Totalitarianism and sport in Russia

pp. 54-69

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James Riordan

  Emeritus Professor, University of Surrey, Guildford, England



In a society of cataclysmic transformation and authoritarian dictatorship – which Russia has been for centuries – sport has come to be identified with five facets common to all totalitarian societies:

  • Authoritarian
  • Favouring the military and secret police
  • Nationalistic
  • Mobilising the masses

Kept under Party control, with high political priority

But sport has also acquired a unique meaning for ordinary people in terms of identity and the Platonic ‘empathy and catharsis’. Furthermore, there have been significant similarities and differences in the status and objectives of sport in totalitarian states.

Key words: Russia; Totaritarian; Sport; Unity; Prestige



The role of sport in a totalitarian state: Preamble

For centuries, up to the October Revolution of 1917, Russia was ruled by the tsars in a pre-capitalist and autocratic fashion. The change-over to ‘socialism’ from obscurantist medievalism, bypassing capitalism, could not but end in failure. As Eric Hobsbawm writes in his new book How to Change the World, ‘Russia was too backward to produce anything other than a caricature of socialist society – ‘a Chinese empire in red’, as Plekhanov is said to have warned.’(Hobsbawm, 2011, 13).

So it is sensible to begin our study of sport in a totalitarian state with a brief  examination of sporting development before the advent of Lenin and his chums. That will show us how much the new Soviet state inherited from the tsars and typically Russian conditions. In turn, since 1991 Russians have moved from being Soviet citizens in a multi-ethnic state to Russian citizens in ‘Mother Russia’. This is not a reversion to pre-1917 because under the tsars Russia was an inland empire that embraced over a hundred different nationalities. Now, for the first time, Russians have a country (more or less) to themselves. In today’s vast land Russians make up some 80 percent  of the population, by contrast with the nearly 49 percent previously.

There is one more, sometimes overlooked aspect of sport that deserves mention. In a society of cataclysmic transformation and authoritarian dictatorship, sport has acquired a unique meaning for ordinary people in terms of identity and the Platonic ‘empathy and catharsis’. Nikolai Starostin, one-time Soviet football captain and Gulag victim came close to explaining this role when he talked of Soviet football in the 1920s and 1930s:

‘I think that the prewar social role and significance of football grew out of the special relationship the public had with it. People seemed to separate it from all that was going on around them. It was like the utterly unreasoned worship by sinners desperate to seek oblivion in their blind appeal to divinity. For most people football was the only, and sometimes the very last,  chance and hope of retaining in their souls a tiny island of sincere feelings and human relationships.’ (Starostin,1989, 83).

This is a perceptive comment on the role of sport under a totalitarian regime, and it applies to sports men and women, as well as fans, in all such countries, whether Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, Falangist Spain or any of the one-time or current communist states.

The early days of organised sport in Russia

Russian sport has its roots deep in Russian history, in the people’s traditions, the climate, fears about internal and external foes (in a land which borders on some twenty foreign states), the organised sports pioneered mainly by Britain, the gymnastics schools of Germany (Jahn), Scandinavia (Ling and Nachtegall) and the Czech lands (Tyrs), as well as in Prussian military training. The pattern of Russian sport has been shaped as much by these factors as it has by political beliefs and the commercial market.

As an industrial society evolved in nineteenth-century Russia, liberal noblemen and native industrialists, along with foreigners resident in Russia (mainly, English, Scots and Germans), began to set up private recreation clubs in the major cities. These embraced sports such as yachting  (the Imperial Yacht Club, dating from 1846), tennis (the Neva Lawn-Tennis Circle, from 1860), ice-skating (the Amateur Skating Society, from 1864), fencing (the Officers’ Fencing Gymnasium, from 1857), gymnastics (the Palma Gymnastics Society, from 1863) and cricket (the Saint Petersburg Tennis and Cricket Club, from 1868). Commercial promoters were also providing, for spectators and gamblers, such professional sports as horse racing (the Saint Petersburg Horse Racing Society, 1826), boxing (Baron Kister’s English Boxing Arena, 1895), cycling (the Tsarskoye Selo Cycling Circle, 1880) and football (the Victoria Football Club, being the first established soccer club, in 1894). Various displays of strength were popular in circuses, featuring such world-famous performers as the Estonian Georgi Hakkenschmidt and the Russian Ivan Poddubny and his wrestling wife Masha Poddubnaya.

