Philip Barker ©ITG

One way or another, Russian sport is set to dominate the headlines over the next few months.

The World Cup line-up is now completely ready for a grand and glittering draw at the Kremlin in Moscow next month. FIFA’s ethics committee has been investigating the bid process for that tournament and there is at least one other cloud on the horizon. There is the very real possibility that Russian competitors will be excluded from the other big event of 2018, as the fall-out from the Sochi doping scandal threatens participation at the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics.

There was a time when the Russians stayed away from the Olympics by their own choice.

They had competed at the 1908 and 1912 Games and the Tsar had even offered a trophy for the decathlon champion.

‘’We look to the Americans and Swedes for the rules which govern most of our games,’ said Paul Lindvall, a representative of the St Petersburg Sporting Club in 1911.

Within three years, the country was plunged into the First World War, which led to disastrous consequences.

Tsar Nicholas II took personal command and was blamed when the war went badly wrong. In 1917 a bloody revolution toppled the Tsarist government and Royal family. Not until 1952 would a team from Mother Russia return to the Olympic Games.

Even so, they did still have a member of the International Olympic Committee, though he lived in exile.

A scene from the controversial 1980 Moscow Olympics, with a giant picture of Soviet founder Lenin in the background ©Getty Images
A scene from the controversial 1980 Moscow Olympics, with a giant picture of Soviet founder Lenin in the background ©Getty Images

Prince Leon Vladimirovich Oroussoff had been a diplomat and became a member of the IOC in 1910. After the revolution, he gave his address as the Rue de Grenelle in Paris. Oroussoff called for a Russian team of émigrés to be allowed to compete at the 1924 Games in Paris. Effectively, they would have been a team of Russian refugees.

The idea was given a hearing at the 1923 IOC Session in Rome.

‘’There are four million Russians residing outside Russia,’’ said President Baron Pierre de Coubertin.

‘’Generally they do not look with favour on the present government and would want to come into the Games under their present jurisdiction. This would mean if Soviet Russia and the Russians abroad were invited, that there would be two Russian flags at the stadium.’’

There was plenty of discussion. President Johannes Sigfrid Edstrom President of what was then known as the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) and General Carlo Montu of Italy were both vocal. They advised against becoming embroiled in politics. Eventually it was agreed that ‘’it would serve no advantage to admit the Russians who did not represent an autonomous state’’.

Although the Soviet Russians had taken part in some internal sporting events, they did not offer a ringing endorsement of Olympism.

‘’Even if invited we would not attend next year’s Bourgeois Olympics,’’ said a Soviet Commissar for physical culture in 1927.

Instead the Soviets planned a festival named after the hardy Spartans of Ancient Greece.

‘’The whole world will be invited, not as national teams – we have no use for nationalism but to compete and win prizes exactly as if they already represented one of the world’s future Soviet republics.’’

Organisers expressed satisfaction that the ‘’Spartakiade’’ protected its competitors from what they described as ‘’the contaminating influence of the Olympic Games which are interpreted here as part of the general plot of the Bourgeoisie to militarise youth through the agency of nationalist sport organisations’’.

The 1928 event held in Moscow attracted some 4,600 home competitors and 600 from abroad. Visitors came from France, Germany, Great Britain and Scandinavia.

The grand opening parade in Moscow’s Red Square featured men from Turkmenistan ‘’marching in their traditional richly coloured robes and girls and women in extremely un-Oriental and abbreviated athletic costumes,’’ wrote one reporter.

The name Spartakiade was well chosen. Years later, Professor Jim Riordan, one of the few academics to study Soviet sport first-hand in depth suggested the Soviet way "followed a classical tradition’’ as in Sparta and other Greek city-states.

‘’The physical education of the rising generation is one of the necessary elements of the system of Communist education of youth’’ had been a long standing idea, suggested by one speaker at a party congress as far back as 1920. His name was Vladimir Lenin.

Soviet flags at a domestic swimming meeting
Soviet flags at a domestic swimming meeting

A Supreme Council of Fitness Culture had been created and sport was considered a vital part of military training.

