The entry of the USSR and its satellite states into the Olympic arena changed the dynamic of the Games. The idea that it’s ‘not the winning but the taking part that counts’ became less relevant to the global super-powers and Olympic success became a key part in demonstrating the supremacy of the Communist ideological model. Sporting success was now more than ever a propaganda tool.
Prior to 1948, the USSR showed little interest in joining the Olympic movement and regarded sport as something of a ‘bourgeois’ activity. Towards the end of the Stalin regime though, this had changed. The USSR wanted in but only if it could win. Soviet observers (but not athletes) attended the London Games in 1948 and were given the mission of determining whether or not the USSR would beat the rest of the world if it was to join the Olympics.
The International Olympic Committee had its reservations about giving the USSR membership as it had heard and read reports that Soviet athletes were paid to train for hours a day, something that went against the IOC’s amateur-only policy. Realising it had more to lose though by blocking Soviet entry, it gave the Soviet Union the benefit of the doubt. The USSR made its Olympic debut in Helsinki in 1952, winning 71 medals (22 Golds) and finishing second in the medal table behind the USA. Four years later in Melbourne, with 98 medals, it was Number 1 ahead of the Americans. Over the course of its time at the Olympics (1952-1988, having boycotted 1984) the Soviet Union averaged 112 medals per Games. The USA averages 91.
And to promote the Communist system further the USSR was keen to help its allies. East Germany competed under its own name for the first time in 1968 in Mexico City and finished fifth in the medals table. By 1976 it was second behind the USSR.
And when Fidel Castro came to power in Cuba, the country had just emerged medal-less from the Montreal Games. By 1992, after decades of Soviet help in training its athletes, the small island with a population of around 10 million people had risen to fifth in the medals table. Also by 1992, another planned economy and future Olympic super-power, China, was starting to show signs of what was to come.
In a planned economy, where the state has far more control over the lives of its population, it allows for a more industrial approach to producing world-beating athletes. Children with sporting potential are identified at a young age and dispatched to specialist sporting schools, away from their home town and parents. There, they are made to train intensively under the eyes of coaches who, for their part, are given tough performance targets by their superiors. Dr. Sergei Beliaev, a Soviet Ministry of Sport researcher told California’s Pepperdine University in 1993 :
“The idea that was the younger generation had to be fit enough to protect the motherland, so a nationwide system of physical education was implemented. But to a degree it was also a propaganda tool … one of the goals was to prove the superiority of the Soviet approach, social life and so on, and show that Russia would not settle for second place.
“There was a lot of pressure on coach and athlete. The Ministry of Sport would prepare a forecast of how many medals each team should win at the Olympics, and if a coach didn’t meet that benchmark, in most cases, it meant losing his job.”
China’s efforts to make its sporting success a source of national pride have been well-documented, especially concerning the identification and development of talented children. For some Western observers, the rigorous training regimes are far too Draconian for young children. The opposite argument is that the ends justify the means: China won 100 medals at the Beijing Games and topped the medals table.
While the training of young children raises ethical questions and doubts about compatibility with the IOC’s vision of ‘Olympic spirit’, there have also been cases where planned economies have crossed the line into the realms of the illegal.
For decades many people suspected that East German competitors, in particular female swimmers, were benefiting from banned performance-enhancing drugs. It was only after the state collapsed and unified with West Germany in 1990 that the proof emerged of widespread doping instigated by East German authorities. Whereas most Olympic doping scandals had centred on individuals, in the case of East Germany, the competitors themselves were unaware they had been given anabolic steroids. Some female swimmers were administered the steroids, derived from testosterone, from as young as 11 years old.
Carola Beraktschjan, a world record breaking East German swimmer said in 2000: “It’s terrifying what they did to us. I took up to 30 pills a day. They always told us they were vitamins. There was no question you would not take them. You had to play by the rules. We were vehicles chosen to prove that socialism was better than capitalism.”
The head of the East German sports program at the time, Manfred Ewald, was convicted along with Dr. Manfred Hoeppner of deliberately inflicting bodily harm on athletes including minors. Neither has served any time in prison.
Former Soviet coaches have also come forward to confess they administered banned substances to USSR athletes. Sergei Vaichekovsky, a top swimming coach in the 1970s and 80s was quoted by Italy’s Corriere Della Sport in 1989 as saying: “From 1974 all Soviet swimmers were using banned substances. I’ve personally administered the drugs and advised swimmers individually on how to avoid getting caught.”
The Soviet Union may have collapsed over 20 years ago but the legacy of its training methods for athletes is still in evidence. Former Soviet bloc states such as Belarus, Bulgaria and Ukraine continue to win more medals than would be expected for countries with their population and GDP levels. This is because the rigorous, intensive training methods and the practice of training athletes from an early age did not simply disappear with the Berlin Wall. Cuba and China also continue to prosper at Olympic sports.
While it is true that every country wants its athletes to do well at the Olympic Games, some are willing to go to greater lengths in order to ensure success. Never was this more true than during the Cold War, when communist ideology wanted to prove itself faster, higher and stronger than its sworn capitalist rival.