Olympic advertising is in full swing. It is a good time to recall that, not long ago, an Olympic year meant far more than corporate tie-ins and moody video of winsome young athletes. The Olympic Games meant war, albeit by other means, a war of propaganda and image, of perception and politics. There’s a reason no one remembers the U.S. hockey team beat Finland for the gold medal in 1980.
Toby C. Rider offers a history of the Cold War’s effect on the Olympic Games from the immediate postwar era through the 1960 Rome Games. At the time the Soviet Union appeared to be in irresistible ascendance and it moved to exploit the Olympic Games as a vehicle for promoting international communism. In response, the United States conceived a subtle, far-reaching psychological warfare campaign to blunt the Soviet advance. Drawing on newly declassified materials and archives, Rider chronicles how the U.S. government used the Olympics to promote democracy and its own policy aims and, when it could, make the Soviets look bad.
Rider’s immense research makes it clear both sides indeed saw sports as a major battlefield in the Cold War. The mass defection of Hungarian athletes at the Melbourne Games in 1956, celebrated by Henry Luce’s media empire and also in part facilitated by it, gave the Soviet Union a black eye, as it underscored their recent brutal intervention in Hungary had less than popular appeal. Contests with perhaps less at stake still moved officials on both sides to dismay and palpitations:
One particular incident prompted a flurry of diplomatic activity. In 1959, an understrength U.S. basketball team lost to the Soviet Union at the world basketball championships in Santiago, Chile. The outcome of the contest, a 62-37 drubbing, was reported in newspapers across Latin America, a fact that greatly disturbed U.S. information experts. “As a result of this victory,” wrote a public affairs officer in Lima, “the Soviet Union has again scored an important psychological advantage and, as far as the average, non-too-intelligent-man-on-the-street is concerned, it is another indication of Soviet ‘superiority’ over the U.S.”
His colleague in Santiago also was irate. The official complained that the U.S. defeat backfired in two respects. Not only was the loss a blow to national prestige, but it also was a “slight to Chilean pride” in that the United States did not deem it necessary to send its best team. He argued that the basketball tournament had “a psychological importance which transcends the frontiers of sports” and that this aspect should be taken into account for future U.S. participation in sports events.