SPORTS IN THE U.S.S.R.

A photographer's notebook recalls a journey of adventure and discovery
December 02, 1957

A New Look at the Soviet Union

On the pages following, a picture window is opened on a facet of life in the Soviet Union never before revealed in such detail. Photographer Jerry Cooke, a man uniquely qualified by intimate knowledge of the Russian language and character, melted into the great melting pot of the U.S.S.R. last summer and returned with a story of extraordinary dimensions—a documentary not only of the vast Soviet physical culture program, but also an intimate record of the average citizen in his leisure time

We were charging down the Moscow-Leningrad highway at 75 miles per hour, scaring chickens, old babushkas with kerchiefs around their heads, and occasionally ourselves, when suddenly, for no apparent reason, the driver stopped the car. Out he got and lit a cigaret. Soviet chauffeurs can be very temperamental, so my inquiry was cautious: "What's happening?" He pointed up the hill ahead. "Bicycles," he said. Sure enough, there came some 20 young men and women, pedaling toward us, preceded by a police motorcycle and followed by more policemen in two vintage touring cars of the type one sees in Capri with a load of tourists in large straw hats. The 1957 championship tour of the eastern U.S.S.R.—a Soviet equivalent of the famous Tour de France—was due to start in a few weeks, and The People were out practicing. And when The People practice, traffic stops, even on the most heavily traveled highways.

The incident impressed something on me—an impression which became very clear in the course of my stay in the Soviet Union:

Sports are a very big thing in the U.S.S.R. today.

In fact, sports are everywhere. The ideal of physical fitness is symbolized in the countless statues of sports figures seen in every Soviet park, alternating with intimate glimpses of Lenin and Stalin in white marble conferring behind a rosebush. To the average youth or sports-minded citizen, the statues are beautiful—certainly the female ones are the sexiest thing on public view in the otherwise rather prudish Soviet Union. More practically, the physical fitness ideal is evident in the huge stadiums and sports fields of the big cities, and the numberless more modest but thoroughly efficient installations in smaller towns. And they are not only there—they are used, constantly.

Even those who have no particular sport are drawn into the over-all physical fitness program. I carried a small portable radio with me, and everywhere I went I could listen to the setting-up exercises which start every Soviet day. Factory and office workers do their gymnastics, spurred on by posters which tell them how they can produce more for the Five Year Plan if they are in prime condition. Television, still available only on one channel, is full of sports, whether the viewers like it or not. Sports surround the Soviet citizen on his vacation and form a major part of any festival. Children start their first exercises in nursery school, with teachers telling them old Russian fables with a new physical fitness twist. The first collective activity in the sanatoriums and rest homes of the big Black Sea resorts is the 7 o'clock round of gymnastics, followed by a dip in the sea—before breakfast. Sports even enter into the business of production norms and industrial or agricultural achievements, which are presented in sporting terms and with the enthusiasm which the Western World usually reserves for the Olympic Games or the discovery of a new four-minute miler.

What prompts all this activity? There are many reasons. First, and most important: the government is behind it—a single, solid fact which in the U.S.S.R. obviously means a great deal. Combine this with the considerable amount of leisure time resulting from a universal eight-hour day, a passion for mass activity, and excellent facilities available at no cost, and you have more of the answer. The rest is a day-by-day barrage of propaganda extolling the advantages of physical fitness, plus an almost deliberate, certainly conscious, withdrawal by the average citizen from the complex problems of politics and economics in the Soviet Union. Put it all together and you have a sports and physical fitness boom with an importance in Soviet life which is unparalleled anywhere in the world today.

The boom in spectator sports is no less impressive. Moscow's Lenin Stadium, for example, a 100,000-seat structure, is filled easily and often by enthusiastic fans of the nation's most popular game, soccer. Basketball draws great crowds; track meets, gymnastics, hockey (on ice or grass), horse racing, steeplechasing, even tennis, a relatively new sport in the U.S.S.R.—all these have their highly partisan and vocal followings.

This is the story which I brought back from a summer spent in the Soviet Union this year, and it is shown in the 16 pages of color pictures which follow. The tremendous sports boom is everywhere evident in them; but as I took these pictures I realized, with a growing fascination, that they also showed something more: an entirely new look at the Soviet Union. Here is the U.S.S.R. in its leisure time, at play. It is perhaps not play in the sense that we understand it, for the Soviet citizen, by his very nature, tackles even his play with a certain grimness, somewhat like a big-time American football team tackles a difficult season; but it is play nonetheless, play directed single-mindedly at improving his own physical fitness and his sporting prowess, and thereby that of the entire Soviet Union.

The sports and physical culture organization available to the Soviet citizen is impressive in its scope, its diversity and its efficiency (see box). Sports are free, collective and almost obligatory. The average worker is offered the facilities of the sport of his choice through his union, the parent body of the particular sports club to which, according to his job or his profession, he may belong. International competition, recently encouraged, is on the increase and now provides a new and welcome contact with the outside world. Good athletes live well, eat well and are not too much exposed to political pressures. They can look forward to quite a pleasant life devoted to competition and, later on, to coaching and the developing of more good young athletes.

