Half a Century of Sport: Soviet sport on film
Dr Erin Redihan teaches history at Worcester State University in Worcester, MA. She specializes in the Cold War, particularly sports, and teaches primarily recent European and American history. She is the author of The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948 to 1968 (McFarland, 2017).
To celebrate the launch of Socialism on Film: Culture & Society, Dr Redihan has written a guest blog on the documentary, Half a Century of Sport.
Sport has many powers. It gives people purpose. It keeps us fit and healthy. It can unite a population and create waves of nationalism. And it can also be the answer to the question: how can a country as large as the Soviet Union raise its life expectancy from thirty-two years to nearly seventy within fifty years?
According to the Soviet film Half a Century of Sport, credit for this remarkable achievement belongs to the sports program that was part of everyday life for millions of Soviet citizens. This documentary, produced in the late 1960s and included in the new resource Socialism on Film: Culture & Society, reflects on the first fifty years of sports culture in the Soviet Union. Its purpose is to demonstrate just how far the nation came in the athletic prowess of a large population within a short time span. As the narrator tells us: â€śHalf a century ago, the country only had 40,000 people going in for sports. Now there are 50 million.â€ť
Sporting records set in the 1920s were easily surpassed not only by elite athletes but by average weekend athletes a couple of generations later. The film credits the national focus on sport for this and other dramatic improvements. Part of this film covers the achievements of elite athletes, including Olympians, however most of it focuses more on how sport fit into the quotidian Soviet experience. Rather than looking only at the record of the menâ€™s national soccer team, we see young boys training in the hopes that they too might one day represent their country on the international stage. The narrator references famed Soviet goalkeeper Lev as he explains, â€śEvery boy dreams of becoming a Yashin.â€ť We see the pride embodied in winning the 1967 Hockey World Championship and in the first medals won at the 1952 Summer Olympics, but also children practicing the hurdles and the high jump at school. The national sports festivals and spartakiads (a national competition where athletes of all levels from all across the Soviet Union, and later the other Eastern Bloc nations, competed for prestige), first held in the 1920s and revived in the 1950s as Olympic preparations, gave athletes of all ages and skill levels an opportunity to compete before vast audiences and progress towards their â€śReady for Labor and Defenseâ€ť badges as seen in Half a Century of Sport.
This film does offer a window into how sport operated at all levels in daily life in the Soviet Union. While sport for the masses was a new concept in the 1920s, we see how engrained it had become by the 1960s. We see families performing calisthenics in their homes, kids jogging with their classmates, and even elite athletes balancing work and school alongside their training schedules. Even during the darkest days of the Siege of Leningrad (1941-1944), sport remained both an escape and a means of preparing for future battles. The narrator explains:
Just imagine a football match in besieged Leningrad. This became a symbol. It revealed that the city of Lenin still lived and was fighting. The people of Leningrad believed in victory.
In the postwar period, the Soviet government invested in thousands of stadiums, gyms, and sportsgrounds around the country to encourage this growing national interest in sport. At the same time, it began competing more internationally to challenge political rivals on the athletic stage, for example, world leaders in track, like the British and the Americans, and the dominant Canadian ice hockey team.
Despite its political troubles and ultimate collapse, this film is a strong testament to the Soviet Unionâ€™s myriad athletic accomplishments. Sport was a means of uniting the population through worker clubs and exciting competitions held regularly all across the country. Its people could improve their own fitness and show off their skills while sharing the national pride that accompanied a growing list of achievements on the world stage by the nationâ€™s elite. Itâ€™s a rare look into the average daily life of a time and society that have passed.
Digitised from the archives of the British Film Institute (BFI), Socialism on Film: The Cold War and International Propaganda is a collection of documentaries, newsreels and features that reveals the world as seen by Soviet, Chinese, Vietnamese, East European, British and Latin American film makers.