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The Olympics and the Cold War: An Eastern European perspective

When viewed as a microcosm of social relations, the Olympic Games provide a unique opportunity to examine the interplay of complex symbolic forces on the global scene. From the outset, international sport events have often been heavily influenced by conflicts, used and abused as they have been to represent a variety of political interests (Walters, 2006). The Olympic Games are a sporting mega-event par excellence and, as such, have been hijacked in various ways for political purposes. From an Eastern European perspective, this essay examines the intricacies of the Cold War and their affect on the Olympics. The Cold War was a 40-year long politico-ideological conflict between two

superpowers: the USSR and the USA (Dockrill, 1988). It represented a major clash over ideology, economic systems and global military presence, power and alliances. Although during and shortly after the second World War the USSR and the USA were friendly to one another, the Yalta conference (4-11 February 1945) saw the beginning of a deteriorating relationship. Driven by emerging tensions, leading to political anxieties, both of the Cold-Warring parties made attempts to strengthen their own political and military positions by increasing their weapons arsenals and recruiting allies (Dockrill, 1988). On the one hand, Joseph Stalin ensured that the countries of Eastern Europe were occupied by the Red Army andwould become communist states. These included Lithuania, Estonia, Moldavia, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, East Germany, Yugoslavia and Bulgaria. The effect of this consolidation was to place an additional 100m. people under Soviet domination, Stalin’s ultimate goal being the establishment of one-party communist states in the entire area surrounding the USSR. On the other hand, the USA helped to establish and support capitalist democracies in much of Western Europe, ensuring a decisive American military, economic and political role in the region and, thereby, securing a firm front-line against potential communist expansion. The Olympic Games, between 1952 and 1988, can be seen as the extension

of the Cold War via sporting symbolism: the ‘capitalist’ world being pitted against the ‘socialist’ world in the sporting arena (Andrews and Wagg, 2007). By operating a comprehensive, centrally controlled and heavily subsidized sports programme, representatives of some of the Eastern European socialist

countries achieved outstanding Olympic and international sport records. Their achievements were the direct result of centrally-monitored sport systems allowing for the construction of sporting facilities, talent identification, coaching-related knowledge transfer, social rewards (both in the form of prestige and money) and, on occasion, centrally administered illegal performance enhancing practices (Dimeo, 2008). These symbolic (over-)investments were implemented to express politico-ideological superiority over the Western world, especially the USA. The Soviet leadership prioritized establishing records during international

competition. To this end they created an enormous sport bureaucracy that employed more than 280,000 people by 1976. In the Russian Republic alone there was a Central School for Trainers, seven institutes of physical culture and over 1,500 stadiums. The use of sport as a Cold War weapon reached its pinnacle after the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979. US President Jimmy Carter announced his disapproval at the military manoeuvre and stated that the USA would boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Games unless the USSR withdrew its military presence from the occupied territory. The USSR refused to comply and the USA, along with some 60 other nations, withdrew from the Games. This political gesture further deepened the ideological gap between the superpowers and precipitated the boycott of the 1984 Los Angles Summer Games by the USSR and most of its allies. To understand the importance of international sporting achievements

during the Cold War era, it is important to note that the USSR appeared on top of the unofficial medal table six times in this period (in 1956, 1960, 1972, 1976, 1980 and 1988). This is a reflection of colossal athletic achievement and financial and social investment, especially when one considers that the USSR had only joined the Olympic fraternity in 1951. The outstanding performance of the German Democratic Republic (East Germany) is also well known (in the unofficial medal table they were placed fifth in 1968, third in 1972 and second in 1976, 1980 and 1988), and can best be understood within the same context of political tension between East andWest. Generally speaking, athletes of socialist countries exceeded their previous achievements due to the politically fuelled gold medal-rivalry between the countries and their ideological antagonists. In this essay, the Olympic performances of the USSR and seven other

Eastern European socialist countries (Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Hungary, Poland, Romania and Yugoslavia) will be discussed, along with the underlying sport political strategies that facilitated these achievements. In doing so, attention will be given to political tensions and to symbolic distinctions and dispositions represented by sports.