But what of the solitary sportsman—the hunter, the fisherman, the individualist who seeks his recreation apart from the sporting masses?

The collective character of Soviet life, generally speaking, frowns on him. Hunting and fishing, for example, while popular, are not really considered sports, and hence they are not available through the government-sponsored organizations. There are only the purely local hunting and fishing societies, which issue licenses, determine seasons and, by some obscure method never explained to me, figure out which part of The People's land can be temporarily invaded by their bloodthirsty members. They do hunt, and they do fish; and they kill things and catch things with no restriction on guns, ammunition or other equipment—but trying to get in on any of these activities is as difficult as trying to get in on a dinner party at the Kremlin.

I tried, several times. I would start out, for example, by looking for the local hunting society's headquarters. This in itself is a project, for the Soviets dislike and discourage telephone and address books. Unless you know someone who knows someone who may know where to find what you are looking for, you are in for a difficult time. In my case I found the easiest way to locate a hunter was to find the local hunting-supply store, of which there are plenty in the U.S.S.R. There I would look at a gun, discuss the weather and finally allow as how I might be interested in a little hunting.

There followed a standard sequence. First, I would be told that this was not possible—standard Soviet opening gambit No. 1. When pressed, my informant would admit that hunting was, after all, possible—but only with a license. The license, it would then develop, was extremely hard to get; in fact, it was impossible. If I still persisted (to my informants' chagrin, I always did), I might be rewarded with the address of the hunting society, though I was always assured that it would be foolishness for me to even try to get a license there.

But, of course, I would always go anyway, and the hunting society would take over. My reception—generally they seemed to expect me—was invariably friendly but reserved. They were always honored by my visit, they always showed me pictures of the animals they had bagged, of their group outings, etc. But somehow they never seemed very anxious to invite me to hunt with them. After a lot of talk, however, it was usually agreed that there would really be no harm in my going along with some of the boys, and the matter was arranged on a "don't call us, we'll call you" basis.

Naturally, they never called. If I called, it generally developed that the chairman was sick—and nobody and nothing moves in the U.S.S.R. without the chairman. Or there was too much rain; or not enough rain. There was also sometimes a problem with the opening of the season. It got to the point where the whole thing became a game—I would try to guess in advance the new reason they would come up with, and they would try to anticipate me. In the end, they won—the closest I ever got to a hunt was an inspection of some hunting dogs in Georgia. The dogs looked like English setters to me, but the local veterinarian assured me that the English setter was really a Georgian setter which had emigrated to England; he, having emigrated back again, could now look forward to bigger and better things—perhaps even a trip to the moon.

My attempts to go fishing met the same fate. Floods, droughts, dead fish, overtime work hours, no worms, members on vacation—the defense was magnificent. No one ever took me fishing. When I tried to photograph a fisherman he would usually run as soon as he saw me; if I caught up with him, he would question me sourly, wanting to know what I needed these pictures for anyway. Most anglers pretended to be commercial fishermen, none ever admitted doing it for fun.

What caused this strangely evasive attitude? Perhaps it was because, in a nation dedicated in virtually every phase of its existence to the collective ideal, the solitary sportsman is an oddity, and feels himself as such. He therefore also feels himself suspect; he suffers from a sort of guilt complex. The most absurd extreme to which evasion can go was demonstrated in a truly Kafka-like episode which arose from my desire to watch some Soviets playing, of all things, billiards.

It happened in Tbilisi, the capital of Georgia. One evening there I spotted a large and handsome billiard hall in the courtyard of Officer's House, a building devoted to various cultural activities. There were six pool tables and about 20 to 30 men, most of them playing and having a fine time. I walked in, looked around, asked a few questions and left, deciding to come back the next day to take some pictures. When I telephoned the chairman the following morning, however, I found that I must have been dreaming. Billiards? There was no billiard hall in the building, he assured me; perhaps I'd seen some ping-pong? No? Well, there certainly was no billiard hall....

I went back in the evening for another look. Sure enough, there it was, and the game was going full blast—except that there was now a padlock on the gate to the courtyard and a guard who was keeping an eye on things. While I stood and watched, several players arrived, identified themselves and were admitted. One of them started talking to me and made the mistake of inviting me in. He almost got me past the guard, but not quite. After a short palaver, he invited me to a game of three-cushion billiards in the billiard room of my hotel, offering to meet me there in five minutes. We both, of course, knew there was no billiard room in my hotel, but I played along and accepted with pleasure. Needless to say, I never saw him again.