At the turn of the century, there were several Russian sports associations and, on the eve of World War I, as many as 1 266 Russian sports clubs existed with an average membership of 60. Although many of these clubs were located in the principal Russian cities, the industrialising provinces also accounted for a growing number. For example, the Ukraine had 196 sports clubs with 8 000 members, and Belorus had a thousand members in its Sanitas, Sokol, Bogatyr and the Jewish Maccabee sports club (Jews being banned from membership of many Slav clubs) (Riordan, 1977).

As in Britain of the same period, the great bulk of the population, industrial and rural, was excluded from the private leisure garden of the middle and upper classes.

In 1917, when the Bolsheviks took power in what is now accepted as a ‘coup d’état’, the new leadership inherited from tsarist Russia an incipient sports movement that differed in a number of ways from that which had developed in the West. In Britain, particularly, individual enthusiasts from among the leisured class had pioneered the development of certain organised sports, given them their rules and conventions and often made them exclusive to their social, racial and sexual group. There were thus established single-sport clubs (for tennis, golf, football, etc.) and governing bodies for individual sports separate from one another and from government, based for purposes of control and largely finance on their members.

In Russia, on the other hand, as in the economy, the tsarist state had to some extent discouraged individual enterprise; it had created some control over the organisation of sport  -- in schools, the armed forces, the national federations and the Olympic Committee (Russia being a founder member of the International Olympic Committee). It had set up the Office of the Chief Supervisor of Sport, headed by an army officer, General Voyeikov, to coordinate the sports movement. Moreover, most Russian clubs became multi-sport centres, in so far as the organisation of Russian sport developed in close association with the Olympic model; and these sports complexes were linked to local and central government. This enabled the regime to maintain close supervision over the development of organised sport and to prevent it being used for anti-monarchist, liberal or revolutionary purposes (as the Turner movement in Germany and the Sokol movement in the Czech lands had been). Some rebel groups in Russia formed dikie or ‘outlaw’ clubs which practiced shooting and unarmed combat on remote fields – in preparation for the coming revolution.

Revolutionary sport

The new Soviet government in 1917 was therefore able to take over a ready-made state organisation of sport without having to dismantle a wide-ranging structure of autonomous sports clubs and federations, or to counter any firmly-rooted amateur values. What is more, with the sweeping away of a leisure class, there was no upper or middle class left to develop sport for its own disport.

The first steps to be taken after the Bolsheviks came to power were by no means clear, for there was no pattern to follow. The change-over from criticism of tsarist sport to action in an 80-percent peasant, illiterate land in the throes of world and civil war presented nigh insurmountable problems.

Both the tsarist and ideological legacy naturally became entangled with the political, military and economic needs of the young Soviet state. In fact, the ‘revolutionary imperative’ of the first four years of the new state’s existence led to mass nationalisation not only of industry, but of sport too, so that by the end of ‘War Communism’ and the Civil War period in 1921, not a single private, non-state sports club remained. Nor was the New Economic Policy (NEP) period (1921-28) to resurrect any. From 1917, therefore, Soviet sport was entirely state-run for utilitarian purposes and employed as an agent of social change, with the state as pilot. The functions of sport were seen as:

  • Raising physical and social health standards
  • Socialising people into the new system of (team) values
  • Encouraging a population in rapid transition from country to town to identify themselves with wider communities (including the new ‘Soviet nation’ ), and, after World War II,
  • Facilitating international recognition and prestige.

This was a pattern of sport common to many other modernising societies during the twentieth century, whether communist or capitalist.

Essentially, however, sport during the first few years came to be geared to the needs of the war effort. All the old clubs and their equipment were commandeered for the Universal Military Training Board (Vsevobuch) whose main aim was to supply the Red Army with contingents of trained conscripts as quickly as possible.

A second major consideration was health. Regular participation in physical exercise was to be a means of improving health standards swiftly and of educating people in hygiene, nutrition and exercise. This could only succeed, in the opinion of Nikolai Podvoisky, head of Vsevobuch, if the emotional attraction of competitive sport were fully exploited – that at a time when influential groups were agitating against competition and record-breaking. The ‘Hygienists ‘ were utterly opposed to competitive sport and the playing of any sport that was harmful (mentally as well as physically) to the human organism (eg boxing, weightlifting, rugby). The ‘Proletkult’ (Proletarian Culture) believed that a completely new sports structure should develop upon society’s socialist base. The advocates of both movements became ‘left-deviationist’ victims of the purges in the late 1930s.