The ‘’Sports badge’’ was given to citizens who excelled in running, jumping, cycling, swimming and skiing. Two other skills were also included in the qualification - shooting and grenade throwing!

‘’The wearers of these sports badges enjoy great respect and esteem in public,’’ said one observer.

The Soviet economy was run on a series of ‘’Five Year Plans’ and their sports events were designed to bolster these but did not include such sports as rugby union or American gridiron football as these were deemed to be ‘’too rough’’.

The thirties were the decade of Stalin’s terror as he ruthlessly purged his opponents.

But a select few were able to visit Russia in a sporting context. In 1931 a boxing team from Great Britain was amongst those invited to the country.

Others wrote of sport becoming ‘’a prominent fixture of Soviet life and the subject of much propaganda’’.

One Soviet sports manager enthused ‘’the attraction of a good game of soccer or tennis after work keeps our young men away from the beer halls and vodka drinking’’.

By the mid-thirties, there were even stirrings that the Russians might join FIFA and arrangements were made for foreign teams to play. Football attracted huge crowds and a football league was established. Teams were given names such as Dynamo and Lokomotiv to represent Soviet industry.

‘’It can safely be asserted that association football is the country’s favourite game from Minsk to Vladivostock,’’ said one overseas correspondent in Moscow.

In 1936, the latest ‘Workers Olympiad’ was arranged in Barcelona to coincide with the opening of the Olympic Games in Berlin. The first shots of a bitter civil war put paid to the festival. It did eventually take place the following year in Antwerp. For the first time, a team from Russia travelled abroad to compete and Semyon Boitchenko, a Russian swimmer, even claimed a world record in the 100 metres breast stroke.

War delayed any other international advances for almost six years, but in 1945, there was renewed speculation that Russia might be ready to join the international sporting world.

The Moscow Dynamo football team made a goodwill visit to Britain and played to huge crowds everywhere they went. They astounded their hosts by presenting flowers and then astonished them with their prowess on the field.

‘’I have never played against more artistic football,’’ wrote Bernard Joy, an Olympic footballer who played against them for Arsenal. ‘’Their training was scientific and varied and their preparation thorough.’’

The question of re-admitting the Russians was discussed at IOC Executive meetings in the years which followed the Second World War. In 1947 came a further step toward re-integration. The IAAF granted recognition to the Soviet athletics organisation. It did not come in time for inclusion in the 1948 Olympic Games but the wheels were moving.

Football attracted huge crowds and a football league was established. Teams were given names such as Dynamo and Lokomotiv to represent Soviet industry
Football attracted huge crowds and a football league was established. Teams were given names such as Dynamo and Lokomotiv to represent Soviet industry

There was one obstacle yet remaining. 

At the Olympic session in Stockholm, it had even been announced that the IOC member in Germany, Dr Karl Ritter Von Halt had died. Von Halt had been associated with the Nazi regime and was in fact languishing in a Soviet prison.

Representations were made and Von Halt was duly released.

The new IAAF President was Lord Burghley who supported the case of re-admitting the Russians.

When in May 1951, the IOC debated the issue, Burghley told his IOC colleagues: ‘’It is the general opinion that the USSR should be recognised. We would need very good reasons for not recognising this committee and this was not the case today.’’

Erik Von Frenckell, IOC member and President of the 1952 Helsinki Organising Committee was another to lend his support to the Soviet candidature and Angelo Bolanaki of Greece insisted ‘’We cannot refuse to accept the application. All the IOC asks is that the participants and leaders respect and enforce to the letter its statutes and regulations with this same Olympic spirit for the good of humanity.’’

The vote was taken by a show of hands and the Soviets were admitted with 31 votes in favour and three abstentions.

The following year, the flag of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics was seen at the Games, but there were many who felt they had rode roughshod over the Olympic spirit.

The Russians insisted their own Olympic accommodation should be separate from the Western countries. The only integration for Soviet competitors would take place with other ‘fraternal’ nations from behind the Iron Curtain.

To emphasise the point, there was a huge portrait of Josef Stalin hung from the buildings.

