London 2012 Olympics: The USSR and Russia – Two Giants in the Summer Games

Cold War: The USSR At The Olympic Games

After thirty-nine years of success stories in Olympic sports, the Soviet sport came to its end when the European-Asian country broke apart into 15 independent states in the early 1990s. Women’s sport participation in the Olympics was one top priority during the Soviet administration. The former Soviet republics were: Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Estonia, Georgia, Moldova, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Latvia, Lithuania, Russia, Tayikistan, Turkmenistan, Ukraine, and Uzbekistan. Eighty years ago, representing the Tsarist Empire, Russia’s squad had earned 8 medals between 1900 and 1912.

Historically, the country, then the Soviet Union, played a key role in the Olympic Movement throughout the 20th century. It began to emerge as an athletic powerhouse at the XV Olympiad which was held in Helsinki (Finland’s capital city) in 1952.

Making its international debut in the Olympiad, the Communist State sent a group of fledgling athletes to Scandinavia. The USSR’s 295 participants -from 10 Soviet Socialist republics— earned the most medals in the Helsinki Games, capturing unprecedented 71 Summer Olympic medals (22 gold, 30 silver, and 19 bronze). Almost immediately, this performance had a far-reaching impact not only on Soviet soil but also in the Eastern-bloc countries, from Bulgaria and Hungary to Poland and the German Democratic Republic (GDR). In Scandinavia, the national athletes won the first place in three medal-rich Olympic disciplines: gymnastics, freestyle wrestling and Greco-Roman wrestling. Likewise, they finished second in sports such as boxing, basketball, rowing, and track-and-field. Aside from that, the nation also won its first shooting gold. Under this Olympic atmosphere, there were several sporting icons: Nina Romaschkova (women’s discus throw), Ivan Udonov (weightlifting), Ioannes Kotkas (Greco-Roman wrestling), Anatoly Bogdanov (shooting), Yuri Tyukalov (rowing), and Galina Zybina (women’s shot put).

Over the next Olympiad in Melbourne (Australia), the 1956 Olympic squad also placed first in the medal standings and gaining four tournaments (gymnastics, kayak, shooting, and soccer). Additionally, the Soviets were runners-up in rowing, basketball, freestyle wrestling, track-and-field, and weightlifting. In Oceania, the nation won its first canoeing gold.Distance runner star Vladimir Kuts was the USSR’s top athlete there, earning the respect of international fans and fellow Soviets. He won the 5,000m and 10,000 m golds, becoming the first Soviet to do so. During his sporting career, Kuts was one of the first competitors from his country to set world records. Other major figure was Lev Yashin, a goalkeeper which led the national side to its first win in the men’s football championship. Over the next few years, the power of the USSR in Olympics worried America and other countries from Western Europe.

Architect of Cuba’s State Sport System

Throughout the 1960s, the former USSR placed second in the multi-sport events: Italy’60, Japan’64, and Mexico City’68. In this period, there were famous sportswomen such as Inna Ryskal from the Soviet Socialist Republic of Azerbaijan, who was a four-time medalist in the Summer Games. In fact, she was well-known and a role model for teenagers in her homeland and elsewhere. In the meantime, Tamara Press collected her third consecutive gold medal at Tokyo.

From the 1960s (until 1990), the USSR began to send sporting assistance to Cuba. In fact, this aid had many long-lasting effects on the island. After being recognized as the first “Socialist state” in the Spanish-speaking world, a host of physical education teachers and coaches from Cuba were being trained on Soviet soil. Shortly afterwards, Fidel Castro’s Olympic squad was champion in sports in the Third World— the underdog team finished first in the medal count in the Central American and Caribbean Games and subsequently were runners-up in the Pan American Games (since 1971). Cuba also began to win international medals when the USSR Olympic Committee persuaded the island’s sports administrators to give great attention to medal-rich Olympic disciplines at the expense of baseball — Cuba’s national pastime-boxing, canoeing, fencing, gymnastics, judo, track and field, weightlifting, and wrestling.

Hasely Crawford Defeated Valery Borzov

In the next decade, in the 1970s, the Summer Olympics were won by the USSR’s sportsmen and women. At Munich 1972, there were 103 medals (43 gold, 29 silver, and 31 bronze), while in Montreal 1976, the Soviet Union’s 47-medal gold was first and ahead of East Germany and the States.

In West Germany, the European country caused an upset in the 1972 Olympics when its national basketball side, led by the future Hall of Fame member Sergei Belov,defeated America in the gold-medal game -which captured viewers across the world.

Within the former USSR, the then Soviet Republic of Ukraine produced several champions: A major figure, for example, was the nation’s sprinter Valery Borzov, gold medalist in the 100m and 200m at Munich’72.

