“People will split into “parties” over questions such as the construction of a gigantic canal or the distribution of Saharan oases (such a question will also exist), the regulation of weather and climate, the creation of new theatres, chemical hypotheses and the best system for sports. Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution
Sport in Russia was not as popular as it is in Britain at the beginning of the 20th century. Peasants dominated the Russian population, who worked long hours in agriculture. It was hard to find leisure time and people were exhausted from work. People still played traditional games like lapta (similarly to baseball) or gorodki (a game of bowling). Although there were a few sports clubs in larger cities, they remained the exclusive domain of the wealthy. The popularity of ice hockey was growing, and those in the top echelons were drawn to rowing and fencing, which required expensive equipment that most people wouldn’t be able to afford.
The Russian Revolution of 1917 turned the world upside-down, inspiring millions with its vision of a society built upon solidarity and the satisfaction of human needs. It unleashed a flood of creativity in literature, art, poetry, and music. It affected every aspect of people’s lives, even the games they played. However, sport was not a priority. The Bolsheviks who led the revolution were faced with civil war, invasion armies, widespread hunger, and a typhus epidemic. Survival was more important than leisure. The debate about the “best system for sports” was actually fought in the 1920s before Stalin’s revolution. sbobet limited The Proletkultists and the Hygienists were two of the groups that tackled the issue of “physical culture”.
The hygienists were doctors and health professionals who were educated in medical terms. They were generally critical of sports, worried that the emphasis on competition put participants at risk of injury. They also disapproved of the West’s obsession with running faster, throwing farther and jumping higher than ever before. A.A. Zikmund of Moscow’s Physical Culture Institute said, “It’s completely unnecessary and not important” that anyone sets a Russian or world record. Instead, the hygienists recommended non-competitive pursuits like swimming and gymnastics as a way for people to relax and stay healthy.
The Soviet government had a long history of influencing Soviet policy regarding issues of physical culture through the influence of hygienists. They advised that certain sports be banned. In 1925, the First Trade Union Games had no events. But the hygienists weren’t unanimous in condemning sport. V.V. Gorinevsky was a champion of tennis, which he considered to be a great form of exercise. Nikolai Semashko was a doctor and People’s Commissar for Health. He argued that sport was the “open gate to physical culture”, which “develops the kind of will-power and strength that should distinguish Soviet citizens.”
Contrary to the hygienists, the Proletkult movement was unambiguous in its rejection for ‘bourgeois’ sports. They detested anything that was akin to the old society in literature, art and music. They saw capitalism as woven into sport’s fabric. Its competitiveness made workers fight each other and divided people by tribal and national identities. The physicality of the games placed unnatural strains upon the bodies of the athletes.
Proletkultists advocated for new forms of proletarian play that were based on the principles mass participation and cooperation. These new games often looked more like parades or carnivals than the modern sports. Contests were deemed unsuitable for the socialist society. Participation was replaced by spectating. Each event had a unique political message as evident from their names: Rescue From the Imperialists, Smuggling Revolutionary Literature across the Frontier, and Helping The Proletarians.
It would be easy for the Bolsheviks to be labelled anti-sports. The party’s most prominent members were close friends and comrades with the people who were most critical about sport during the debates regarding physical culture. Leon Trotsky was close to some of the most prominent hygienists, while Anotoli Lunacharsky (the Commissar for Enlightenment) shared many views with Proletkult. This anti-sport claim is supported by the party’s attitude towards the Olympics. Bolsheviks protested against the Games, arguing that they “deflect workers away from the class struggle” and train them for imperialist warfares. However, the Bolsheviks’ attitudes toward sport were more complex.
It is evident that they considered participation in the new culture of physical activity to be very important. This was a life-affirming activity that allows people to feel the freedom and movement of the body. Lenin believed that exercise and recreation were essential parts of a healthy lifestyle. Young people need to be enthusiastic about life and in good spirits. Healthy sports – swimming, gymnastics, hiking, and all other forms of exercise – should be combined with intellectual pursuits, study, analysis, and investigation as much as possible. Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”
It was not surprising that the Bolsheviks would make sport a political issue in the wake of the revolution. They saw sport as a way to improve the health and fitness of the people, despite facing internal and external threats that would decimate their working class. They issued a decree on Compulsory Instruction of the Military Art in 1918, which introduced physical training to the education system.
