The 1952 Olympic Games, the US, and the USSR

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An image shows many rows of people standing in the middle of a large stadium.

Nations at the 1952 Summer Olympics. Source: Wikimedia

The relationship between politics and international sport is fraught with tension and drama: the same qualities that make for the most riveting athletic contests. The Olympics are no stranger to this dynamic, as the Games have long enabled global superpowers to enact their political and ideological conflicts in sport. The 2018 Olympics in Pyeongchang will be particularly laden with geopolitical drama given the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) decision to ban the Russian Olympic Team from the upcoming Games. This almost certainly means that all eyes will be on the Russian athletes who petition to compete as individual competitors. But this will not mark the first time that athletes from Eastern Europe will face heightened attention and scrutiny at an Olympic Games. When the Soviet Union made its Olympic debut at the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, no one quite knew what to expect from a country that had shunned not only the Olympics but most athletic competition with the west since the 1917 Revolution.

The Soviets played up this mysterious angle in Helsinki as they demanded separate lodgings for their team and the other participating Iron Curtain nations. Team officials insisted on isolating their athletes in cramped, overcrowded dorms to prevent too much interaction with noncommunist athletes or attempted defections. The presence of a Soviet team heightened the competitive spirit among the participating nations, especially the United States. Four years earlier, at the 1948 Summer Olympics in London, most of Europe was still recovering and rebuilding after World War II. As such, the Americans, the world sporting leader, saw a need to scale back their performance at the Games, so as not to show up their weakened competitors. The United States Olympic Association reminded its athletes before London that sportsmanship should come first. That sentiment vanished once the Soviet Union joined the IOC in 1951 and announced its intention to compete in Helsinki.

As New York Times sports columnist Arthur Daley observed in June 1952, “There will be seventy-one nations in the Olympics at Helsinki. The United States would like to beat all of them but the only one that counts is Soviet Russia. The communist propaganda machine must be silenced so that there can’t be even one distorted bleat out of it in regard to the Olympics. In sports the Red brothers have reached the put-up-or-shut-up stage. Let’s shut them up. Let’s support the United States Olympic Team.”

Daley’s words encapsulated the sentiments of a Cold War-conscious readership who relished all chances to compete with the Soviet Union. Even the president of the United States was drawn into the Olympic fury. In a 1951 letter to incoming IOC President Avery Brundage, an American, Harry Truman emphasized the importance of a strong American showing because, “Certain countries which have not participated for many years will be represented. Others will take part for the first time. . . . The eyes of the world will be upon us.” American athletes were expected to represent the best that the United States had to offer, especially to their communist peers. Celebrities like Dean Martin and Bob Hope jumped on the Olympic bandwagon as well. Regarding his participation in fundraising efforts for the American team, Bob Hope remarked, “I guess old Joe Stalin thinks he is going to show up our soft capitalistic Americans. We’ve got to cut him down to size.”

Newspapers like the New York Times and the Washington Post offered much more extensive previews and coverage of the Helsinki Games than they had devoted to the London contests. Much of what was written before the Games speculated on the Soviets’ athletic prowess and scoffed at their professionalism, yet no one really knew what to expect from them on the playing field. The general consensus was that Soviet sports stars were well-compensated by their government, which should have rendered them ineligible for the Olympics. Meanwhile, American athletes who wished to compete in the Olympics were forbidden from accepting payment for coaching or even college scholarships.

Politically-charged sports commentary increased in frequency and vitriol on both sides of the Iron Curtain as the Opening Ceremonies neared. In January 1952 false reports circulated from Moscow that the American military establishment had taken control of the U.S. Olympic training program. Sovetsky Sport, a Moscow-based daily newspaper devoted to athletics coverage behind the Iron Curtain, broke the “news” that “the armed forces have converted the formation of the American Olympic team into their monopoly. In this is shown graphically the intensified militarization of the country including American sports which has now reached an unheard-of scope.” This article, meant to create outrage, achieved its intended purpose in both countries. Behind the Iron Curtain, anti-American propaganda couched as news stories spooked Soviet athletes into training harder for the Olympics. On the American side, stories like this demonstrated that the Soviet Union could not be trusted, thereby feeding into the atmosphere of suspicion that had helped to breed the Red scares of the early 1950s. Sovetsky Sport predicted a communist victory and boasted of the propaganda fodder that this would provide. “Every record won by our sportsmen, every victory in international contests, graphically demonstrates to the whole world the advantages and strength of the Soviet system.”

The political commentary and insults were rampant leading up to Helsinki, but those in attendance at the Games reported a friendly competitive atmosphere. The events featuring direct match-ups between the United States and the Soviet Union drew the most interest, as was expected, and these contests did not disappoint. The United States won perhaps the most coveted gold medal when it beat the Soviet men’s basketball team in a game that was much closer than the 36-25 final score indicated.

