Philip Barker

In just over a month, Krasnoyarsk will stage the first Winter Universiade on Russian soil, but 46 years ago Moscow welcomed the students of the world to a summer Games for the first time. No University Games have enjoyed a bigger spotlight than those held in the Russian capital in 1973. This was because Moscow was also a candidate for the 1980 Olympics.

Moscow had lost out to Montreal in the race to host in 1976 Olympics but soon launched another candidacy.

"The Moscow Games will be followed attentively by the leaders of the International Olympic Committee and international sports federations because Moscow is bidding for the 1980 Olympic Games," said the English language Soviet Weekly.

"Efficient organisation and promotion of the student Games would be a strong argument in favour of the city."

As a sporting event,it was hailed as a great success, but the Games courted controversy. The Soviet regime was accused of complicity in incidents when Israelis were harassed and many were unhappy about over zealous security in general.

These Games had been awarded to Moscow at a meeting of the International University Sports Federation (FISU) held in Paris in 1971. Many existing venues in the city would be used, including the Lenin Stadium - now known as the Luzhniki. Built in the 1950s, it was to be the centrepiece for the University Games and also ultimately for the Olympics in 1980.

"Urgent preparations are under way," said Organising Committee chief Vladimir Bogatikov.

These included arrangements for an artistic exhibition, the screening of sports films and an "international youth club".

Visiting reporters were offered free travel across the city but regulations pointed out "apart from taxis".

Jim Railton, writing in The Times of London said: "The student Games will be seen in Moscow as an event only second to the Olympics in quality and prestige."

Organisers claimed some 4.500 athletes from 70 countries would take part.

More than 70 countries took part in the 1973 Universiade in Moscow, an event the Soviet Union used to showcase its bid for the 1980 Olympic Games, which they were officially awarded by the IOC the following year ©Progress Publishers Moscow
More than 70 countries took part in the 1973 Universiade in Moscow, an event the Soviet Union used to showcase its bid for the 1980 Olympic Games, which they were officially awarded by the IOC the following year ©Progress Publishers Moscow

Sergei Ivanov of the Stormy Petrel student sport organisation insisted that "preparations have been helping to popularise student sport in the USSR. The work of sport and physical culture departments and the sports clubs of colleges and universities have improved". 

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Lord Killanin was invited and organisers were keen that as many IOC members as possible would also visit.

Among the other invited guests was Yasser Arafat, leader of the Palestine Liberation Organisation.

At the Opening Ceremony, Killanin stood on the presentation dais alongside FISU President Dr. Primo Nebiolo.

A giant FISU symbol appeared on one side of the stadium in a flash card display of the kind destined to become very familiar at the 1980 Moscow Olympics.

A group of 600 performers carried huge banners bearing the "Moscow ‘73" logo in a display of marching and counter marching across the infield.

When the teams paraded, the news agency Associated Press reported United States "marched to a roar of applause, exceeded only by the welcomes given to the Soviet team and East European nations".

The huge Soviet Union team were the last to enter the stadium, the men in grey suits and the women in matching white short-sleeved jackets and skirts trimmed with light blue.

The Universiade flag was trooped across the infield to the strains of the traditional student hymn Gaudeamus Igitur.

Olympic 4x100 metres relay bronze medallist Lyudmila Maslakova ran up a flight of steps to light the cauldron. This was placed on a platform below the scoreboard, before a cavalcade of fireworks burst above the stadium.

Tatiana Efimova, a student at the Moscow Institute of Engineering, stepped forward wearing a long flowing, white costume and traditional head dress. She bowed and then presented Nebiolo with a gift of bread and salt. It was a Russian custom to welcome an honoured guest. It is also a sign of welcome among Jewish communities, some which was lost on some members of the crowd who booed and whistled as the Israeli team entered the stadium. It was the first time they’d been present at a global Games since 11 of their athletes died in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympics Games in Munich. 

In sporting terms, the 1973 Universiade in Moscow was seen as a big  success but there was some criticism of aspects of the organisation, including the treatment of the team from Israel ©Progress Publishers Moscow
In sporting terms, the 1973 Universiade in Moscow was seen as a big success but there was some criticism of aspects of the organisation, including the treatment of the team from Israel ©Progress Publishers Moscow

The incident was not mentioned in the official film of the Games but an editorial in the New York Times spoke of a "deliberate and officially-sanctioned vendetta" against the Israelis.

"We couldn’t believe the reception we got," said Moses Zilberman of the Israeli basketball team. It was widely reported that Soviet police officers had torn down Israeli flags which carried good luck messages written in Hebrew.

"It is a little sad, they think we’re here for politics, we just came to compete," said Israel’s FISU representative Adin Talbar.

Howard Squadron of the American Jewish Congress called for a boycott of events in Russia. "What is distressing is that the forces of the Soviet Government take part in the harassment, encourage the harassment and then arrest the victims," he said. 

Some even suggested it might derail Moscow’s Olympic aspirations for 1980. "You don’t have to be Jewish to believe in fair play for the world’s sportsmen," said then New York City Mayor Ed Koch.

