- East Plays West: Sport and the Cold War
The editors of this volume argue that sport during the Cold War was a form of culture that served as “an abundant and emotive landscape upon which claims for moral and ideological superiority were aggressively advanced” (p. 3). The book is an ambitious attempt to improve readers’ understanding of this aspect of the Cold War, with seventeen chapters exploring specific events such as the 1956 Soviet-Hungary water polo match and the 1972 Canada-USSR hockey “summit series,” as well as issues such as national identity, race, gender concerns, and performance-enhancing drugs. Many of the essays are interesting and thought-provoking. The best, including Jennifer Parks’s [End Page 160] chapter about Soviet entry into the Olympic movement, Evelyn Mertin’s chapter on official Soviet pronouncements about the Olympic boycotts of 1980 and 1984, and James Riordan’s discussion of post-Soviet sport in Russia, impressively bring to sport the international, multilingual approach that has characterized much Cold War scholarship over the last fifteen years.
Perhaps unintentionally, the collection highlights the disconnect between the purported importance of sport in establishing “moral and ideological superiority” and how little the Western democracies actually did to compete in this field. Mary G. McDonald writes about perceptions that the hockey “miracle” at Lake Placid in 1980 showed American superiority, but this invites the obvious rejoinder: what about all the Soviet victories before and after that? The USSR’s dominance of ice hockey competitions with the United States is only partly conveyed by statistics: Soviet teams won 26 of the 27 Olympic and world tournament games with the United States from 1961 to 1991, and most of those were lopsided routs. Why did anybody think a single victory trumped all of that? Although ice hockey was an example of overwhelming Soviet dominance, the USSR was the unofficial “winner” of almost all Olympics in which it participated. Given the purported stakes of these sports competitions in the East-West context, Western governmental support for sport was laughable. Jeffrey Montez de Oca’s chapter about American fears of a “muscle gap” (p. 123) offers some explanation for this, pointing out that Americans wanted to beat the Soviet Union without mimicking the state-driven model that clashed with American notions of freedom.
This ideological concern led to a wide disparity between Western and Communist efforts. The Soviet program was state-directed, lavished scarce resources on its elite athletes, had top scientists figuring out how to use performance-enhancing drugs without detection, and enlisted the army and state security organs to provide substantial and varied support for the sports program. The United States responded to this massive Soviet effort with feeble programs like the President’s Council on Physical Fitness. Washington might have spent more time bragging about how competitive its athletes were despite the minuscule government effort devoted to the endeavor.
Although this volume is a welcome addition to the growing field of sport and the Cold War, it is not as illuminating as it might be. In part this is because many contributors are determined to counter unreflective Western triumphalism. This can be useful but sometimes induces contributors to downplay some of the uglier aspects of Communism. For example, one essay denounces the “imperial presence” of the United States in Afghanistan after September 2001 at the same time that another contributor excuses the Soviet Union’s “defensive action” there in the 1980s. Terms like “totalitarian,” “closed society,” and even “communist” appear in quotation marks when describing Communist countries, but “totalitarian” appears without quotation marks to describe South Korea (!). In a more substantive example, Paul Dimeo’s chapter convincingly argues that ideology, not science, drove Western opposition to steroids and that Western athletes were dirtier than many Westerners suppose, but it tries too hard to draw equivalence between a system that does not adequately police cheating and one that deliberately and massively promotes it. Not only do efforts at a counternarrative cause authors to downplay problems in Communist regimes, a number [End Page...