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The role of sport in Eastern Europe

This is an excerpt from International Sport Management by Eric MacIntosh,Gonzalo Bravo & Ming Li.

By Peter Smolianov, PhD


The philosophical and organizational principles inherited by present-day Eastern Europe from the former monarchies of the region and the Eastern bloc led by the Soviet Union continue to guide comprehensive governmental leadership of scientific, educational, and medical support aimed at maximizing mass fitness and elite sport performance. The mechanisms provide lifelong paths in sport from grassroots to professional careers and ensure expertise of all involved with sport, including uniform education; ranks and rewards for participants, coaches, and referees; a pyramidal structure of sport clubs, schools, and universities; and unified plans of amateur and professional competitions. Sport governing organizations in this centralized, integrated, and increasingly democratic system carry difficult responsibilities for equitable spending of state money, ethical achievement of ambitious goals, and enforcement of rules and control over doping and corruption.


Coaches run this sport system because they are employed by the state and rewarded according to achievements of participants. According to the East European notion of sport as preventative medicine, the coaches assume the roles of holistic physicians as well as spiritual leaders, being well educated in biomedical and pedagogical sciences. Coaches receive help from medical doctors and scientists to nurture participants through long-term development process, directing each participant to the sport appropriate for individual health conditions.


Mass fitness, health, fun, and artistic expression had been priorities of sport traditions in Eastern Europe. Competitive festive sport participation by one-third of the USSR population contributed to peaceful socioeconomic progress by means of balancing the stress from work with rich sport, arts, and cultural recreation. In an attempt to introduce more democracy, the government liberated the country's political and economic systems by setting the republics free in 1991 and privatizing public assets, which, regretfully, resulted in the shift of wealth to the elite, a decline in life standards for the majority, and wars among the disintegrated republics, which claimed over 100,000 dead and wounded and over 3 million displaced from their homes.


Preoccupied with a market economy in 1991 through 1999, the government was largely concerned with making sport profitable. As a result Russian sport lost much of its public funding, which caused deterioration in mass participation and in the number of qualified coaches, managers, and scientists. Russian youth were found to be 20 percent less fit in the 1990s than they were in the 1970s, and the country's elite sport performance deteriorated. The capitalist reforms of the 1990s brought a long period of stress and reduced affordable sport and recreation services, which led to an increase in the number of cases of depression, smoking, alcoholism, drug addiction, suicide, antisocial behavior, and crime (Igoshev & Apletin, 2014).


Reforming their economies and political structures, dealing with border issues, and fighting wars, many of the former Soviet republics and Eastern bloc member countries initially reduced their emphasis on sport. In the two decades after 1990, the interaction of sport and society changed dramatically in Eastern Europe as the Soviet bloc dissolved and public resources devoted to mass sport decreased. Following the 1989-1990 political and economic transition, Hungarian sport, like other Eastern European sport systems, had to adapt to new economic and legal circumstances of capitalism, particularly in how sport was financed (Gál, 2012). Bulgaria also found that the transition from a planned to a free-market economy led to a withdrawal of many subsidies and services to sport. At a time when their real incomes were dropping, people could ill afford to pay for sport participation. “Sport for all” changed from a way of life to a matter of choice (Girginov & Bankov, 2002). Similarly, in Romania, after decades of nearly free sport and recreation services and increasing choices of facilities and programs accompanied by noisy propaganda and aggressive ways to encourage sport participation, people found it difficult to devote time and money to sporting recreation, which is now far from a way of life (Suciu et al., 2002). These post-1990 changes had a somewhat negative effect on mass participation and elite sport performance in the former socialist countries.


In the 21st century, the Russian government started to restore political and economic stability, and the quality of life increased because of higher investments in education, health care, and sport. Russia was second in the medal tallies at the 2010 Youth Olympic Games and at the 2011 World Summer Universiade. The Russian Paralympic team moved from 11th place in 2004 to 8th in the 2008 Summer Games, and in the Winter Paralympics the Russian athletes moved from the 5th in 1994 and 1998, to 4th in 2002, and to 1st in 2006 and 2010. Under President Putin's leadership, the mass fitness and international sport programs started to regain their importance after the year 2000. Sport development has been particularly emphasized since 2007 when the Russian city of Sochi won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics. In 2008 the Russian Sport Ministry was reestablished with a higher status and broader responsibilities, employing 220 administrative staff in the head office and 310,974 coaches and other sport specialists across the country. Physical education was increased from two to three times a week with a revitalized GTO(Ready for Labor and Defense) fitness program in all Russian schools. The Sport Ministry has committed to reach the following goals by 2020:

  • Have 40 percent of the overall population, 20 percent of disabled individuals, and 80 percent of students participating in sport.
  • Attract everyone to exercise three to four times or 6 to 12 hours a week.
  • Ensure that 45 percent of all organizations have sport clubs.
  • Employ 360,000 qualified public coaches and other sport professionals.
  • Place within the top three in all future Olympics and Paralympics by total medal count.


The goals of winning in the 2014 Sochi Olympic Games and increasing the number of regular sport participants in Russia from 25 million in 2011 to 43 million in 2015 were achieved, and a long-term goal was set to increase sport participation to 70 percent, or 100 million (Sport Ministry, 2012, 2017). The increased investment in sport showed its first positive effects on national health; in 2009 through 2011, for the first time since the capitalist reforms started, the number of Russians diagnosed with alcoholism and drug addiction decreased (Inchenko, 2014).