not respected by their coaches but there was a clear agenda to their participation in sport, something which was very different to what was experienced in the West. Girginov and Sandanski (2004: 817) suggest that athletes in the East and West were ‘following different patterns of socialisation through sport’ which had been ultimately framed by different structures and ‘attitudes to sporting practice’.

Immediately prior to and following the dissolution of the Soviet Union it had begun to emerge that the success in Soviet sport had been achieved by a comprehensive athletic agenda in which research into exercise biochemistry, physiology and psychology constituted an integral part. Sport institutions received specific research assignments from the Union of Research Institute of Physical Culture and by 1970 more than twenty-eight of these institutions were in existence (Kalinski, 2003). Sport psychology, in particular, was an area which received much attention with regards to Soviet sporting research. Whereas other nations appeared to disregard the benefit of such an area, shortly after WWII, having had a close association with aspects of sport psychology primarily through the work of Avksenty Cezarevich Puni, the Soviet Union began to develop this as a self-contained discipline which continued to progress and be utilised alongside other aspects of performance enhancement. Following the success of the Soviet team in 1952, in which the sport sciences, including sport psychology, were attributed as being a significant factor, there was an increased demand for applied research and education in sport psychology in order for coaches to effectively incorporate the methods into the athletes’ daily training. Although America, through the work of Coleman Griffith in the 1920s, had made attempts to develop the discipline of sport psychology, it had failed to develop because many did not appreciate the true value of the subject (Ryba, Stambulova and Wrisberg, 2005). However, perhaps the most influential and important development to emerge from Soviet sporting research was an alternative training paradigm termed, Periodization. Lev Pavlovich Matveyev analysed the athletic performances of a large number of athletes across a range of different sports and successfully produced a systematic training programme which would encourage the optimal development of an athlete’s performance (Bourne, 2008). In 1965 he published his theory in the Periodization of Sport Training and, given that this was soon translated into the majority of languages used throughout the Soviet Bloc, it encouraged the wide-spread dissemination of the training method to a large number of Soviet coaches and athletes (Matveyev, 1965).


It is clear that the planned and strategic integration of sport into the political and social foundation of the Soviet state and ‘a focus on elite, not mass sport supported by a systematic process of talent identification and development through scientific coaching; shamateurism; and reliance upon performance-enhancing drugs’ ensured that the Soviet Union continued to dominate the Olympics (Beck, 2005: 175). However a series of complex events such as the political and economic reform of the Soviet Union initiated by Mickail Gorbachev during the 1980s and the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 contributed to the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991 which consequently marked the end of the Cold War (Bourne, 2008). From this point onwards the focus on success in elite sport at the expense of development in other areas of society was no longer a dominating principle. However, not all aspects of Soviet sport disappeared. The significant contributions made to the understanding of exercise biochemistry, sports nutrition and sport psychology by Soviet researchers and the development of sophisticated methods of training such as periodization would transform and influence what was occurring in Western sport. Also, the far reaching sporting success of the Soviet Union resulted in governments around the world attempting to imitate some of their sporting policies and this was particularly apparent in Britain in the 1990s after the demise of the Soviet Union. For example, when John Major was in power (1990-1997) there was a distinct shift in sports policy towards a greater emphasis on ‘excellence’ and this was supplemented by the development of elite sports academies and greater financial support for elite British athletes (Allison and Monnington, 2005). Also, more recently there have been an increasing number of talent identification programmes emerging within National Governing Bodies of sport, encouraged by a government policy on sport investment which is now primarily dictated by the number of potential medal targets (Green, 2007). Although it could be argued that these systems would have been put in place regardless of whether the Soviet Union existed as an exemplar it does seem to have been highly influential in countries around the globe (Allison and Monnington, 2005). However, it should be noted that, although it has in some ways influenced Western sport, because it was forged and based upon entirely different principles, which incorporated the use of performance enhancing substances and the systematic use of children and therefore tarnished how it was perceived, the Soviet sporting system would never be fully embraced.




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