Sports in the Cold War Race

During the Cold War era it was all about, as Charlie Sheen likes to say, winning!  But, winning in this context was as much about public perception as it was about controlling territory and people.  The perception of the success of one way of life versus another was just as important as the various other races the USA and USSR were running.

The fact that so many of the political moves were described as competitions and races is telling in itself.  During the Cold War there were a series of relays with very specific goals: the arms race (nuclear bombs, bombers, submarines, etc.) and the space race.  Key goals that had to be won by being reached before the other country.

So much of the achievement in these goals was based not on reality, but on the perception created for the public.  More than any other war this was one based on propaganda and its achievement marked in public morale.  Sporting competition and its terminology provided concrete victories in lieu of battles and hot warfare.

Basketball. USSR vs. USA

What follows are some perspectives on this phenomenon.  The first is from the PBS series, Secrets of the Dead, which covers the doping program in the GDR, including its devastating effects for the youth involved–especially the girls.  The latter three are from this year’s American Historical Association Annual Conference in Boston and take on the sporting scene during the Cold War.

Doping for Gold ~ The Cold War Sporting Front | Secrets of the Dead | PBS.

Click on the link, above, to go to PBS and watch Doping for Gold.  Nothing was above board in international sporting competitions during the Cold War.  Athletics was an important tool in demonstrating the superiority of a country’s way of life, thus differing slightly from its significance during the Nazi Olympics which was intended to demonstrate the superiority of the Aryan race.  In order to accomplish this, the Communist nations trained their athletes as much in psychological warfare as they did in their given field–chess players, for example, were groomed to create minor “legal” disturbances in competitions, such as tapping a chess piece while a competitor studied the board in pressure situations.

It was particularly in team sports that dominance was considered vital for Communist nations.  They flouted Olympic rules demanding the participation of amateurs only, by enlisting all of their athletes into the military and then listing them as military personnel, while training them full time in their sports.  They also used doping to gain an edge.  This was especially true of the East Germans who saw women’s sports as the wave of the future and leaped at the opportunity to dominate during the German Olympics in Munich.  The women famously spoke with absurdly deep voices and gave every appearance of masculinity.  The site that you can follow with the link above provides a summary of some of these means for subversive competition.

Cold War Sport in Global Context

Winning the Cold War in East Asia: Sport and Regionalism, Sandra Collins, California Sate University at Chico

Home and Away: East Germany and the 1972 Olympics in the Age of Ostpolitik, Christopher Young, University of Cambridge

The Soviet-Canadian Rivalry and a Japanese Battleground: Canadian HockeyProfessionals Meet the Soviets, 1970-77, John A. Soares, Jr., University of Notre Dame

This workshop was based on the premise that sports during the Cold War were not merely symbolic but deliberate tools in diplomacy, control and, as Soares described it, clearly identifiable victories and losses.  Collins evaluated the IOC’s political maneuvering in Asia and the clear absence of its supposed political neutrality in its regard and treatment of emerging Communist countries.  Young looked at the GDR and its involvement in the 1972 Olympic Games (although I confess one of the most interesting features was the poll of GDR youth in evaluating national vs German success in the Games).  Soares presented on the intentional use of ice hockey by the Candians in the Cold War diplomacy and international competition.

Collins (author of the book, The Missing Olympics) discussed the IOC’s lack of neutrality in Asia during the 1960s, banning certain countries from participation.  This prompted the founding of the Games of the Newly Emerging Forces (GNEFO) by Indonesia.  These games were aimed at those countries in Asia and Central/South America who were blacklisted by the IOC precisely for political reasons.  Whereas the Olympic Games were heading to Japan in 1964, GNEFO was being held in defiance in 1962–the IOC banned any country that participated in the ’62 GNEFO from the ’64 Japanese games.  South Korea withdrew from GNEFO although Japan, in seeming defiance, sent a B-squad.  (It was suggested that this might have been a determined effort by Japan to distance itself from its internationally enforced relationship with Taiwan.)  Clearly, this active involvement in international politics on the part of the IOC.  (Inspired by this talk I found this 1963 Sports Illustrated article covering GNEFO.)

Young is co-author of The 1972 Munich Olympics and the making of modern Germany.  For the purposes of this brief post, I choose to focus on two points from his larger presentation–one from his paper and one from the comments and questions afterwards.  One of the aspects I found most interesting from this discussion was his summary of the opinion polls that the GDR took from their youth–the category of youth who were not on board with the government were categorized as those “not yet disposed” to support the government.  In these polls, a hypothetical handball tournament was suggested among the USSR, East Germany, West Germany and Denmark and the youth were asked which teams they would support.  Whereas East Germany won by a landslide and the USSR came in second, the West came in at a very close third.  Polls also revealed a great deal of animosity for the individual GDR athletes, despite the universal support for the GDR teams.  Citizens of the GDR reveled in the success of West Germany during the Olympics, as well.  Young concluded that the support for athletic representation was not necessarily support for the regime.

In response to a the commentator and a query from the audience,Young also discussed gender during the Olympics and the preparation for those Olympics.  The GDR recognized the rise of female participation in the Olympics and deliberately sought to dominate in this arena.  Of course, this policy led to the tainted metals won by the steroid-juiced athletes in 1972 and subsequent competitions.

During the Cold War, the competition to demonstrate the superiority of these opposed ways of life and governance spawned many “cultural exchanges” that were intended to out-do and create dissension among the various populations.  Soares demonstrates the deliberate use of ice hockey by the Canadians to fight these cultural wars.  Ice hockey, in particular, is uniquely appropriate for this discussion, Soares explained, because all the relevant powers played it, it was a team sport and the diplomats considered it one of their weapons.  There was deliberate discussion about utilizing ice hockey instead of ballets and symphonies to win the war for the people’s sympathies.

The Canadians boycotted the Olympics for many years, offended by the farcical claim of communist and socialist countries that they were sending teams of amateurs in compliance with the rules.  Ice hockey was also an important link between Canada and Japan in their attempts to build diplomatic ties independently of the U.S.A.


These examples highlight the importance of sports in the Cold War and help to provide a terminology for a war that is being fought in symbolism and achievement (for the most part) as opposed to hot battles.  It is particularly the case for life hidden behind the Iron Curtain, but in the war of words and symbols, the USA was not far behind the USSR and the GDR.  For example, the Kennedy staff, having campaigned on the hawkish need to build missile reserves, was shocked to learn that the USA  had already out-paced the Soviets according to the intel, when it was briefed coming into office.


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