Sports in Society and Politics behind the Iron Curtain. Joyful Games or Serious Battles?

Seminar Paper, 2012

16 Pages, Grade: 1

Clara Omag (Author)




2.1.1. Increasing Prosperity
2.1.2. Increasing free time
2.1.3. Increasing Urbanization - Promotion of Sport in Town
2.2.1. All-Union Committee on Physical Culture and Sport Affairs (Sports Committee)
2.2.2. Voluntary sports society (VVS) and Sport Societies
2.2.3. Sports Committee of Friendly Armies
2.2.4. Schools
2.3.1. Television
2.3.2. Newspapers

3͘2͘1͘ Political Revenge on Ice: Czechoslovakia’s Triumph
3.2.2. The American Miracle on Ice



In the Soviet Union physical education and sports are expected to serve the population’s interest and accordingly, must be accessible to all. This is guaranteed by the country’s constitution͘ (Isayev 1984:7)

1. Introduction

In history, the interest on sports in the course of different times and nations only emerged slowly. This partly stems from the fact that many historians considered it a frivolous research field and it did not seem to be important enough to be closely examined. Only in modern society, sports started to involve important researchers, social historians and journalists (Encyclopedia of Social History 1994: 714). Nowadays, there exists some literature about sports in the Soviet Union but it is still not one of the major fields of research as sport is still somehow considered to be only fun. For this reason, I decided to make a contribution - even if only a small one - to this special topic.

In the Soviet Union, sport was an important part of everyday life aiming to increase the health of the citizens and to make them fit for work. However, sport was controlled by the state and used as a major force to show the advantages of the communist ideology over capitalism. As this broad topic goes beyond the scope of this paper, attention will be paid to sports in the post-war era. Reasons for this choice are several: First, Soviet sports emerged on the world scene only after 1952 and from then on, Soviet athletes became famous all over the world (Edelman 1993: 127). Second, there were structural reforms of the Soviet sports system after Stalin’s death͘ Third, the Soviet Union emerged from the war as victor, showed its military power and altered the balance of power in Europe and in the whole world. In the framework of the Cold War where the existence of two hostile world powers and rival military blocks were confronting each other, sports became an obvious field for international competition and for defeating the ideological opponent (Riordan 1977: 363).

In this paper, it will be examined why sports gained more and more popularity in everyday life and how it was used as political force. The impact of policy will be shown on the specific example of ice hockey, one of the most popular sports on both sides of the Iron Curtain. In other words, it will be outlined how sport lost its innocence and became serious fun, a kind of weapon to wage war.

2. Sport in everyday life

From the earliest times the USSR engaged in physical exercise, games and sports. So Russia was among the 12 countries represented at the international congress in 1894 where the resolution to revive the Olympic Games was adopted and although Russia was lagging long time behind many other countries in the development of sports, athletes preformed successfully in international competitions. Physical culture formed an important part of the Soviet culture and every day life (Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1979: 292-293).

According to Riordan (1977:7), sport was one of the most far-reaching social activities behind the Iron Curtain and involved people of all social classes, nationality, age, sex and residence. It had the advantage over other activities such as sex or drinking that it was broadly approved by the state, over literature that it was relatively free of sanctions because the state did not feel threatened by it. It was a mean to serve the whole population’s interests. Thus, it was accessible for everyone and the government was allocating a large sum of money and technical resources into sports. Sport facilities were in general free of charge and it was the declared aim of the state to involve everyone in order to strengthen the health of the Soviet people, to increase their creativity, work capacity and life expectancy. Besides developing strength, agility and endurance, sports also helped people to organize their leisure time, to lead a healthy life and to form regular habits of health and hygiene. Even important was the power of sport to transfer the spirit of cooperation, comradeship and team work - main achievements of the communist ideology (Isayev 1984: 7-9; 117-119; Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1979: 293). Thus, sport was also an important training to transmit to every man and woman the ideology of communism and to strengthen the community. Sport represented pleasure and relaxation and aimed to create happy citizens who could fully profit from various forms of physical exercise and the advantages of the communist system (Malz et al. 2007: 13).

Among the most popular sports counted athletics, volleyball, badminton, soccer and winter sports such as skiing or ice hockey (Isayev 1984: 163-164). Even though one of the declared aims of the Soviet Union was, as Riordan (1977:4) puts it, to ““prepare the younger generation for a long and happy life, highly productive labor for the benefit of society and for defence of their socialist homeland”, Isayev (1984:166) argues that also middle-aged and elderly people were welcome - even though they might not think of records or victories. In practically all sports clubs, health and physical training groups for people of advanced age were organized which were also well frequented.

Furthermore, physical education was an integral part in schools and working places. Sport programs were introduced into the school system so that from childhood on, sport became a vital part of every Soviet citizen. Special sports camps, institutions for healthful recreation and sports training for young people, were set up. In 1975, there existed 9,500 sports camps for more than one million children (Great Soviet Encyclopedia 1976: 435). In working life, sport was organized in a very efficient manner. In line with Marxists principles, local branches of national sports clubs were created at workplaces. Railway workers mostly joined the Lokomotiv club while members of the secret police competed for Dynamo (Encyclopedia of European Social History 2001: 178). There existed so-called exercise breaks that were part of a normal working day. These breaks were a series of physical exercises taking place once or twice a day for some minutes and should prevent tiredness. Health- related programs were introduced in several factories where yearly, even a health prize was awarded - not at least to evaluate the best of those programs (Isavey 1984: 7; 163).