Opposition notwithstanding, competitive sports began to be arranged from the lowest  level upwards, culminating in the All-Russia Pre-Olympiads and the First Central Asian Olympics of 1920. Sports were taken from town to country, from the European metropolis to the Asiatic interior, as an explicit means of involving as many people as possible in organised exercise.

A third function of sport from an early stage was integration of the many nationalities into a single socialist federation. The significance, therefore, of the First Central Asian Olympics, held in Tashkent over ten days in early October 1920, may be judged from the fact that this was the first time that Uzbeks, Kirghiz, Kazakhs and other Turkic peoples, as well as Russians and other Europeans, had competed in any sporting event together.

Impact on sport of industrialization, collectivization and dictatorship

The implications for the sports movement of the economic and political processes (rapid industrialisation, collectivisation of agriculture and political dictatorship) of the late 1920s and early 1930s were extremely important, for it was then that the organised pattern of Soviet sport was formed – with the nationwide sports societies, sports schools, national fitness programme and the uniform rankings system for individual sports. The new society saw the flourishing of all manner of competitive sports with spectator appeal, of leagues, cups, championships, popularity polls and cults of sporting heroes. All were designed to provide recreation and diversion for the fast-growing urban populace. The big city and security forces (Dinamo) teams, with their substantial resources, dominated competition in all sports. Thus, the premier football league of 1938 included nine Moscow and six Dinamo clubs (from the cities of Moscow, Leningrad, Kiev, Tbilisi, Odessa and Rostov) out of its 26 clubs.

In 1935, the government set up sports societies based on the trade unions: Spartak for white-collar workers, Lokomotiv for railway workers, Torpedo for car workers, etc. Together with the clubs of the armed forces and security forces, they formed full-time professional  ‘teams of masters’ to compete in the nationwide cup and league tournaments instituted in 1936. One of the main tasks of the sports societies was to act as a catalyst in raising standards through rational organisation and competition, to act as ‘transmission belts’ for talented athletes. Once these were discovered, it was then necessary to categorise them according to level of ability and to give them an incentive and special amenities to realise their potential. For this purpose a uniform rankings system was introduced in 1937, with rankings decided by times, distances or weights recorded in a particular event and/or success in competition. Once an athlete had risen through the three adult rankings and reached ‘Master of Sport’ level, he or she could apply him/herself full time to sport, unencumbered by a job or work outside the sporting vocation.

The many sports parades and pageants which constituted a background to the sports contests were intended to create a ‘togetherness’ and patriotic feeling. Significantly, sports rallies often began to accompany major political events and festivals (May Day, Anniversary of the Revolution, Constitution Day), thereby linking members of the public, through sport, with politics, the Party and, of course, the nation’s leader, Joseph Stalin.

A relatively close link was re-established in the 1930s between sport and the military, stemming from the conviction that a state surrounded by unfriendly powers (especially with the rise of fascism in Italy and Germany) must be militarily strong. Sport openly became a means of providing pre-military training and achieving a relatively high standard of national fitness and defence. The two largest and most successful sports clubs were those run by the armed forces and the security forces: the Central House of the Red Army (later to become the Central Sports Club of the Army, TsSKA) and Dinamo, respectively. After 1931, moreover, the national fitness programme, the GTO, was expressly intended to train people, through sport, for military preparedness and work – the Russian abbreviation GTO – Gotov k trudu i oborone – meaning ‘Prepared for Labour and Defence’. The junior fitness programme was called ‘Be Prepared for Labour and Defence’, giving a clue to its origin. The initial fitness targets were based on Baden-Powell’s Boy Scout badges for ‘Athlete’ and ‘Marksman’, taken from his book Scouting for Boys, 1909, though never attributed to him. In a breath-taking distortion of historiography, Lenin was quoted as author, having once said ‘workers must be prepared...’

Postwar sports competition with the West

With the conclusion of the war and the setting of a new national target – to catch up and overtake the most advanced industrial powers in sport as in all else – the Soviet leaders felt it possible to demonstrate the pre-eminence of spot in Soviet society. Given the limited opportunities elsewhere, sport seemed to offer a suitable medium for pursuing this goal as an area in which the USSR did not have to take second place to capitalist states. This aim presupposed a level of skill in a wide range of sports superior to that existing in the leading Western states.

