Communist sport: Cold War copycats

The west was so impressed by the Eastern Bloc's athletic feats that it sought to emulate its methods. Here, Chris Young analyses capitalism's game of catch up in the Cold War

British prime minister Edward Heath with Olympic gold medal winner Mary Peters. (Bettmann/Getty Images)

This article was first published in the January 2011 edition of BBC History Magazine

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Mary Peters was unique. Not because she won Britain’s only track and field gold at the 1972 Munich Olympics. And not because she was 32 when she did so. But in claiming victory by a tenth of a second in the dramatic final event of the pentathlon, she achieved the virtually impossible at those ill-starred games: preventing a West or East German woman winning on the track. Popular memory recalls the East German sporting machine and conveniently forgets the west. Run so close in the competition by the West German Heide Rosendahl and the East German Burglinde Pollak, Peters could ill afford to neglect athletes from both sides of the German border.

We tend to think of Cold War sport in the west and east as photographic images of each other. In the west, the story goes, sport was characterised by individual freedoms, political and bureaucratic decentralisation, insufficient medical and scientific support, and problems of identifying young talent. In the east, sport was top-down and all-encompassing. Seen as a vital contribution to the intellectual and physical development of the ‘socialist personality’, it was organised according to the principles of the planned economy and regulated via myriad forms of technical and infrastructural support. This black-and-white snap shot presents a certain likeness, but it doesn’t capture the whole picture.

Members of the AHRC network ‘Sport in Modern Europe’, led by Richard Holt, Alan Tomlinson and myself, have recently explored the nuances of Cold War sport, concentrating on the relationship between both sides. What is emerging is that the west not only used sport as a surrogate realm for the playing out and celebration of ideological tensions as much as the east, but also looked to the east for targets, methods and structures.

As the stunning performance of Mary Peters’ fellow competitors at Munich shows, Germany stood on the athletic front line. At a time when the GDR (German Democratic Republic, or East Germany) had little diplomatic recognition, sport provided the opportunity to stage its own acceptance and legitimacy in international networks. However, as the superpowers cranked up their performances at Tokyo 1964 and the newly decolonised nations hit their stride at Mexico 1968, East Berlin pondered how it could even keep pace with the acceleration in world standards.

In the 1960s, it was generally felt that human capacity for athletic improvement was limitless. Drugs formed part of the solution, but the structures and methods put in place also contributed to the GDR’s sudden ability to surge ahead of the pack.

In turn, West German sports functionaries worried how their own public would read such displays of East German dominance and looked to imitate their rivals to stay on a par. They had no trouble persuading the politicians of the wider ramifications. In the early 1970s, the Federal government doubled its support to associations and quadrupled its subventions for national coaches. Government committees were established and a sports aid foundation collected substantial donations from industry.

The West Germans also introduced youth games, as well as a talent-spotting scheme, specialist training centres, and grammar schools for sport. Within the rules of a democratic, market economy, West Germany followed the East German model – with dramatic results. From the early 1970s until reunification, both Germanies remained in a clear top-four Olympic elite with the superpowers. Although Bonn never caught East Berlin, both scaled ever-greater heights, attached to each other like climbers on a rope.

One parliamentary inquiry in the early 1970s asked West German functionaries why they were not following the French model rather than the East German one. The French had achieved a modicum of sporting success in the late 1960s, but by this point, they too were turning their eyes eastward. Sport came onto the national radar in the context of de Gaulle’s desire to create a third-way alternative to the superpowers. In 1966 this led to a withdrawal from the integrated military command of NATO, when the US and Canada refused to allow their troops stationed in France to come under his control. France’s disastrous showing at the 1960 Olympics, which were screened for the first time on television, had already seemed to reaffirm the country’s sliding position in the world order, and there was talk of a national sporting crisis.

The French were impressed by the way sport allowed well-organised smaller nations to punch above their weight and exercise soft power within the shadow of superpower dominance. And in 1975, they duly passed a law making the state responsible for the teaching of sport and physical culture.

With this promise of state support, particularly in talent-spotting and the establishment of elite academies, the government pledged itself to a remarkable new route that mirrored the Eastern Bloc in making sport a crucial element of national policy and funding. Arguably, no western state went further.

North America fixed its eyes on the east too. US weightlifters were allowed to train with the world’s leading strongmen in Bulgaria – although it is not yet clear what the Soviet satellite stood to gain for its hospitality. Coaches of other sports pushed their charges through the gruelling routines of ‘East German’ circuits and Romanian deadlifts. And the US had the latest sports science and medical literature from the Soviet Union distributed once a month.

All-stars shocked

It was not just amateur sport that was affected. In the same week that Mary Peters triumphed in Munich, the Soviet national ice hockey squad shocked a Canadian all-star team 7-3 at the start of a tumultuous Summit Series. In subsequent years, Canadian hockey was transformed in no small measure due to Soviet influence. Many teams employed more of the speed, puck possession and precision passing common in Europe, and despite the signing of Soviet stars remaining the stuff of fantasy, Czech and Slovak players arrived and had an influence out of proportion to their numerical presence. This was a globalisation of North American sport avant la lettre.

In his book Postwar, the late Tony Judt observed that “the history of the two halves of Europe cannot be told in isolation of each other,” admonishing us to look at the interaction and parallels between Europe east and west. Provocatively, Judt suggested we should even think of social reform in the west (“post-national, welfare-state, Pacific Europe”) and the communist project in the east as “essentially the same”.

Wide-ranging comparative cultural studies are thin on the ground, although good work has emerged recently on the role of rock and punk in particular. Research on the period between 1945 and 1989 has begun to stress the interaction of Europe’s two ideological blocs – last year’s excellent design exhibition ‘Cold War Modern’ at the V&A underlining how fruitful such an approach can be.

Sport offers obvious inroads for exploring this symbiosis. The surprise is that the more we look, the stronger the current of influence seems to flow from the socialist left to the capitalist right, be it in political lobbying or technical expertise. Moscow even manoeuvred Bonn into supporting its bid to host the Olympics in the 1970s.

Much of this is a world away from the Belfast gym where Mary Peters trained at the height of the Troubles under the watchful eye of owner Buster McShane. But Dame Mary was a one-off, while many others stood in the flux of east and west. What we already know about how this worked tells us the Cold War should be thought of less in terms of monumental blocs and more in terms of the fluidity between them.

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Christopher Young is reader in modern and medieval German studies at the University of Cambridge. He is the author, with Kay Schiller, of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany (University of California Press, 2010).