Toby C. Rider. Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Sport and Society Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 288 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04023-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08169-9.
Reviewed by Jeffrey Montez de Oca (University of Colorado Colorado Springs)
Published on H-Diplo (September, 2016)
Commissioned by Seth Offenbach
I recently received an e-mail from a friend with the subject line “a new cold war.” My friend studies doping among elite athletes and he had just been interviewed about the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) sanctions of Russian athletes. People who have grown up since the fall of the Berlin Wall may not realize the impact that the Cold War had on all aspects of human life, including sport. Indeed, much of what we take for granted today, including popular culture, was affected by the Cold War. For instance, the enduring success of the James Bond films is one reminder of the cultural Cold War. The growth of sport, especially international sport, during the Cold War can be easily forgotten.
Toby C. Rider’s Cold War Games provides a very impressive history of how the United States and the Soviet Union used the Olympics during the 1950s for propaganda purposes. Both nations, Rider explains, saw the Olympics as spectacular stages of competition upon which their respective political-economic systems could be displayed. In this sense, athletic performance was a signifier of social and economic life on either side of the Iron Curtain. In his 1960 “Soft American” article in Sports Illustrated, John F. Kennedy explained that the United States and the Soviet Union offered the same modernizing promise to the world: “We face in the Soviet Union a powerful and implacable adversary determined to show the world that only the Communist system possesses the vigor and determination necessary to satisfy awakening aspirations for progress and the elimination of poverty and want.” So while the goal of the Cold War was control over territory and resources, the promise was an improved standard of living. And who is better suited to demonstrate improvements in health and wealth than elite athletes? As a result, US athletes, and popular entertainers, were widely used as cultural ambassadors to warm up the Cold War.
The strength of Cold War Games does not lie in its original insight. The use of sport to achieve foreign policy objectives was no secret during the Cold War. Indeed, commentators throughout the 1950s and 1960s criticized the Soviet Union for using sport as a propaganda tool and US leaders for missing propaganda opportunities. Even comedic spy films, such as The Wicked Dreams of Paula Schultz (1968) and S*P*Y*S (1974), humorously feature athletes that defect to the West. Instead, the strength of Cold War Games lies in its detailed explication of historical documents only recently made public. Through extensive review of government documents, Rider demonstrates in great detail that the United States developed extensive propaganda capabilities during the Second World War that were mobilized during the Cold War. Cold War Games shows how both countries invested in professionalizing sport in order to win medals. He also contends that the United States had extensive ties between the state and the market, which Rider calls the “state-private network,” that obscured the degree to which the US government produced messaging that supported its foreign policy objectives.
The detailed research in Cold War Games also allows Rider to show that the use of the Olympics for propaganda purposes was not extraordinary. Rider begins by demonstrating how the persuasive powers of propaganda, or psychological operations, became central to achieving foreign policy objectives by nations throughout the twentieth century. Communicating the superiority of the so-called American way of life and Western freedom was a key message sent to discourage people behind the Iron Curtain. Similarly, Cold War Games shows the contradictory nature of the modern Olympic Movement. For instance, the Olympic Movement attempts to foster global peace through sporting spectacle but it is also rooted in nationalism. This means that as much as the IOC attempted to protect amateurism and keep politics out of the Olympics, the very logic of elite sport (Citius, Altius, Fortius) encourages professionalization and the Olympic festival is inherently political. As Rider states regarding the early years of the Olympics, “Almost immediately, the U.S. media began to suggest that the success of Uncle Sam’s athletes was synonymous with the nation’s strength and prestige” (p. 35). As a result, no matter how much the IOC resisted politicization of the Olympic Games during the Cold War, geopolitical struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union caused it to grow into the mega-events that we now know. As Rider states, “Cold War rivalries and politics captured worldwide attention, expanded the brand, and created a product that was perfect for television and, therefore, commercial exploitation” (p. 48).