This trend towards proficiency was reinforced after the war by mobilisation of the total, if limited, resources of the entire sports system, by creating full-time, well-remunerated athletes and teams, and by giving them considerable backing (including, after 1960, some forty sports boarding schools). Soviet leaders saw sport as ‘one of the best and most comprehensible means of explaining to people the world over the advantages of the socialist system over capitalism.’ (Romanov, 1987, 57).

Prior to World War II, almost all sports competition was conducted within the USSR. The only excursions beyond its boundaries were for contests against communist teams or neighbouring states, like Iran and Finland. With the conclusion of the war and the decision to join international sports federations and the IOC in May 1951, the appearance had to be given that Soviet athletes complied with the definition of an ‘amateur’. It transpired that proficient athletes would now be classified either as a student or as a commissioned serviceman under the sponsorship of a sports society or club. In the case of Dinamo and the Central Army Sports Club, the athlete would hold a commission, but not be expected to undergo any form of military service. Others of Master of Sport and above would be assigned to a workplace, but only to visit it to collect their monthly salary.

On the eve of war, Soviet sport was approaching international standards in a few sports. In football, it had evidently reached it, as demonstrated by the four-match unbeaten tour of Britain by the Moscow Dinamo team in the autumn of 1945. It was not long, however, before the Soviet Union was to become the most successful and versatile nation in the history of sport, particularly in amateur sports at the Olympic Games. The USSR dominated the summer and winter Olympics, from its Helsinki debut of 1952, as well as some non-Olympic sports like chess (chess and draughts being defined as ‘sports’ in the Soviet Union and included in the Uniform Rankings as well as, in the case of chess, sports boarding schools). On the other hand, the country never seriously challenged the world’s leading football teams after 1945. Soviet football failed to gain a place among the world’s leading nations or clubs. The same might be said of professional basketball, tennis and cycling, though not ice hockey where the Soviet national team took on and beat the leading National Hockey League clubs in the 1970s and 1980s.

The pinnacle of sporting glory for the USSR came in 1980 when it became the first communist country to stage the Summer Olympics. The IOC had selected Moscow as the 1980 host at its 75th session on 23 October 1974 in Vienna. Moscow won the vote comfortably over its sole rival, Los Angeles. At the time, many felt the USSR worthy of the honour: not only was it the most successful nation in Olympic history in terms of sporting performance, but it was considered to have done much in Olympic forums to enhance the pre-eminent role of sport and the Olympic movement. It was a popular choice with both East European states (but not all communist nations – China and Albania turning down their invitations to go to Moscow) and many Third World countries whose political and sporting causes had gained Soviet support in such matters as, for example, the banning of racist South Africa and Rhodesia from the Olympic movement, the training of coaches, construction of sports facilities and free attendance of athletes and coaches in Soviet sports institutes.

And yet... at the very moment of reaching the pinnacle of sporting glory, the Soviet Union precipitously and unexpectedly started to fall apart. Two years after the Games, the Soviet President, Leonid Brezhnev, died; three years and two presidents later, Mikhail  Gorbachov came to power with the radically new polices of perestroika (restructuring the economy) and glasnost (political openness). It was too little, too late. Four years later the communist edifice crumbled throughout the eight nations of Eastern and central Europe. The Soviet Union followed suit and ceased to exist, after 74 years, as a unitary state in late 1991.

It wouldbe a mite extravagant to blame the Moscow Olympics for the demise of communism. Yet for many citizens of communist states, the 1980 Olympics brought tensions to a head, especially as the public was able to see those tensions in its own backyard. It is noteworthy that when revolt swept across Eastern Europe in late 1989, there was an intense debate about sport. Far from being at the periphery of politics, sport was right at the core.

Sport in contemporary Russia

During the 1980s, radical changes had begun to appear in Soviet sport, breaking the mould of its functionalised and bureaucratic (plan-fulfilment) structure. Until then, not only had the state-controlled, utilitarian system hampered a true appraisal of realities that lay beneath the ‘universal’ statistics and ‘idealised’ veneer, it had prevented concessions to particular groups in the population – the ‘we know what’s best for you’ syndrome whereby the fit tell the disabled that sport is not for them; men tell women what sports they should play, the old tell the young they can play only on their (old) terms, in their clubs, using their facilities; the leaders, mindful of international prestige, decide that competitive Olympic sports are the only civilised form of culture. It also entailed Moscow (via the Warsaw Pact military alliance) telling other European communist states that they were to boycott the Los Angeles Olympics in 1984 (though Yugoslavia and Romania demurred) in revenge for the US boycott of Moscow four years previously.