In fact, Olga Korbut was the greatest athlete of the Golden Age of the Soviet sport following her wins at Munich. Like most Soviet sports stars, Belarus’ gymnast Korbut had been educated at one of the country’s thirty-five top sports-schools during her childhood. By March 1973, the Washington Post journalist Paul Attner said: “Through television the American public saw a fascinating delicate creature (Olga Korbut),the little girl down the street, who seemed as removed as possible from the unemotional, cold Communist stereotype perpetuated by her team-mates. Here was a Russian who actually smiled and laughed and cried and waved to the crowd”.

Despite utilizing the latest sporting technology, by 1976, Borzov failed to defend his Olympic titles: He finished third in the men’s 100m at Montreal (Canada), behind Trinidad-Tobago’s star Hasely Crawford and Donald Quarrie of Jamaica, two “dark horses” from the Caribbean. Surprisingly, Mr. Borzov did not take part in the men’s 200m. Meanwhile, Vladimir Salnikov’s dream of competing in the Summer Games was realized at Montreal. Here, he was an example of talented swimmer: the Leningrad school-boy qualified for the finals in the men’s 1,500m (aquatics), setting a new European record of 15m. 29.45s. In Canada, the up-and-coming Salnikov was one of the youngest athletes.

By the early 1980s, there were 55 million sportsmen and women in the USSR ( exactly Union of Soviet Socialist Republics). Under the aegis of the Kremlin, Russia’s capital was chosen to host the Olympics at the time.Since then, the nation’s Olympic medals had played a part in Moscow’s success. Before agreeing to make Moscow the Olympian capital, seven years earlier, the Russian city hosted the World University Games.

Encountering little resistance, at home, swimmer Vladimir Salnikov and his fellow Soviet athletes won the Games, an event boycotted by America -whose ruler led a campaign for it– to protest the Soviet Union’s December 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Shortly afterwards, over five Western countries and most Third World governments participated in the U.S-led boycott of the 1980 Olympics. In the meantime, Enver Hoxha’s Albania, one of the most anti-Soviet rules during Cold War, shunned the Olympic invitation.

According to Moscow’s own evaluation, the nation produced a successful Olympiad. Nonetheless, unfortunately, the Kremlin boss, Leonid Brezhnev (one of Europe’s worst ever dictators in the past century), used these Summer Olympics as propaganda machine. Despite providing financial aid to most National Olympic Committees from the developing world, only 49 countries from that region arrived in Russia. In meantime, most golds were “second-class medals”. Why? Answer: The American-led boycott affected the competition in most sports: aquatics, archery, athletics, men’s basketball, equestrian, boxing, field hockey, judo, women’s volleyball, sailing, shooting, and wrestling. With the exception of the USSR, for example, had not competitors in the Women’s Field Hockey few weeks prior to the Opening Ceremony. To support the host country, many results were marred by the local judges as occurred when inexplicably Mexico’s sporting icon Daniel Bautista was eliminated in the men’s 20-kilometer walk after leading the event. Also, Nadia Comaneci of Rumania (“Queen at Montreal’76”) was one of the victims at Russia. On the other hand, againts all odds, the Soviet-backed Afghan dictatorship sent athletes.

The USSR’s representatives would have won more golds if the government officials hadn’t boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Olympiad. The Kremlin said Soviet athletes could not compete because of “gross flouting” of Olympic ideal by Washington. The Kremlin administration’s decision was known as retaliation for the U.S. boycott of Moscow four years ago. Likewise, over 10 Communist states, under Brezhnev’s pression, decided not to attend the Olympics in the United States. Almost immediately, a handful of anti-American states, among them Iran and Libya, welcomed it. Instead of competing in California, the USSR and its proxies attended the Friendship Games on Cuba and Eastern Europe.

In the Gorbachov Years

After the deaths of Brezhnev (1982) and Yuri Andropov (1984), Konstantin Chernenko was appointed Chairman of the new rule, but he passed away during his brief administration. The Chernenko’s death in 1985 left the nation without radical rulers. Shortly afterwards, Mikhail Gorbachov was the new strongman in the Kremlin. Under Gorbachov’s rule, many things changed in the former USSR. One of his first acts was to improve ties with Western governments and its allies.

In spite of not having links to South Korea’s anti-Communist regime, the Kremlin allow the national delegation -a well-prepared squad with Olympic spies– to attend the 1988 Seoul Games. Seoul’s foreign policy with respect to Moscow was difficult due to two major events: The USSR has throughout its history maintained close diplomatic and economic ties to Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, one of the most secretive societies on Earth. In fact, North Korea is South Korea’s enemy. Secondly, on September 1, 1983, a South Korean Boeing 747 was shot down by Moscow’s military forces after violating Soviet airspace.