Sports became a more and more popular part of the daily life of Soviet citizens. In the following chapter, reasons for the increasing importance and popularity of sport will be examined.

2.1. Reasons for Increasing Sport Activity

In the late 1950ies, the population’s interest in practicing sports increased. Public and personal prosperity was rising, markets grew, more goods were available and people tended to move to the towns and to abandon the countryside. All these aspects had an effect on the recreation and the free time of the Soviet citizens who discovered the way to different forms of sport. In the following, a closer look will be taken at three main reasons for the raise of new interest in sport, namely increasing prosperity, increasing free time and increasing urbanization.

2.1.1. Increasing Prosperity

After World War II, the urban way of life changed remarkably. National income, consumption and real income per capita doubled between 1959 and 1975. People spent their higher income in large parts on recreation and on sports, mainly outdoor ones. The high demand for sports also increased the variety of the offer and consequently, Soviet capital investment for the construction of sports facilities grew as well. By 1970, the Russian Republic gained 319 new sports centers, 185 indoor swimming pools and 16 artificial ice rinks (Riordan 1977: 183-185).

2.1.2. Increasing free time

Another reason why sport gained more and more popularity in the Soviet Union was due to the fact that free time was increasing. In 1956, a standard 6-days working week had 46 hours; in 1970, however, it decreased to an average of 40.7 hours per week on 5 working days. On top of that, the number of public paid holidays and days off for industrial workers increased, too. These new holidays with pay and the long weekends offered people to benefit from more free time and consequently, also from more energy for leisure activities (Riordan 1977: 185-186).

New sports were booming, among them camping, fishing and hunting as well as mountaineering. This development can be explained by the longer paid holidays and practicing sports was almost part of the weekend. This new attitude of the Soviets led to stronger tourism and consequently also to changes in the USSR. Tourist routes were established, camping fields were expanded and some factories also introduced their own recreation tourist camps (Riordan 1977: 187-188).

Even though sport was accessible to everyone, it has been argued that the new tendencies in sport paralleled the rise of Soviet elite. In theory, facilities were free of charge but it was the richer part of the society that could afford the necessary equipment for sports such as camping or a motorboat. In addition, some opportunities were not affordable for the large mass. So-called dachas, Soviet country houses, boats and travelling were reserved for the higher part of society and too expensive for the working class. On top of that, many people were forced to work also at the weekend to earn some extra money. So it can be seen that not everyone was in the position to fully profit from the extra free time and leisure facilities (Riordan 1977: 190-192).

2.1.3. Increasing Urbanization - Promotion of Sport in Town

After World War II, people increasingly started to migrate into the towns which changed town planning trends. Sports amenities for urban residents were planned including a sports center, one gymnasium and one indoor swimming pool for every 50,000 people in 1970. The Central Research Institute of Model and Experimental Design of Entertainment, Sports and Administrative Buildings even set up norms for sport facilities including location and equipment (Riordan 1977: 192-195). Big cities built large arenas, provincial centers got appreciable facilities and indoor arenas were accompanying the growth of the towns. So it can be seen that the practices of modern sports were closely linked to increasing urbanization and industrialization (Edelman 1993: 3; 158).

On the other hand, however, the rural areas were often left behind and were neglected both by the government and commercial sports organizations. There existed some facilities in villages but they were not as well elaborated as in towns (Isayev 1984: 167). Therefore, the All-Union Committee on Physical Culture and Sport tried to make some efforts to provide the countryside with more facilities and qualified instructors because, as mentioned above, it was the declared aim of the state not to privilege people living in the town. However, this was not an easy task as the peasants did not see the necessity of physical exertion and were rather hostile to changes brought from outside. In other words, they only had a low interest in sport. Furthermore, the climatic conditions in great parts of Russia were not favorable for sports, especially not for outside ones. Third, the poverty and backwardness of the countryside of the Soviet Union with its lack of gas and water limited the possibilities of constructing sophisticated sports facilities. In a nutshell, increasing urbanization led to an increase of sport facilities and opportunities in the newly forming towns but did not help the countryside to expand their sport offer (Riordan 1977:216; 296- 304).

2.2. State’s Institutions for Promoting Sports

As already mentioned sport constituted an intrinsic part of Soviet culture and public life. Physical culture involved many measures introduced by the state and in line with Marxists principles, several institutions were set up, local branches of national sports clubs were created.


Excerpt out of 16 pages


Sports in Society and Politics behind the Iron Curtain. Joyful Games or Serious Battles?
University of Vienna  (Institut für Zeitgeschichte)
"Hammer and Tickle"- A History of Communist Europe Told Through Communist Jokes
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sports, society, politics, iron, curtain, joyful, games, serious, battles
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Clara Omag (Author), 2012, Sports in Society and Politics behind the Iron Curtain. Joyful Games or Serious Battles?, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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