Moscow Olympics & Soviet Sports Bureaucracy, 1952-80


A review of Red Sport, Red Tape: The Olympic Games, the Soviet Sports Bureaucracy, and the Cold War, 1952-1980, by Jenifer Parks.

Last year, at the height of Olympic fever here in Britain, I was asked to review Jenifer Parks’s dissertation, neatly titled Red Sport, Red Tape. The culmination of her project is the Moscow Games of 1980 — an event more famous for the boycott led by the United States than for its sporting achievements, or indeed the Soviet Union’s successful hosting. But Parks’s thesis tells a much longer story, starting in 1952 when the USSR first gained membership of the Olympic movement. As such, it is in part a Cold War story, exploring the complex relationship between sports and politics during these decades of superpower standoff. But there is also much here that is familiar to the post-Cold War Games today, not least wrangling about the use of the Olympic logo and the extent of commercial sponsorship, issues debated hotly in the British press during the build-up to London 2012. There is also an important and unexpected angle to this study: the role of Soviet sports professionals in making this event happen at all.

Beginning the story in the late Stalinist era, Parks demonstrates that there was nothing inevitable about the USSR’s involvement in the Olympic movement. In general the communist approach favored mass collective physical culture over elitist competition and even as Soviet teams did begin to participate in international competitions care was taken to ensure that the results would shed positive light on the USSR: participation in the Olympic movement would make this kind of control more difficult. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) also had its reservations about admitting the USSR, questioning whether its sportsmen and women could really be classified as amateurs. In Chapter 1 Parks shows the important role played by leading figures within the sports administration who lobbied the party’s Central Committee for Soviet entry into the Olympic movement. The initiative of Nikolai Romanov, chairman of the Sports Committee from 1945-1948 and again 1951-1952, was particularly crucial and helped to break down the isolationism into which Soviet sport had retreated in the late 1940s. In 1951 the Soviet National Olympic Committee was formed and the following year athletes set off for the Games in Helsinki.

In the early years, there were concerns that Soviet performance might be detrimental to the country’s international prestige, but in fact the elite training programs proved successful. Between 1952 and 1980 the USSR won more medals than the USA at all but two of the Summer Olympic Games (p. 389). But Soviet goals were broader than simply medal table domination. As Chapters 2 and 3 demonstrate, the goals outlined by sports professionals in the post-war years were to promote the involvement of women in sport and to accelerate the “democratization” of the movement by breaking down “gentleman’s club mentality of the IOC” (p. 125) and developing ties with newly independent countries, particularly in Asia and Africa. These goals were, to a large extent, achieved: in the Moscow Games, 1,115 female athletes took part — more than ever before — and several nations sent competitors for the first time, including Angola, Vietnam, Botswana, Laos, Nicaragua, Seychelles, Mozambique, and Cyprus. Soviet involvement in the movement, argues Parks, was central to the ongoing process of breaking down Western domination.

Jenifer Parks also showed that the Games succeeded in another goal which was important to the Soviet sports professionals: efficiency. This is a theme explored in the final two chapters which examine the Soviet bid and subsequent planning for the Games. From the first Soviet bid to host the 1976 Games there were concerns all around as to whether Moscow would be able to provide the levels of organization and hospitality required. Would there be enough telephone lines and open restaurants, foreign journalists wondered? Was it better to use slow Soviet computers, or having the embarrassment of buying foreign models, worried Soviet bureaucrats. How would foreign visitors be able to do all their shopping if Soviet cash registers could only process two purchases at a time? The fact that the Games were held, and successfully, was a reflection, Parks argues, of the growing professionalization happening in the Soviet Union in these decades. As such this is not just a story about the Cold War, but also about the changing nature of Soviet rule. Her account is a careful reconstruction of the relationships between the All-Union Committee on Physical Culture and Sport of the Soviet Union (the Sports Committee), the party leadership, and the International Olympic Committee. She argues that “the Sports Committee’s leading personalities represented a new kind of Soviet bureaucrat who emerged in the late years of Stalinism” (p. 4) and that their work became increasingly “routine and systematic.” These men, and they were mostly men it seems, proved themselves hard-working experts who used informal connections and practices to get the job done; while some accounts of patronage networks stress the corrupt nature they could breed, Parks instead suggests the efficacy of this system. This ability to build and sustain good connections served the administrators well in their dealings with the IOC, where the Soviet representatives proved themselves well “attuned to subtle status cues” (p. 107). As the self-confidence of this elite of skilled professionals grew, some did articulate frustration with the highly centralized nature of power in the Soviet Union. Yet this does not detract from one of Parks’s key points: they were able to host this most major of international events and do so successfully.

Parks’s thesis thus has important implications for conceptualizing the Brezhnev era more broadly. Recent work is beginning to chip away at the notion of stagnation, and Parks’s work also suggests a level of dynamism and energy that puts this characterization of the period in question. It was, after all, under Brezhnev that the daring step was taken to bid for a Games at all, not under his predecessor, the allegedly hare-brained schemer Khrushchev. The Sports Committee had first sought permission to bid in 1956 — a year bright with possibilities — but at that time the Central Committee was cautious, apparently worried whether the country could cope with an influx of visitors which would include athletes from countries with which the USSR had no diplomatic ties. It was not until thirteen years later with Brezhnev firmly ensconced in power that permission was granted and, in its second attempt, the Soviet NOC was successful. Parks makes a useful comparison between the 1980 Olympics and the 1957 Youth Festival — the only other time that huge numbers of tourists were invited to Moscow en masse. The 1957 Youth Festival has gone down in the history books as a moment of relatively free interaction between Soviet citizens and foreign visitors with impromptu socializing, dancing, singing, and kissing (phenomena which also revealed the darker side of the Soviet 1950s, leading to vindictive tactics in treatment of Moscow girls who had behaved “improperly”). In 1980, the Games were on a larger scale and more efficient, but did not have, Parks implies, the same kind of carnivalesque mood.

Jennifer Parks’s dissertation is based on impressively thorough study of the archival record in order to tell the story of how Soviet sports professionals built careers and pursued their own ideals of international sport. Parks shows that the history of the Moscow Games should be much more than a narrative of failed diplomacy and boycotts. She should be commended for not taking the obvious route into this topic. By focusing on the professionalism of sports administrators, and the longer story of the Olympic movement in the USSR, she reveals an important side to the late Soviet experience which could otherwise be easily overshadowed by the international drama of 1980. As such, it is a thesis which sheds significant light not only on the Moscow Games but also explores, in impressive depth and clarity, the role of international sporting organizations in the Cold War and the growing professionalization of bureaucracy in the late Soviet period.

Miriam Dobson
Department of History
University of Sheffield

Primary Sources

Gosudarstvennyi arkhiv Rossiiskoi Federatsii (State Archive of the Russian Federation), particularly the following collections:
F. 7576 Committee of Physical Culture and Sport, 1920-1959, 1968-1991
F. 9610 Organizing Committee for Preparation and Staging of the Twenty-fourth Summer Olympic Games 1980 in Moscow, 1975-1980
F. 9570 Central Soviet of the Union of Sports Societies and Organizations USSR, 1959-1968

Avery Brundage Collection, University of Illinois Archives
International Olympic Committee Archives, Olympic Studies Center, Lausanne, Switzerland

Dissertation Information

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. 2009. 410 pp. Primary Advisor: Donald Raleigh.


Image: Emblem of XXII Olympic Games in Moscow. RIA Novosti archive, image #488710 / Yuriy Somov / CC-BY-SA 3.0. Wikimedia Commons.

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