What no one could say openly before, including during the 1980 Olympics, owing to state censorship, was that Dinamo was the sports club sponsored by the security forces, that athletes of Master of Sport ranking and above devoted themselves full time to sport and were paid accordingly, that athletes received bonuses for winning (including scarce dollars), that the Soviet NOC was a government-run institution and that its Chairman had to be a member of the Communist Party, that the Soviet state manufactured, tested and administered performance-enhancing drugs to its athletes, etc., etc. By no means all Soviet athletes or citizens were content at the deceit.

Down the years the Soviet leadership had produced regiments of statistics to show that millions were regular, active participants in sport, that the vast majority of school and college students gained a national fitness badge (the GTO), that rising millions (an incredible third of the population) took part in the spartakiad national games, and that the bulk of workers did their daily exercises – ‘Production gymnastics’ as they were called. Just a few years after the Moscow Olympics, however, the new leaders declared that these figures were fraudulent, a show to impress people above and below, and to meet preset targets. It was now admitted that no more than some eight percent of men and two percent of women engaged in sport regularly.

Once the public saw journalists writing about the past and exposing the realities of elite sport, they started to question the very morality of sport, the price that society should pay for talent. Many expressed their distaste at what they felt was a race for glory, the cultivation of irrational loyalties, the unreasonable prominence given to the winning of victories, the setting of records and the collection of trophies – an obsessive fetishism of sport. This was the very criticism made of ‘sport’ by opposition groups back in the 1920s, particularly the ‘Hygienists’ and the Proletarian Culture advocates.

This is, of course, an issue not unknown in other societies, especially those of scarcity. But for a population that had been waiting years for decent housing, phones and cars, that saw the Russian economy collapsing, and that felt that sporting victories were being obtained for political values they did not share – ie that sports ‘heroes’ were not theirs and that they were somehow accomplices in gilding the lily of the Communist  Party – the vast sums being lavished on ensuring a Grand Olympic Show represented the straw that broke the camel’s back.

Having allowed the nation to bare its would, the leaders in the post-communist, post-Gorbachov era radically changed their scale of priorities. They no longer saw the need to demonstrate the advantages of socialism since they were trying to distance themselves from the command economy that had failed so badly and from the totalitarian political system that had accompanied the imposition of communism from above. Once the curtain came down on communism, the international sporting challenge was diluted for lack of state support. The free trade union sports societies, as well as the ubiquitous Dinamo and armed forces clubs, mostly gave way to private sports and recreation clubs; women’s wrestling and boxing extracted more profit than women’s chess and volleyball; the various nationalities preferred their own independent teams to combined effort and success. So Dinamo Kiev opted to compete in a Ukrainian league (with similar competition to that in the Scottish premier league where Celtic and Glasgow Rangers annually vie for top spot), Tbilisi Dinamo in a Georgian league and Russian clubs in the Russian Football League set up in 1991.

In the wake of the crumbling communist edifice, a deadly struggle commenced for the control of sport. As the ostentatiously rich ‘New Russians’ went about acquiring symbols of wealth, sport became a convenient place to invest their vast riches. Like the primitive capitalism that underlay their power, the methods they used to exploit sport were often primitive in the extreme, including the fixing of results, the bribing and intimidation of officials, and even the ‘hit’ killings of those who stood in their way or tried to expose their nefarious operations. For example, the Spartak General Director, Larissa Nechayeva (1997), the Black Sea President Vladimir Boot (1992) and the Shakhtyor Donetsk owner Alex Gragin (1995) were all murdered.

The new Russian elite had, by the turn of the century, accumulated so much wealth that they had to seek ways of both investing and hiding it from the tax authorities. Sport seemed to be a convenient veil/shroud to cover their less sporting activities, an enjoyable plaything that brought them acclaim and prestige, and a means to launder their astonishing wealth. Initially, these ‘oligarchs’, as they were known, treated sports clubs like any other ‘turf’ that had to be won and retained. They took control, by fair means or foul, of the major sports clubs and tried to ‘buy success’ in domestic and international clubs and tournaments.

