- The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S.–Soviet Rivalry by Erin Elizabeth Redihan
In The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S.–Soviet Rivalry, Erin Elizabeth Redihan demonstrates the importance of the Olympics to the Cold War rivals. Redihan builds on studies of international sport and politics by Barbara Keys, David Maraniss, Janie Hampton, Alfred Senn, Richard Espy, and Nicholas Sarantakes. She judiciously uses materials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) archives, IOC Chairman Avery Brundage’s personal papers, and contemporary news sources to gain a “panoramic view of how the superpowers and those connected to the Olympic Movement benefitted from this meshing of diplomacy and sport” (22).
While Brundage fought the use of medal counts to determine a winner of the Olympics, American newspapers gave daily updates with a keen eye to head-to-head competition with the Soviets. The stakes were high. As Redihan notes, “Losing ground in one aspect of the Cold War, like the Games, was perceived as just the beginning of a total loss to the other superpower in the same way that losing a key battle in a military struggle could lead to a loss in the wider war” (9).
Gauging strength through Olympic competition was problematic as the United States lost its place at the top of the medal count in 1956, in just the second Olympic Games for the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR). The Soviets’ strength in “minor sports” challenged Americans to reconsider the workings of their Olympic program. While U.S. presidents, particularly Eisenhower and Kennedy, wanted to match Soviet efforts, American attempts to invigorate American international sports lacked the centralized support of the USSR. [End Page 385]
Americans could take comfort in defections of athletes and officials from Soviet and Warsaw Pact nations. In 1964, even as the USSR bested the United States in Olympic competition, a growing number of defections from the Warsaw Pact was proof of problems within the Soviet system. Moreover, Khrushchev fell out of power during the Tokyo Games. In 1968, the tables were turned as the United States finished ahead in the medal count but faced the Black Power protests, proof of U.S. domestic unrest.
Redihan’s treatment of both the U.S. and Soviet media’s coverage of the Cold War aspects of the Olympics is the high point of The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948–1968. The sporting press created and exacerbated hostilities in an “ugly war of words.” Redihan shows that Sports Illustrated, a Henry Luce publication, was surprisingly fair, “the only contemporary objective source on Iron Curtain sports” (121). Sports Illustrated pointed out the hypocrisy of American criticisms of the Soviets, particularly on the U.S. and allied practice of not issuing visas to the East Germans. Their objectivity did not prevent Sports Illustrated from organizing the defections of dozens of the Hungarian team members in 1956, a propaganda coup for the fledgling periodical.
Redihan’s twenty-year time span, 1948 to 1968, is significant. While the USSR did not send a team to the London 1948 Summer Olympics, the “Austerity Games,” the kind of diplomatic controversies that would trouble the Olympics throughout the Cold War had become evident. Cold War political tensions had lessened by the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. The superpowers took a low-key approach to the 1972 and 1976 Olympic Games, choosing détente and collaboration in the face of challenges at home and abroad.
Redihan has given scholars of sports and diplomacy a succinct, well-researched treatment of the superpower Olympic rivalry during the height of the Cold War. As with any book of such broad ambition, a few points might be raised. Redihan’s account is sometimes repetitious given the placement of surveys of “Sport in American Society” and “Sport in Soviet Society” before the respective chapters on each of the six Olympiads covered. Norway, a founding...