Sports and the Third World

Olga Korbut, Soviet Gaymnast in 1972 Munich Olympics

Sports Behind the Iron Curtain

Russia was a founder member of the modern Olympic movement, but after the Russian Revolution of October 1917, no Soviet team took part in the Olympics until 1952. Initially, there was an explicit rejection of “bourgeois” sports: the Soviets boycotted important Western competitions. Instead, a centrally organized government program of national fitness, “physical culture” and sport for the masses, free of charge, was designed to create in every citizen a sense of emotional identity with the aims of the Soviet state, as a way of uniting the diverse nationalities and cultures of so vast a country.

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The Politicization of Sports

With the nation state the primary unit of international sport, nationalism provided the most conspicuous form of political interference. Sophisticated ceremonial, ritual displays of nationalism, pageantry, medals and tables of results became intrinsic to all big international competitions, and the media exploited the volatile nature of sport to promote feelings of patriotism and rivalry, often carrying racist overtones. Competition was treated as a drama of national emotions, survival, and political and ideological superiority.

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Munich 1972 and the Olympic Boycotts

In September of 1972 an unprecedented terrorist attack unfolded live before 900 million television viewers across the globe and ushered in a brave new world of unpredictable violence. It was the second week of the Summer Olympics, and in Munich, West Germany, the games that had been dubbed “The Olympics of Peace and Joy” were off to a rousing start with swimmer Mark Spitz and gymnast Olga Korbut wowing the crowds.

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Sports and the Media

Modern sport is characterized by its precise attempts to achieve outstanding performances. It is indebted to the English for this characteristic which raised it from the level of pure enjoyment and differentiated it from its more pedagogical side, gymnastics. They were the first industrial people in the new world and they also provided sport with its technical refinements. It was in England that athletic performances were first measured. It was for this purpose that they invented the stop-watch in the year 1737 and simultaneously with this precision in the making of comparisons.

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Sporting Superstars: Pele & Muhammad Ali

A basic need for outdoor exercise to conserve national health and the sponsorship of social leaders thus served in large measure to break down the barriers that had formerly stood in the way of the development of organized sports. Games which could appeal to every one had at last been invented or developed. In the 1960s there emerged two sportsmen – both black men from unpromising backgrounds – who each won vast fortunes and became amongst the best known faces and names in the world. The two of them challenged many conventional assumptions about the place of the sportsman in modern society.

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