And yet while most sideline reports suggested an atmosphere of camaraderie on the field, the heavy emphasis that the superpowers placed on the total medal count intensified the competition and put added pressure on the athletes to win. According to Bob Mathias, decathlon champion in both London and Helsinki, “There were many more pressures on American athletes because of the Russians than in 1948. They were in a sense the real enemy. You just loved to beat ’em. You just had to beat ’em. It wasn’t like beating some friendly country like Australia.” The United States won a narrow victory in the medal count, 76 to Moscow’s 71, but both countries claimed to be winning the Games throughout the two weeks of competition based on their differing methods of tabulating points gained from medals. The American medal total broke down as follows: 40 gold, 19 silver, and 17 bronze, while the Soviets earned 22 gold medals, 30 silver, and 19 bronze.

American newspapers maintained that the United States had “won” the Games because their athletes amassed more points in the system that Associated Press reporter Alan Gould created in 1928. Though this formula predated the Cold War by nearly twenty years, it was not seriously employed until the Soviets joined the Olympic Movement. In the American system, a gold medal was worth ten points, a silver medal five, and a bronze four. Fourth, fifth, and six place finishes merited three, two, and one point respectively. Under this system, the United States “won” the Games by accruing more gold medals and more points, finishing with 610 points, while the Soviets totaled 553.5 points. The Soviet system for points was similar, except that it awarded just seven points for a gold medal. Tabulating in this manner gave the Soviets more points than the United States until the closing day of the contests, where the United States pulled into a tie, leaving both teams with 494 points after the final events.

Even though the United States finished atop the medal table, the Soviets’ undeniably strong performance in Helsinki raised some concerns about American competitive abilities. This led to a shift in sportswriting that focused on the cultural and political differences between the two superpowers. Much was made of the inherent contrasts between the American and Soviet athletes as well. The American press lauded the accomplishments of their athletes, widely praising “the greatest comeback in the history of the Olympic games” when the United States pushed past the Soviets in the points total on the final weekend of the spectacle. In the eyes of the press, the Americans became “the clearcut winner . . . in one of the greatest Olympic games in history.” Despite the United States’ widely acknowledged sporting prowess before the Games, much of sportwriting during and after the Games depicted the United States’ team as David to Moscow’s Goliath. These contrasts extended to the physical. When the Soviet gymnasts outpaced the Americans, newspapers noted, “the big-hipped broad-biceped Soviet amazons have demonstrated their superiority to our own svelte lassies.” The lyrical descriptions of the American victory in the points total stood in clear juxtaposition to discussion of the Soviet team in Helsinki.

While few would dispute the Soviet team’s depth and its impressive performance, descriptions of its members on and off the field were less than complimentary. New York Times correspondent Harrison Salisbury devoted a story on the final day of the Games to how the Soviets had shown poor sportsmanship by dissenting openly with Olympic officials and referees on a number of occasions. “Today’s Olympic reports complained against the stalling tactics employed by the American basketball team . . . Even sharper criticism was meted out to the boxing judges. The Soviet press was plainly disappointed that their track team, which had been expected by the Russians to win several events, failed to take any championships.” While some of the Soviets’ gripes may have been valid, the American press was quick to depict them as sore losers, disappointed at their own lack of domination. The 1952 Olympics demonstrate how the superpowers had begun to compete in everything from basketball to rocket science. They would continue to do so with little abatement through the end of the Cold War.

How had so much changed so quickly between these two recent war allies? While the United States and the Soviet Union had collaborated with Great Britain to win World War II and design the postwar peace, much had changed since 1945, most notably the spirit of cooperation between these two superpowers that had emerged from the war.

While the Soviets strove to remove all foreign cultural influences and avoided most athletic competition with the west prior to Helsinki, the United States sought to grow its presence around the world. As both countries looked for ways of dominating first Europe and later the world, both came to view the Olympics as a highly visible yet low-stakes battleground in their cultural Cold War.

Given the global circumstances and the Cold War mindset that had taken hold by 1952, there was little effort made to deny that the Soviets were the only real competition for the United States in Helsinki. Their strong performance in the Olympics stoked American fears pertaining to the Cold War. These contests—and each of the Olypiads through the end of the Cold War—were far more than just a game for Moscow and Washington. Starting with Helsinki, the battle for hearts and medals would continue nearly unabated until the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Erin Redihan teaches history at Salve Regina University in Newport, Rhode Island, and is an associate editor for the New England Journal of History. She is the author of The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S.-Soviet Rivalry.

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