The tension between the ideals for a future physical culture, and the urgent concerns of the time was evident in the resolution adopted by the Third All-Russia Congress in October 1920 by the Russian Young Communist League.
“The physical culture of the young generation is an important element of the overall communist system of upbringing of youth. It aims to create harmoniously developed individuals and creative citizens in communist society. Physical culture today has two main practical purposes: (1) to prepare young people for work and (2) to prepare them for the defense of Soviet power.
Sport could also play an important role in other areas. Peter Lesgaft, a liberal educator, noted that social servitude had left its mark on women before the revolution. Our mission is to liberate the female body from its fetters. The Bolsheviks tried to put his ideas into action. Although the legalization of abortion and divorce has made a significant improvement in women’s status, sport could play an important role in bringing more women into public life. Lenin stated that it was their urgent task to attract women to sport. We will bring a revolution to the Russian way of living if we can do that and get women to use the sun, water, and fresh air to fortify themselves.
Sport became another means of communicating the revolutionary ideals to the working class of Europe. The worker-sport movement was widespread across Europe, and millions of workers were part of reformist-run sports clubs. In 1921, the Red Sports International (RSI), was founded with the purpose of connecting with workers. The RSI, along with the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International, held a series of Spartakiads as well as Worker Olympics over the next ten years to oppose the official Olympic Games. Workers-athletes from all over the world would gather to take part in a variety of events, including poetry, art, and competitive sport. The ‘proper Olympics’ were free from the same discrimination as the Olympics. All races and abilities were welcome to participate. Results were of little importance.
The Bolsheviks were anti-sport. They didn’t seem to go as far Proletkult’s passionate ideological opposition, and were, as we have seen them, willing to use sport to further political ends. There were no doubt many Bolsheviks that detested sports. Many will have enjoyed them equally. As the British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart noted, Lenin was an avid sportsman. “From his childhood, he loved shooting and skating. He was a skilled walker and became an avid mountaineer, cyclist, and fisherman. Lunacharsky, despite being associated with Proletkult extolled both the virtues and dangers of boxing and rugby union, which is hardly the most benign modern sport.
However, this does not mean that they were uncritical of bourgeois sport. They dealt with the worst excesses in capitalism’s sport. They removed the emphasis on competition, banned contests that could cause serious injury to participants, eliminated flag-waving, nationalist trappings that are endemic to modern sports, and stopped treating people who played games as commodities. However, the Bolsheviks weren’t too prescriptive in their analysis about what physical culture should look.
Trotsky’s quote at the beginning of this chapter summarises the Bolsheviks’ position in those early days. It wasn’t up to the party to determine the best system of sports or to produce the right line for the working classes to follow. It was up to the masses of people to debate, experiment, invent, and discuss their own games and sports. No one can predict what the future play of a socialist society will look like. However, it is certain that the human need to play will prevail. Trotsky stated, “The human need for amusement, distractions, sight-seeing, laughter and laughter is the most legitimate part of human nature.”
With the rise of Josef Stalin, the hopes for the revolution and thousands of Bolsheviks died. The 1917 collectivist ideals were lost and replaced by exploitation, brutal repression. Internationalism was abandoned in favor of “socialism within one country”. The country’s culture changed with the changing values and imperatives. The Bolsheviks were already moving towards an elite model of sport by 1925. Stalin was reported to have stated around this time: “We compete against the bourgeoisie economically and politically and not without success. We can compete anywhere. Why not participate in sport? The return of team sports, complete with cup and league structures in capitalist style, was a welcome sight. In the Soviet Union, successful sportspeople were hailed as heroes and the search for records was resumed. Many of the Proletkultists and hygienists who dreamed of new forms in physical culture died during the purges.
Sport became a proxy for Cold War. 1952 saw the Soviet Union reintegrated into Olympic Movement. This made it possible for the medal table at each Games to be a measure of East and West’s relative strength. The country found itself in constant competition with the West for sporting rights as it was forced into political, military, and economic competitions on the international stage.