State of Play: Soviet Olympic Dominance

Group photo of the famed “Red Army” Russian national hockey team. If you haven’t seen the “Red Army” documentary about these guys it’s VERY good, would recommend.


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

Local ice skating rink in Russia.

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

This is called a “sweep” in Olympic terms when one nation takes all three medals in an event. Not Soviet athletes presented, but under Putin, it’s close enough.

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

Photo capturing the moment the U.S. national hockey team upset the “Red Army” Soviets in the gold medal match of the 1980 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo. Ask anyone who watched, it is one of the proudest moments in not only U.S. sports history, but U.S. history in general. It gave hope to many Americans after a horrific decade in the 70s, and I’m not just talking about the fashion trends.

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

Stamp commemorating the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia.

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.

The real China. This may (or may not) be a joke.

Closing Ceremony

SOCHI, RUSSIA – FEBRUARY 7: General view of atmosphere during the Opening Ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympic Games at the Fisht Olympic Stadium on February 7, 2014, in Sochi, Russia. (Photo by John Berry/Getty Images) wow, this photo came automatically with a photo credit. right on

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.

Please read this caption. I’m using this as an example of my point. The fact that Russia, even today, uses sport as a type of boasting mechanism is textbook in what I’m talking about with changes in Soviet society. Even though they are no longer Soviet, Russia is still dealing with the effects set after Stalin’s death. The main difference is that instead of using violence to prove a point, the Soviet Union used sport. For example, Putin apparently scored eight goals in this exhibition hockey match, per The Guardian (I finally cited a source!).


19 responses to “State of Play: Soviet Olympic Dominance”

  1. I enjoyed reading this. I find it interesting that the cold war translated into sport as well. And to me it seems like a funny coincidence that both the USSR and the USA were the top medal winners in the Olympics winch helped transfer the Olympics into a cold war battlefield.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Correct on all assumptions! Since if the Cold War actually devolved into actual physical combat we may not have civilization today, the second best theater for superiority would be on the second biggest stage, the Olympics. Practically every country nowadays participates in the Olympics and is furthermore televised in practically every country, so it’s a perfect way, in the context it was used in, to broadcast competing ideologies. Great analysis!


  2. Landry, this was a unique and fun post to read! International sporting events such as the Olympics and the World Cup tend to create an atmosphere of patriotism for a country’s population. It’s great to see how so many people go all out to support their country in these events. I also agree that sports has been a way of “combat” and a way to settle scores. It’s also very impressive to learn that Russia swept the Olympic games five out six times!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Yeah and it seems that for the majority of the 21st century (so far) the Games have felt just like that, only games, in contrast. However, ever since Sochi there’s been an especially competitive renewal between the U.S. and Russia, with the Russian doping fiasco and all. And also, if you’ve ever sat down and witnessed a U.S. vs. Russia gymnastics competition, it really is on another level of intense!


  3. Landry, I really enjoyed this post as I love reading about sports. I thought it was very interesting that soccer was on of the first sports to become popular in Russia. Obviously soccer has gained popularity around the world but the first thing that comes to mind for me when I think of sports and Russia is Hockey, and we as fans have been able to enjoy the continued rivalry of Russia and the U.S. through hockey rather than having to go through the tensions of the Cold War. I know you briefly touched on it however, I am curious if there were any tensions and/or altercations between the U.S. and the USSR at the Olympics during the Cold War?

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Other than the 1980 boycott by the U.S. and the subsequent 1984 Russian boycott, nothing really stands out. There was an incident at the 1984 Olympics where Evander Holyfield, the only person to “beat” Mike Tyson twice, got disqualified in the middle of a medal match for seemingly no reason by referee Grigorije Novičić. The controversy didn’t really go anywhere, but Holyfield had to settle for bronze. There probably wasn’t much heated tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union during these times because practically anything would’ve set both camps in war mode if need be.


  4. I so enjoyed reading this, thank you! And no need to apologize for using Wikipedia — you could do much worse! (Including some articles from the Current Digest would have made this even more fabulous, but I digress….) I especially appreciated the way you highlighted the political drama surrounding the “Melbun” Olympics, which is much less well known than the fallout from the US boycott in 1980, for example. It seems that one of the implicit points of your post is that global athletic competitions are inevitably political at some level — hence the investment in national teams (to “prove” one country’s superiority over another).
    I do have a couple of minor quibbles about the Hungarian revolution — which ended rather than began when the Soviets invaded ;-), and Miracle on Ice which is a good movie (not a documentary) but not nearly as good as Miracle! And then there’s the Big House.
    Tell me I did not see it described as “gross” in the caption. Go Blue!
    As luck would have it, we watched the finals of the women’s all around gymnastics competition at the Rio Olympics last night (#MissingTokyo). Gabby Douglas and Allie Raisman brought home gold for Team USA (and get triple credit in my book for doing so despite the abusive team culture), with Alia Mustafina from Russia getting the bronze.
    The more things change…..

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for all the insight! Yeah I reluctantly didn’t want to delve as much into the Hungarian Revolution because my post was becoming quite lengthy at that point, same goes for the Suez Crisis :^( And yes, your observation of international sport being used more or less as a political tool 100% captures my take on the impact of Stalin’s death and the Cold War. As for the Wolverines, sorry if you were offended by my opinion of the team lol, but in reality my family are huge fans of UM, my grandpa especially was and his sister, along with my uncle.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. TBH, it’s tough to be a fan of UofM these days. I keep hoping they will get it together and the glory days will come back. This might be the sports equivalent of my theory of national glory, and I recognize the hypocrisy in that position. Sigh.

        Liked by 1 person

    1. Yes, please read this as well! Clarifies in more depth what exactly the Hungarian Revolution was and the implications relating to de-Stalinization.


  5. Really fun post to read. I enjoy your style of writing. You’ll always grab my attention with sports, and this post is no exception. It is really cool to see how countries beliefs and doctrines transfer to sports. Major rivalries between the U.S. and Russia both in the Cold War and in the Olympics really seemed to boost patriotism on both sides.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. And also interesting to see that these rivalries persist. Although our relations with the Russians have still been rocky since the dissolution of the SU, not nearly as much as the Cold War period, but our competitive spirit still stands between nations.


  6. Hey Landry, I really enjoyed your post and your emphasis on the impact sports had on the Soviet Union. America and Russia have always had such an incredible rivalry during these games and shifting the mood from winning a war to an event within the Olympics was a pretty cool transition. Your post was also very inviting to read and you did really well in capturing the readers attention with each new block of information.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for the compliments Matt! We’ll see if we can get a glimpse of that rivalry in the next Olympics, since Russia has been banned from international competition for the next four years due to evidence of mass doping. However, individual athletes will be able to be cleared for competition barring good tests, but will not be able to compete under the Russian flag or name.


  7. Great post! I think it’s crazy just how political the Olympics were (and still are). I think its very strange as well how dominant the Soviets were in the winter Olympics. Out of all the best winter sports countries they still managed to dominate time after time. it really makes you think.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. It actually wasn’t always like this. Norway and the German countries were probably the best Winter Olympic nations before the Soviet Union really started to care. Oh and you can’t forget about Canada, dang Canucks (joke).


  8. Great read here, Landry! I love Miracle on Ice– I have Jim Craig’s jersey and always secretly hoped that we were related, haha. As someone who is interested in sports it was very interesting to read about the impact that sports had on the USSR, and also the political drama surrounding the Olympics—I honestly didn’t realize how political the Olympic games were and it’s definitely interesting to think about. I really enjoy your writing style, this was a great post!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks so much Claire! Cool that you actually have someone’s jersey that played on that legendary team.


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