Such developments undoubtedly leave Russians with mixed emotions. To some participation in the global market for sports talent is seen as part of living in a ‘normal’ and ‘civilised’ world. Yet the process of sports globalisation, with its concomitant ‘boom and bust’ (which the now disfavoured Karl Marx so accurately predicted), only goes to confirm Russia’s subordinate status in the world. This is deeply resented by some people. Post-communist television has fostered the same kind of globalisation and homogenisation (‘dumbing down’) in all forms of popular culture. Russian nationalism is wounded by the international sports and pop culture that accompanies the country’s decline as a world power and emphasises its subordinate place in the global sports market.

No wonder that some of the older generation hark back to the ‘good old days’ of Soviet ‘high culture’ and relative security. There were no ‘hit’ killings, no drain of talent abroad, no take-overs by oligarchs, no Americanisation of culture. The great bulk of Russians believe the oligarchs stole the people’s assets (oil, metals, gas) and left the Russian population worse off today than they were during the last thirty years of communism.

The sporting diaspora of Russian athletes and the nefarious activities of the oligarchs who own sports clubs have caused the same kind of nationalistic ire against multinational juggernauts and billionaire owners as they have  elsewhere in the world. It has also had the effect of forcing fans to turn away from sport altogether. Today, the six major Moscow football teams average just over 7 000 spectators a game – a pitiful figure by any European standards.

The problem today is made more complex because athletes are part of an international monoculture of wealthy and privileged elite performers, many of whom have no loyalty to their country of birth and refuse to play for their country or change nationality when the money is right. Success in international sport today, as the American writer Robert Edelman observes, ‘follows the world-wide “golden rule”: the one with the gold makes the rules.’ (Edelman, 1999, 226). In Soviet times there was undeniably a different attitude by athletes (who in any case were banned from playing for non-Soviet teams or, as in tennis, had to hand over most of their earnings to the sports ministry). Vladimir Rodionov, General Secretary of the Russian Football Federation, looks nostalgically back to the time when ‘We were proud, we were patriotic, we played for love of our sport and country. Now it is all about money. It affects everything.’ (Rodionov, 2004).Edelman makes a similar point in regard to sports consumers: ‘Soviet citizens created an arena of popular culture that was human and genuine, spontaneous and playful. In the vortex of globalised sport, that difference has been lost.’ (Edelman, 1993, 97).

The radical shift in sports policy has obscured some of the positive features of sport in Soviet society. The old system was generally open to the talents in most sports, probably more so than in the West. It provided opportunities for women to play and succeed, if not on a par with men, at least on a higher plane than Western women. It gave an opportunity to the many ethnic minorities and relatively small states within the USSR to do well internationally and help promote that pride and dignity that sporting success in the glare of world publicity can bring. Nowhere in the world was there, since the early 1950s, such reverence for Olympism, for Olympic ritual and decorum. One practical embodiment of that was the contribution to Olympic solidarity with modernising nations: the training of their athletes, coaches, sports officials, medical officers and scholars at colleges and training camps. Much of this aid was free. None of it was disinterested; but it also went to those who were clearly exploited, with the collusion of the West, as was the case with the Soviet-led campaign against apartheid in sport.

Comparisons of sport in totalitarian societies

A comparative study of totalitarian (communist and fascist) societies is illuminating by its exposure of similarities in the status and objectives of sport, despite what are evidently diametrically-opposed political philosophies. The fact is that, whether communist or fascist, the Soviet, Italian, Nazi German or, to a lesser extent, Spanish sports systems exhibited certain  similarities.

