Russia Sport Olympics The Soviet Union’s Olympic Debut

The Soviet Union’s Olympic Debut

In 1952, the Soviet Union ended years of self-inflicted exile and entered its first ever Olympics. The Games were held in Helsinki and the Soviet Union made a real impression. They won a total of seventy-one medals, putting them second in the medal table behind the USA. It started the Soviet Union’s ascent to becoming a sporting superpower.

Initial Ambivalence

After the communist revolution, competitive sports were suppressed, seen by the authorities as a bourgeois Western capitalist activity. Rather, sports were organised on a local and inter-Soviet level. There was little importance given to competing internationally.

This attitude started to change in the 1930s. Stalin and the communist government increasingly saw international sporting competition as an opportunity to increase Soviet standing and prestige. This was partly a reaction to the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, which Hitler had used to project Nazi power.

Post-WWII, with the Cold War developing, prestige and propaganda became of paramount importance. Whilst the Soviet Union did not send any competitors to London in 1948, it did send observers. They gauged the level of competitiveness and went back to ensure that Soviet athletes were equipped to win medals when they did finally enter.

Success at the Games

The Soviet Union officially applied to enter for the 1952 Olympics and the IOC obliged. The Cold War was at its height and the tension was evident at the start of the Games.

The Soviet delegation refused to allow its athletes to stay in the main Olympic village along with the Western nations. Instead, they built a separate village for Eastern Bloc competitors in Helsinki. As for the athletes themselves, there was a sense of respect and friendliness with their Western counterparts. By the end of the Games, Western athletes were welcomed into the Eastern Bloc village.

The medals soon started flowing. The first gold was won by the Sverdlovsk-born Nina Ponomaryova. The discus thrower smashed the Olympic record with a throw that measured at 51.42 metres. Her teammate Galina Zybina smashed the world shot put record, grabbing another gold in the process.

The Soviet women’s gymnastics team were particularly impressive. They were dominant as they decisively took gold. The women also won three individual gold medals. Women’s gymnastics would remain a particularly fruitful area for the Soviet Olympic Team over the next few decades.

Soviet men also won three weightlifting gold medals, with Ivan Udodov and Rafael Chimishkyan breaking world records.

There were also successes in more unexpected sports. The men’s basketball team gained a silver medal, only being beaten by the USA in the final.

Overall, the Soviet Union came out with an impressive medal haul of seventy-one, only five behind the USA. It was an effective propaganda coup for Stalin and the Soviet authorities.

The Soviet Union would go on to dominate the Olympics for years to come. Indeed, the Olympics became an integral part of Soviet national identity and pride.

© Sathesh Alagappan

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