Up to 1985, the country’s hard-line Communists refused to send sporting delegations to South Korea and its allies in the developing world. Losing the opportunity to gain its sixth title in a row, toward the end of the 1970s, for example, the women’s national basketball side of the Soviet Union, spearheaded by the future Hall of Fame member Uljana Semjonova of Latvia, could not compete at the Seoul World Championships.

During the international competition, the USSR finished first in medal standings in the Games of the 24th Olympiad with 132 medals ( 55 gold, 31 silver, and 46 bronze). The country’s top athletes were Victor Reneiski (men’s canoeing/kayaking), Alexander Karelin (wrestling), Alesandr Kourlovich (weightlifting), Salnikov (aquatics), and Sergei Bubka (track-and-field). In team sports, the USSR confirmed its international status a major basketball as well as footballing country. The Soviet soccer side won the gold medal at the expense of Brazil. Additionally, their countrywomen defeated Peru (led by a South Korean coach) 3-2 in the gold-medal match in the Women’s Volleyball Tournament, after losing the first two sets. However, one of its most important wins was when the national squad captured the gold medal in the Men’s Basketball Championship after its win over the United States of America in the semis.

Post-Cold War: Russia At The Summer Olympics

During Post- Cold War, the 1992 Unified team -made up of 12 former Soviet republics-became the most successful team in the Olympiad in Spaniard soil. One of its international stars was Valentina Yerogova, who was the winner of the women’s Olympic Marathon Championship. Upon winning golds in aquatics, Alexander Popov provided one of the more memorable moments for the Unified Team. At the same time, another major win was to win the men’s hammer throw (track-and-field) with Andrei Abduvaliyev (who hails from Tajikistan, a Central Asian region). After the break-up of the USSR, some of the nation’s top athletes and coaches left for Europe, America, and Australia.

Having lost its sporting muscle in the wake of the turmoil of the Soviet Union, Russia competed for the first time as an independent (and democratic) nation in Atlanta’96, capturing 63 medals and finishing fourth, ahead of the People’s Republic of China and Australia. In this climate, Russia’s Karelin gained his third consecutive gold in men’s super-hevyweight category in the Greco-Roman Wrestling Championships. Female track-and-field who earned medals included Svetlana Masterkova (800m & 1,500m) and Yeleva Nikolayeva (10km walk).

Dmitri Sautin was the only non-Chinese to receive a gold in the Diving Olympic Competition on Georgian soil. The nation’s shooters picked up a total of three golds, two silvers, and one bronze. Nonetheless, Russia’s loss of stature on the global stage was illustrated when its volleyball (female or male) did not win medals for the first time after winning 13 medals from 1964 through 1992, including seven Olympic titles.

Entering the 21st century, Aleksei Nemov burst onto the world stage when he amassed many medals (including two golds) and obtained a “big victory” by winning the men’s all-around gymnastics competition at Sydney 2000 (on the fourth day of the Summer Games). Four years ago, Nemov, at Atlanta, he had been one of the main gymnasts on the Russian team. At the same time, the nation’s long dream of Olympic title in men’s hadball tournament was realized in Australia by beating Sweden. Additionally, tennis player Yevgeny Kafelnikov was one of Russia’s most outstanding Olympics when he placed first in the men’s singles by defeating Tommy Haas from Germany. Widely regarded as one of the world’s top high jumpers, Yelena Yeselina was one of the winners in women’s athletics.

In the wake of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, Russia’s contingent went to Athens 2004, where was second in the medal standings, behind America. Here, Yelena Isinbayeva was the winner of the women’s pole vault. From an international perspective, this pole vaulter is considered one of the global stars in athletics. Other Russia’s major athletes were Yuri Borzakovsky (gold in men’s 800m), Tatiana Lebedeva (gold in women’s long jump), Furthermore, Anastasia Ermakova and Anastasia Davydova confirmed their front-runner status by winning the women’s synchronized swimming.

With 73 medals ( 23 gold, 21 silver, 29 bronze), the Russian team, led by basketball player Andrei Kirilenko, placed third in the medal count in the Games of the 29th Olympiad at Beijing, behind China and the United States and well ahead of the United Kingdom (47) and Germany (41). Here, the nation’s sportswomen won golds in sports such as aquatics, fencing, gymnastics, synchronized swimming, tennis, and track-and-field. Ysinbayeva, a three-time world gold medalist, won her second consecutive title, becoming one of the most talented athletes from Russia.

The former Soviet Union will send a 600-person delegation (made up of athletes, coaches, sports officials) to London 2012. According to Russia’s last competitions (2009-2012: World Championships & European tournaments), it could win golds in the following sports: athletics, aquatics, boxing, fencing, gymnastics, shooting, weightlifting, women’s volleyball, and wrestling.

Nicole Thomas

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