The Soviet media countered, blaming "slanderous reporting" in the Israeli and American press.

"A handful of persons went to the Games not so much because of any interest in the Games but rather with the intention of paddling in the muddy waters of 'Kremlinology'," they wrote.

Israeli distance runner Yuval Vizhnitzer was allegedly the target of abuse from the crowd. The Soviet Weekly denied this claiming the catcalls were directed against one of their own runners who was not performing well. They carried an interview in which Vizhnitzer told them "the attitude of the Russians towards the Israeli sportsmen is good".

He added: "It couldn’t be better."

When the Israelis arrived home , team Chef de Mission Yitzhak Aldoubi insisted "the harassment which we were subjected to during the Games was highly organised, but we cannot say whether the Soviet authorities organised it". 

There were also reports of police attacking Russian Jews who came to greet the Israeli teams.

Gold medallists at the 1973 Universiade in Moscow included gymnast Olga Korbut ©Progress Publishers Moscow
Gold medallists at the 1973 Universiade in Moscow included gymnast Olga Korbut ©Progress Publishers Moscow

Many were also critical of what they viewed as excessive security in the "University Hall" which housed the competitors. Great Britain's veteran Olympic correspondent John Rodda described it in The Guardian as a "Colditz" and reported the experiences of American gymnastics judge Grete Treiber, who had been given the "third degree" by security officials after mislaying her accreditation pass.

The Soviet press hit back.

"The insinuation and the slanders form part of a deliberate plan by Anti-Soviet groups who are horrified at the prospect of Moscow being invited to host the 1980 Olympics," they said.

In sporting terms alone though, the Games won high praise.

Officials talked of doing everything at "the highest level" and this included naming a strong team. Olympic champions Ludmilla Turishcheva and Nikolai Andrianov were part of a very strong gymnastics squad.

There had been some doubt whether Olga Korbut would compete. A student at Grodno Pedagogical Institute, she had been catapulted into the spotlight by her Olympic performances at Munich 1972. She promised routines with "several completely new elements unknown to anybody". The International Gymnastics Federation (FIG) suggested that these might be banned because they were too dangerous.

"I like to try new and daring routines but the officials say no, so why bother? I have no spirit," said Korbut.

In the state magazine Sovietsky Sport, Korbut's coach Renald Knysh said: "Olga’s routines are comprised of elements long known but possibly forgotten, yet they are original, fresh and for that reason impressive."

Ultimately, the FIG backed down and Korbut dominated in Moscow where she became all around champion, won team gold and all but one of the apparatus finals.

In other sports, the standard was equally high. Olympic 100m and 200m gold medallist Valeri Borzov and discus champion Faina Melnik, both born in the Ukraine, were named in the Soviet athletics team. Melnik repeated her discus success in the Universiade.

A total of six members of the gold medal-winning Soviet women’s volleyball squad from Munich 1972 also took part.

"This is very important for us because our coaches regard the Games as the first stage of preparations for the 1976 Olympics," said Ivanov of the student sports organisation. "We are expecting keen competition in all events, the bulk of the world’s leading athletes today are students."

An original medal from the 1973 Universiade in Moscow ©FISU
An original medal from the 1973 Universiade in Moscow ©FISU

In the men’s 200m, Italian sprinter Petro Mennea won in the very stadium where he was destined to claim Olympic gold in 1980.

There was also a first major title over 400m for a Cuban runner called Alberto Juantorena.

Nadezhda Tkachenko of the Soviet Union won the pentathlon. Seven years later she returned to take Olympic gold in the same arena, although in the interim she served a ban for doping offences.

"The Organising Committee have done a tremendous job," said Nebiolo as the Games came to a close on a rainy evening. "The condition of the sports facilities is such that it would be hard to imagine anything better."

"Sport is a messenger of peace," said Sergei Pavlov, chairman of the USSR Physical Culture and Sports Committee. 

"Universiade 73 has achieved its purpose.

"A new and good contribution has been made in Moscow in cooperation, mutual understanding and peaceful competition in sport."

Pavlov was part of the Moscow 1980 bid group which attended the IOC Session in Vienna the following year.

"If the decision should be taken to hold the Olympics in Moscow, we would be able to prepare for them in a proper way," said Universiade chief organiser Bogatikov.

Arthur Daley, veteran correspondent of The New York Times, insisted that the Soviets "fumbled the ball" in their relations with the Israelis but admitted that for the most part "they handled the Games with impressive efficiency".

The IOC’s own official magazine talked of the "incomparable hospitality and kindness" which was shown to guests from the IOC and International Federations.

"Moscow is a city capable of organising anything, regardless of scale," said IOC vice-president Jean de Beaumont.

The following autumn, the IOC gathered in Vienna.

Los Angeles had now joined the race for the 1980 Games. Moscow Mayor Vladimir Promyslov, chairman of Executive Committee of the Moscow Soviet, told the IOC: "We would do everything possible to assure success."

When the vote was made, Lord Killanin asked the members' approval that the exact results of the voting should not be made public. This was agreed to unanimously.

The detailed results were not revealed but newspapers estimated that Moscow received two-thirds of the vote.