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Sport in the Cold War

This is an excerpt from Sports in American History-2nd Edition by Gerald Gems,Linda Borish & Gertrud Pfister.

Although the happy days of the 1950s offered the American Dream for some, the era was fraught with the international tension known as the Cold War. The Communist Soviet Union, although allied with the United States against the fascist powers in World War II, emerged from that struggle as an international power espousing a competing political, philosophical, and economic ideology. China and Eastern European nations adopted the communist stance, and capitalist countries battled communism in the Korean War from 1950 to 1953. The Soviet Union achieved nuclear capability by 1951, negating the American atomic advantage that had ended World War II, and the threat of a nuclear holocaust loomed thereafter as the political rivals jockeyed for world domination. In the United States, in a move similar to the Red Scare after World War I, Senator Joe McCarthy led a federal investigation that alleged widespread spying throughout the nation. The Korean War ended in stalemate, with the division of the country into communist and capitalist opponents separated at the 38th parallel, and although McCarthy’s witch hunt ended in discredited ignominy, the Red Scare in general persisted.


In 1953, the Kraus-Weber physical fitness tests conducted in Europe and the United States indicated that 60 percent of American youngsters failed, while only 9 percent of Europeans did so. This lack of fitness, an essential factor in any war, disturbed U.S. government officials and physical educators. The nation was apparently becoming one of spectators rather than practitioners, which undercut the tough image that politicians wanted to portray, and, in 1955, President Dwight D. Eisenhower established a presidential physical fitness commission. By 1954, Soviet weightlifters began using steroids to induce better performances, and their U.S. rivals soon followed the practice in their attempts to prove individual and national superiority. The United States seemed to be losing both its physical and scientific prowess, thus jeopardizing its role as a world leader. If war erupted, the nation might not be able to win, and the American sense of confidence and self-assurance was greatly shaken.


In this context, athletes thrilled the masses throughout the 1960s, providing a psychological escape from the ongoing stress of the Cold War and the intensification of the Civil Rights Movement. When the Soviet Union placed ballistic missiles in Cuba, President John F. Kennedy issued an ultimatum that brought the two superpowers to the brink of nuclear war in 1962. The Soviets relented, but a year later JFK was assassinated in Dallas. Only two days later, with the nation deep in mourning, the NFL continued with its regularly scheduled games, as the business of sport had come to supersede even a national tragedy.


When the Soviet Union joined the Olympic movement in 1952, the ideological confrontation of the Cold War extended to sport. Nationalism abounded at the Games in Helsinki, Finland, as Americans took pride in the election of Avery Brundage as president of the International Olympic Committee, but the competition itself revealed the Soviets to be a formidable foe. The communist women clearly outclassed their American counterparts, whereas American men still prevailed in track and field, and both sides claimed overall victory. The Olympics would serve as a surrogate form of warfare thereafter. The Soviet Union demonstrated its might by capturing the overall Olympic championship in 1956. Although a stellar U.S. track-and-field squad captured most of the gold medals, the communist aggregation outscored the Americans in many other areas.


American nationalism again confronted Soviet athletes at the 1960 Olympics, when the United States hosted the Winter Games at Squaw Valley, California, largely thanks to the promotional efforts of Alexander Cushing, a stakeholder in the small ski resort. Few spectators traveled to the remote location, as most opted to watch on television, and the Games resulted in a financial and psychological loss. Although Americans David Jenkins and Carol Heiss garnered the figure-skating laurels, the Soviet Union clearly outclassed all other nations in the overall standings, overcoming any supposed home-field advantage for the Americans and making clear how quickly the communists had achieved world-class sporting status.


At the Summer Games, held in Rome, the Soviets again fielded a well-rounded team, while the Americans concentrated on swimming and track and field. A trio of African American stars captured the attention of their fellow citizens, and one of them, Wilma Rudolph, a tall sprinter from Tennessee A&I University who had polio as a child, surprised the Russian women by winning three gold medals. The Soviets, however, had concentrated heavily on preparing their female athletes, and despite Rudolph’s heroics the communists prevailed in overall competition.


Wilma Rudolph was one of several African American stars who proved equal to Soviet athletes at the 1960 Summer Olympics.
Wilma Rudolph was one of several African American stars who proved equal to Soviet athletes at the 1960 Summer Olympics.

© AP Photo


In boxing, the light heavyweight crown went to the fast and flashy (and, at that time, apolitical) Cassius Marcellus Clay, destined of course to become more famous as Muhammad Ali. In the decathlon, African American Rafer Johnson battled his UCLA teammate, Asian American C.K. Yang, who competed for his homeland of Formosa (Taiwan). The two-day affair lasted 26 hours, and, after both had broken the existing record, Johnson emerged as champion by a mere 58 points. Beyond the competition, Yang’s participation itself caused a stir, as the Communist government of China, known as the People’s Republic of China, protested the inclusion of noncommunist Formosa in the Games and boycotted the competition (and all others thereafter until 1984). Thus, international sporting contests had come to provide a stage for the engagement of political issues (Guttmann, Sports: The First Five Millennia 209 - 210).


The Olympics spawned countervailing forces and interests. Whereas governments used the Games as political vehicles to fight surrogate wars and promote nationalism, individual athletes formed the friendships that Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertinhad originally intended. In this sense, sport offered a temporary conciliation during the Cold War and exemplified its potential for amicable competition between otherwise ideologically opposed rivals. In 1962, as the United States and the Soviet Union were courting a potential holocaust over the Cuban missile crisis, Payton Jordan, the Stanford track coach, invited the Soviet track-and-field team to compete in California, thus extending a series of meets that had begun a few years before. The largest non-Olympic crowd (153,500) ever to watch a sporting event in America turned out for the two-day affair in Palo Alto and cheered world-record performances by both sides. The rival athletes bonded on a personal level and concluded the meet with a joint march around the track, arm in arm, as 81,000 rose in acknowledgment. The "magical moment of camaraderie" even produced some lifelong friendships (Cavalli 7).


The quest for athletic supremacy amid larger ideological strugglesexacerbated ongoing tensions between the AAU and the NCAA over the control, jurisdiction, and regulation of amateur athletics in the United States. In 1960, the NCAA canceled its agreements with the AAU and stopped recognizing its decisions on athletic eligibility and sanctions. The U.S. government interceded in the dispute in order to field a team for the 1964 Olympics, and in 1968 the American Olympic team produced phenomenal records despite great controversy (discussed later in this chapter).


Throughout the fearful Cold War, then, sport provided a diversion, a psychological escape from the sense of impending doom, and the perception of a strong national spirit. Sport assumed characteristics of ideological warfare; yet that assuaged the ongoing potential for real bloodshed. Italso provided cheap programming for television networks in search of an ever-growing fan base.

Learn more about Sports in American History, Second Edition.