Although Stalin died in 1953, the decade remained one of great political tension. It was the height of the cold war and the IOC’s own official magazine was left to wonder: ‘’Is Cold war a weapon used even in sport?’’

Both Soviet and American authorities made great play of ‘medal tables’, actually forbidden by the Olympic Charter, to demonstrate their superiority.

Yet in an open letter to IOC President Avery Brundage, National Olympic Committee President Konstantin Adrianov insisted that ‘’Soviet Athletes treat the Olympic Games not as a major battle in the cold war but as an international forum for dissemination of noble Olympic ideas of peace and consolidation of friendship between nations.’’

Athletes from the Soviet Union were already making their mark in the famous red vest, with great names such as Ukrainian-born middle distance runner Vladimir Kuts. Gymnast Larissa Latynina, a superstar in the late fifties, remains one of the most successful Olympians of all time with nine gold medals - five silver and four bronze. The heroes of the fifties were later followed by stars such as gymnast Olga Korbut who transcended nationality and was mobbed when she visited the West.

Their footballers , considered ‘amateur’ under Soviet definitions and therefore eligible for the Olympics, included the legendary goalkeeper Lev Yashin. A popular figure in his famous all-black strip emblazoned with the Cyrillic letters CCCP, he won gold at the 1956 Melbourne Games. In 1958, the Soviets qualified for the World Cup finals for the first time. They lost to host nation Sweden in the quarter-finals.

Ukrainian-born middle distance runner Vladimir Kuts is a cover star for western magazine 'World Sports'
Ukrainian-born middle distance runner Vladimir Kuts is a cover star for western magazine 'World Sports'

At the 1960 Olympic Games held in Rome, Moscow was chosen ahead of Nairobi to host the IOC Session in 1962. It was another sign of acceptance within the Olympic family.

‘’We meet in a country which in the last few decades has staged a remarkable sports development,’’ said Brundage at the welcoming ceremony in the Kremlin.

The Session was opened by Leonid Brezhnev, who was at that time Chairman of the Presidium of the Supreme Soviet. ‘’ Soviet people regard the opening of this session as recognition of the contribution made by athletes of our country and their organisations to the international Olympic Movement,’’ he said.

Eighteen years later, he would be restricted to a much shorter speech when he opened the 1980 Olympic Games a few miles away at the Lenin Stadium.

Supreme Soviet vice-president Mikhail Yasnov sent a note to IOC President Lord Killanin endorsing Moscow’s bid, stating ‘’The presidium of the Supreme Soviet of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics hereby informs you that it completely approves and supports this invitation.

"All necessary assistance and support will be extended to the authorities of the city of Moscow.’’

They were duly elected hosts at the 1974 IOC Session in Vienna.

As preparations continued, a booklet was produced for party activists. It included a controversial paragraph describing the decision to award the Games to Moscow as ‘’convincing testimony of the general recognition of the historical importance and correctness of the foreign political course of our country’’.

There were many who were critical of this as evidence of the continued politicisation of sport within the country.

A Soviet cartoon depicting the growing rise of football as a national treasure
A Soviet cartoon depicting the growing rise of football as a national treasure

Although the Moscow Olympics were spectacular in many ways, Killanin ultimately described them as ‘’joyless’’. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in the months before had provoked a boycott.  Canada, West Germany, Japan and the United States stayed away and other countries sent reduced teams as a result.

‘’I still believe that without the boycott, the long slow process of accommodation between Communist Europe and Western Society would have been helped in some small way by the Games,’’ wrote Killanin later.

In little more than a decade, the USSR had fragmented politically.

At the 1992 Games in Barcelona, the name USSR had disappeared to be replaced by the term ‘’Unified Team’’. In time, former Soviet republics such as Belarus, Georgia and Ukraine, would compete in their own right alongside Russia.

When Moscow bid again for the Olympics in 2005, skater Irina Rodnina referred to Soviet times as ‘’ another country’’. Two years later Sochi was chosen as the host resort for the Winter Olympics. As with Moscow in 1980, no one was able to establish with certainty just how much they had cost.

For many though, the tribulations and machinations of recent years still recall the dark years when Russia endured a self-imposed exile from international sport.