Rider reminds us that the Soviet Union was a relatively late entry into international competition. Under Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union wanted to insulate itself from Western influences. However, by 1945 Stalin had realized that international sports competition and the chance to compete directly with Western nations presented invaluable propaganda opportunities. “The Soviets came to view international sport as a strategic device in propaganda and diplomacy” (p. 42). The Soviet Union then built a state-centered sport system that allowed it to quickly develop its sporting infrastructure and elite athletes. In their first Olympics, the 1952 Helsinki Summer Games, the Soviet Union nearly matched the United States’ medal count (76 to 71). The Soviet Union won more medals than the United States at the 1956 Stockholm Summer Games (98 to 74). The United States did not “win the medal count” again in either the Summer or Winter Olympics until 1968 in Mexico City (107 to 91). There was, as Rider points out, a hue and a cry in the United States in reaction to the Soviet’s Olympic success. The result was an increased effort in the United States to counter the Soviet’s athletic propaganda. This resulted in increased US investments in international sport, especially women’s sport, in order to match the Soviets. The net result was that geopolitical competition spurred the professionalization of international sport.
In the rest of the book, Rider illustrates examples of how the state worked with private individuals and organizations to create Cold War propaganda in support of US foreign policy objectives. The Campaign of Truth in the 1950s used the international language of sport to paint a picture of the American way of life. The United States tried to flip the Cold War script on the Soviet Union by using a group of Hungarian refugees known as the Hungarian National Sports Federation (HNSF) to demonstrate the negative conditions behind the Iron Curtain. Although the HNSF had limited impact, thirty-eight East European athletes who defected during the 1956 Melbourne Games provided a propaganda boon for the United States against the backdrop of Soviet tanks rolling into Hungary. At every step, Rider shows ways in which the US government was covertly involved in propagating its messaging and attempting to influence the IOC. The degree to which the United States was successful is an open question. The IOC resisted state influence despite being unsympathetic to the Communist cause and it is very difficult to measure the success of any psychological operation. At the same time, people in the US government and private sector felt they needed to stand up to the Soviet challenge.
Rider’s analysis is narrowly focused on the uses of the Olympics for propaganda purposes by the Soviet Union and the United States. This allows him to provide readers with tremendous detail and intricacy. But it also overlooks some of the Cold War’s complexity. The Cold War was never really “cold.” Indeed, the new nations of the Global South (née Third World) were embroiled in terrible wars as the United States and Soviet Union embarked on their foreign policy objectives. The propaganda efforts by the United States and the Soviet Union were never directed exclusively at each other but also at the Global South that represented resources and markets. Athletes, especially African American, were regularly used to counter the Soviet claim throughout the decolonizing world that Jim Crow racism was the same as European colonialism. Cold War Games would have been strengthened by a broader focus on the larger geopolitical implications of Olympic propaganda efforts. Similarly, better contextualization of anxieties related to the performance of US athletes to the broader “culture of the Cold War” would have helped readers understand why the supposedly apolitical world of sport seemed so urgent at the time. It strikes me that Rider is a little too quick to accept the US claim that its athletes were unsupported by the state. While the US sport system was never statist like the Soviet system, it did rely heavily on public middle schools, high schools, and universities as well as non-state institutions, such as the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) and Amateur Athletic Union, to develop athletic talent. I also would have liked to see Rider engage a little more thoroughly with the existing literature on sport and the cultural Cold War. This is especially so given that his stated goal is correcting the fact that “for too long sport has been neglected in the tale of the U.S. cultural Cold War” (p. 8). There are a few books on sport and the cultural Cold War that Rider could have cited, including Russ Crawford’s The Use of Sports to Promote the American Way of Life during the Cold War: Cultural Propaganda, 1945-1963 (2008), Kurt Edward Kemper’s College Football and American Culture in the Cold War Era (2009), or my book Discipline & Indulgence: College Football, Media, and the American Way of Life during the Cold War (2013).
Even considering my reservations, Cold War Games is a strong addition to the literature on sport and the cultural Cold War. It is well researched and provides a highly detailed picture of political intrigues that unfolded behind the scenes of the Olympics in the 1950s. It sheds valuable light on how the US government tends to operate through private sector actors to obscure, and make more effective, its propaganda. It also makes clear that much of the reporting on international sport in the mainstream media is at least indirectly influenced by the US government. When we look at the ritualized coverage of medal counts, human interest stories about Chinese children brutalized in elite sport centers, or the characterization of such Russian athletes as Yulia Efimova, Cold War Games helps us to realize that those stories are not simply neutral sports reporting. Much of what we take for granted was developed within the geopolitical frame of the Cold War and further contoured by the politics of today.
. John F. Kennedy, “Soft American,” Sports Illustrated (December 26, 1960), http:// sportsillustrated.cnn.com/vault/article/magazine/MAG1134750/index.htm.
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Jeffrey Montez de Oca. Review of Rider, Toby C., Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy.
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