I’m going to start off by saying the majority of my information comes from Wikipedia (collective boooooo from professors) but I did work myself to collect some of the figures expressed in this post by compiling information from various stat tables. Other than that I also drew a lot of info from the Seventeen Moments article entitled “The Palace of Sport” (link included).
The original article is more about stadium culture in the Soviet Union after Stalin with the rise of Khrushchev being a major topic as well. However, the purpose of this post will mainly focus on topics that I found inspiration to talk about by reading Palace of Sport, so give it a quick read!
Work Hard, Play Hard
With the death of Stalin came drastic changes in Russian social life, chiefly concerning sport. Under Khrushchev, labor hours and the overall workweek were decreased and provided the Russian people more free time in other areas besides work: “the reduction of the work-day from eight to seven hours and (for some) the workweek from six to five days meant more leisure time” (from here). This shift can be seen in the overall culture of sport specifically, with more and more stadiums of sizable stature popping up around the nation. The Soviet Union saw an increase of 2,045 stadiums that held a minimum of 1,500 spectators from 1952-68. As you can tell, this trend wasn’t restricted to the rule of Khrushchev. These changes in labor hours supplanted an importance in something other than work, that being sport. Not only were more people playing sports, whatever discipline it may have been, but more people were watching sports, hence the noticeable growth in stadiums nationwide. The main sports that consumed Russian culture during this time were the obvious, like hockey and basketball, but back in the day, more people were actually interested in soccer. The two big soccer teams of the time were the favorite FC Spartak Moscow and the less fanatic FC Dynamo Moscow. The first of those clubs had their home in the legendary Lenin Stadium, a multi-use sporting complex that seated up to 103,000 people. For comparison, that size of stadium would compete with some of the largest stadiums of today, like The Big House in Ann Arbor, Michigan, Sanford Stadium in Athens, Georgia, and AT&T Stadium in Arlington, Texas. Below is a side-by-side comparison of these stadiums:
Get the Brooms Out
Now let’s talk pure dominance. I’m American, obviously, and I wasn’t even born when the Soviet Union was around so I can say this: the Soviets absolutely dominated Olympic sports in the latter half of the 20th century. I’ll get to my impressive statistics and figures in a second, but let me gloat about the incredible run the Russians had last century. First of all, take any Winter Olympics from the 20th century and the Soviets most likely won. How do you “win” an Olympics? There are two feats that are held in high regard when talking about success in the Games, one being obtaining the most total medals, and the other being obtaining the most gold medals. As Americans, especially in the Winter, we mainly just care about total medals. Soviets cared about both. Khrushchev wanted to use the Olympics almost as a platform advertising communism, showcasing the dominance of the ideology. Now for my stats :^)
As mentioned before, a “sweep” in Olympic terms is when one nation takes every medal in an event, BUT this can also mean something else. Another “sweep” in Olympic lingo is when one nation gets the most total medals and most gold medals in BOTH the Winter and Summer Olympics in the same year. “How is that possible?”, says someone below the age of 30. Well, until 1994 both the Winter and Summer games were played in the same year. That means both the Winter and Summer games would have been canceled this year . . . bad joke, yes, I know. So nowadays it’s actually impossible to sweep the Winter and Summer Games in the same year. However, when it was possible, the Soviet Union swept the Games FIVE TIMES out of the six sweeps in Olympic history. Here are all six sweeps in chronological order . . .
1932 (Great Depression): United States
1956 (first Olympics under Khrushchev): Soviet Union
1960 (back-to-back): Soviet Union
1972 (12 years after the last): Soviet Union
1976 (another back-to-back): Soviet Union
1980 (Winter Olympic hockey upset of the Soviet Union vs. the US deemed the ‘Miracle on Ice’; also, back-to-back-to-back): Soviet Union
After the Miracle on Ice, it’s almost as if it inspired American athletes across all fields of sport because they went into the Summer Olympics an- . . . didn’t show up. The U.S. didn’t even attend the 1980 Summer Olympics due to it being held IN Moscow, Russia. The U.S. was the only major country to not show, but quite a few other powerhouses chose to not fly their country’s flag during the event in solidarity with America. Instead, they used a generic Olympic flag. Countries that practiced this in 1980 included France, Great Britain, Ireland, Italy, Australia, and Denmark.
Summer in Melbourne
Now let’s talk about one of the most troubled Olympics in history, that being the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. First off, it’s pronounced “Melbun”, not “Melborn”. Trust me, I’ve seen a couple YouTube videos about this hotly debated subject. Anyway . . .
Why was this event so bad? It’s not like the event itself was bad, but the implications beforehand were horrendous. Let me further preface this part by saying the logistics for this particular location were substantially different than those of past games. The Melbourne (Melbun) Games were the first to be held in the southern hemisphere and is to date the most southerly location to hold an Olympic event. Why this matters is due to how the southern hemisphere operates and is a matter of science. The southern hemisphere operates opposite to the north in terms of seasons, so one can immediately see how this would be a peculiarity. The Melbourne Games were actually held during the holiday season, November and December, so in other words NOT summer for the majority of the competing field. This reason may be why it took about 50 years for another Games to be held in Australia. The dates of this event happened to also coincide with two of the most tense and estranged events of the Cold War period, the Hungarian Revolution and the Suez Crisis.
The Hungarian Revolution began when the USSR invaded the Hungarian capital of Budapest in 1956, to which the locals took exception (brief overview, too complex to indulge any further). Countries that chose not to participate in solidarity with the revolutionaries were The Netherlands, Spain, and Switzerland. The other unfortunate event, the Suez Crisis, was due to the swift nationalization of the famed and prized Suez Canal by the Egyptian president at the time. This was a major no-no because the Suez Canal is the main passage between the Mediterranean and Indian Ocean, thus vital for trade with the East. As a result, the newly created Jewish state of Israel invaded their Muslim neighbors. The British tried to hail a ceasefire, but resulted in a strong “nope”. The Brits were then forced to enter the conflict, along with the French being involved in the region through their protectorate of Lebanon. This all provided for a linchpin conflict with all parties fighting for control over the canal (another tragically brief overview of a complex topic). Countries to forgo participation because of this roadblock included Egypt of course, Iraq (British protectorate), Cambodia (French holding), and Lebanon.
There is one other country that did not participate, but it had nothing to do with either of these events. That country would be China. Why you ask? Because the Republic of China (Taiwan) was allowed to attend. Bravo.
Well, there you have it. A brief history of Soviet Olympic dominance and blunders. This was an extremely fun topic to touch on and so, so much material to make fun of. Wait, I didn’t really clarify how this refers to our Topic Questions, did I? Okay, let’s see . . .
I’ll use these events as an allegory for how Soviet society changed in the wake of Stalin’s death. As you can see, it got pretty crazy. Because of the Cold War and subsequent “peace” between major powers, the Olympics were treated as the main important battleground of ideological prowess. East vs. West Germany, U.S. vs. USSR, Marshall Plan vs. Warsaw Pact. Because of Stalin’s ties to the West during WWII, this sort of think-tanking was never able to happen. However, under Khrushchev, the Soviet Union sought more aggressive ways of proving that the communist philosophy was the true philosophy. To use this ideology in the arena of sport, Khrushchev surely thought this would prove the superiority of the Union when in fact all it did was further divide the world even after an event such as World War II. So to answer the question, Soviet society changed in ways not previously thought possible due to ignorant physical competition and arrogant diplomacy. The event of Stalin’s death neither helped nor hindered the Russian people, since their aggressive competition in war was just as easily translated to sport, thus intensifying the importance of physical fitness across the country.