  1. Sport was taken under first state, then Party, control, thereby eliminating all private clubs and organisations, whether religious, like Catholic, YMCA and Boy Scout, or traditional, like the German Turnen and worker sports groups in Germany, the pan-Slav Sokol  in the USSR, or bourgeois clubs and local associations in Italy. This centralised control ensured the organisation of people in their leisure time to the maximum possible extent within the framework of a tidy hierarchical and functional structure. By linking sport ideologically and even organisationally with the Party, the leadership and its agencies could better supervise, control and ‘rationalise’ the leisure time activities of the public.
  2. State-centralised sport pursued certain utilitarian functions on behalf of the ruling party, above all to promote a togetherness, a ‘culture of consent’, involving all sections of the population (once ‘undesirables’ had been removed – like communists, Jews, Gypsies, the disabled and homosexuals in Nazi Germany). In Spain, the authorities were unable to establish a ‘culture of consent’, largely due to fierce Catalan and Basque opposition, as well as foreign isolation; sport, therefore, became more a ‘culture of evasion’.
  3. The state put great store by a ‘theatricalisation’ of sport, using ritual, symbol and pageant played out in vast new stadia (and, in Spain, bull rings). Where possible, suchrituals were attached to international sporting spectacles, like the Olympic Games (with the Nazi-introduced torch relay, heightened emphasis on the playing of national anthems, raising of flags, contingent marching into the stadium, etc.). In the Soviet case, this was epitomised before World War II in the spartakiads, and after the war in the Olympic Games which the USSR set out to dominate.
  4. A ‘militarisation’ of sport occurred, with military and paramilitary organisations providing sponsorship, training and finance for elite athletes who were given officer sinecures, facilities and opportunities for full-time training. Authoritariansocietiesalsohad a national fitness programme with a bias towards military training, as a means of obtaining a fit, obedient and disciplined workforce needed for achieving economic and military strength, and unity (or, at least, acquiescence).
  5. After an initial period of uncertainty about competitive sport in the USSR, Italy and Germany, the state realised its potential for diversion and unity at home, and recognition and prestige abroad. It thereforeestablished the most efficient state-controlled system of spotting, nurturing and rewarding talent through a hierarchy of rankings, remuneration, sports schools, sports medicine and science. This system also involved the elite athletes’ sponsorship as ‘state amateurs’ so that they could take part in international tournaments where ‘student’ or ‘amateur’ regulations barred professionals.

Beside the apparent similarities, there were significant differences not only between communism and fascism in regard to sport, but between individual fascist and communist states.

  1. The ‘culture of consent’ through the medium of sport was never achieved in Spain, as the fascist leadership would have liked. Instead, sport provided a distraction from everyday reality. Moreover, the athleticism assiduously cultivated by ‘muscular’ Mussolini was never emulated by the ‘weedy’ Hitler or Franco; they never saw themselves as physically personifying the New Fascist Man. The same applied to Stalin (though not to Vladimir Putin). Further, Spain paid little attention to attaining success in the Olympic Games, instead concentrating on just a few sports.
  2. A major political difference between European fascism and Soviet communism was that whereas the former largely saw the chief enemy as alien groups at home and abroad, the latter dealt savagely with its own  people whom its leaders branded as ‘enemies of the people’. These ‘enemies’ includedthousands of athletes, coaches, sports officials and medics (thus, all five sports chiefs between 1931 and 1938 were executed). Not only did this action demonstrate the high political significance of sport, it was unprecedented in the entire history of sport.
  3. Fascism specialised in the rhetoric of a return to past traditions, even though these were artefacts; traditions had to be invented. One feature of the denunciation of liberal emancipation was the position of women. Women were to stay at home and bear a great many children. In Italy and Germany, this policy was modified when it was seen as conflicting with international sports success. In the USSR, however, the state encouraged women’s sport right from the start both for ideological reasons and for the state’s economic, military and foreign policy needs. The same could be said of the many ethnic minorities in the country who benefited from state encouragement for all gifted athletes.
  4. The manipulation of sport for military purposes was a feature of both fascist and communist states, as already noted. But thereisa significant difference. The Soviet use was explicitly in defence of the motherland (as in the national fitness programme ‘Prepared for Laboutrand Defence’), while the fascist was explicitly aggressive  and linked to territorial aggrandisement. The main Soviet emphasis was on the training of better workers (rather than better soldiers); the priority was labour first, defence second. The Soviet leaders, it has to be remembered,  were dealing with a still predominantly rural population and were concerned with transforming a relatively raw labour force in the throes of a gigantic industrialisation campaign.
  5. The instrumentalisation of sport in totalitarian states is not necessarily bad in itself. This has been integral to sport down the ages, following the classical tradition. It is the purposes for which it is employed that are important, whether in emulating Athens, Sparta or even Rome. Fascism, as a male-dominated cult of youth and strength, believed in the survival of the fittest, in genetic and racial endowment. It used sport mainly to prepare young people for the war to come. Technical progress was largely for the benefit of the war machine, with the sports system gaining the spin-offs. In the Soviet case, technical progress was for the benefit of industrialisation and preparation for a defensive war. In both cases, it also led to mass murder of those excluded from the system in the camps of Auschwitz and the Gulag.


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