Maybe sailing is in the same category as billiards—a sort of hangover sport from bourgeois times and hence one to be kept from prying foreign eyes. In any event, I never did get to photograph a sailing race, either. At the Leningrad Yacht Club the chairman offered me a motorboat, only to discover (just as the race was starting, of course) that the motor was not working. Wise by now, I told him that was too bad since I was leaving next morning for Kiev—and then appeared the next morning, eager as ever. The chairman rallied nicely, though—the motorboat, he told me, was still not repaired, but there was a sailboat available. Only—there was no wind....

Such were my experiences with the so-called fringe sports. I bear my various antagonists no grudge—I am still impressed by the fact that these sports existed at all and had as many participants as they did. But apart from these, of course, there was much more:

I still remember the strong, intense Caucasian faces of the Georgian spectators watching a wrestling tournament in Gori, Stalin's home town—fathers and sons happy with their favorite native sport, with not a woman in the whole arena. And the old-style troika—three white horses pulling a carriage—which caused a collective, sentimental sigh when the beautiful animals charged down the track at a Moscow fair. I recall the white-coated, scientific-looking judges and timekeepers who officiated at a swimming meet and lent it the air of a serious medical seminar. Unforgettable, too, is the fanatic determination of the Ukrainian gymnasts who did double and triple saltos and other incredible jumps and turns for hours while their coach assured me that they weren't really very good yet, just beginners who weren't taking things as seriously as they should. I couldn't help but think that the Soviets have as much right to be proud of their gymnastic gold medals from the Olympics as we have of ours in track and field. It is a big and important sport in the U.S.S.R.

I was shocked by the violence of a crowd of 100,000 in Moscow's Lenin Stadium who greeted a 10-minute delay in a soccer game (because of rain) with a storm of catcalls, whistles and boos that made Ebbets Field seem like a peaceful meadow by comparison. The Russians, it would seem, are not very reserved when they are in a crowd. I remember, too, a handful of spectators at an early-morning basketball tournament in Kiev who raised such a fuss about the score not being posted promptly enough that the game had to be halted and the score keeper replaced. I felt for a tennis official in Tbilisi who was mortified because he had seen me watching the semifinals of a doubles tournament in which the crowd turned against one of the players. With split-second timing, they would burst out into screams and boos at the instant between his throwing the ball into the air and trying to serve it across the net—he made three double faults in a row under this pressure.

"Not very British, I'm afraid," said the official apologetically (how strange it sounded in Tbilisi!). "We are just learning about tennis over here."

I was impressed by the endless amount of practicing I saw everywhere. I saw divers going into the water and back onto the boards and in again for hours on end; and when they finished diving they kept on training in some sort of exercise pit that Pat McCormick told them about in Melbourne. I saw children working at every sport, chess players all over the public parks playing a quick, sudden-death five-minute game that calls for extreme concentration. I met a physical culture superintendent in a Moscow factory who explained how factory exercises are planned and set up, and how they are changed every three weeks to avoid boredom (exercises do the most good two hours before the end of the working day, he told me, because that is when the workers are most tired). His whole job was the planning and supervising of exercises in this one factory, and he explained how he and his colleagues had succeeded in convincing the authorities that their salaries ought to be paid out of the labor-cost budget rather than from physical culture funds because the exercises increased output despite the time they consumed from the working day.

What does the Soviet citizen really think of all this activity? The question is not easy to answer in American terms; by our standards, the people seem withdrawn, concentrated, even grim at their games, often as much so as their top athletes in international contests. It seems disturbingly evident that nobody is having much fun, that everyone works as hard at his sport as at his job, that sport is, in fact, just another job to be done.

But by Russian standards this is undoubtedly only part of the picture. The girls rowing an eight-oared shell on the Moskva River work hard at it, certainly; but they glory in the achievement, too. The worker dutifully rising for his calisthenics does not necessarily jump for joy at the prospect of exercise; but, on reflection, he would probably admit that he felt better for it. Part of the answer is the fact that he probably rarely, if ever, does reflect on it—exercise is part of his life. Doctors, however, do—and doctors are emphatic in their statements (coupled with statistical proofs) that the exercises contribute greatly to the worker's physical and mental well-being.

Some people, to be sure, ignore the whole thing. One of my guides told me how he had solved the problem of the loudspeaker which every morning, directly underneath his window, gave out with the usual setting-up routine. He went and bought some American jazz records which he then played on his phonograph every day at the same time the loudspeaker went on. Loosened him up a bit, he explained, better than those silly gymnastics.

But the Soviet people as a whole—that is something else again. In whatever spirit they work at their sports, they do work at them, and hard. And the results are impressive. I found many things in the Soviet Union which seemed strange and funny and also bad. But the people are great—the young hikers from far north in Siberia who in the friendliest way imaginable took me into their ranks for the last 15 miles of their march through the Crimea and gave me a Caucasian wool hat as a souvenir; the hotel housekeeper who after a tremendous bureaucratic tangle over the fact that I had handed in nine socks to be washed instead of eight or 10 finally offered to wash the extra sock free (she didn't want me to carry one dirty sock all over the U.S.S.R.); even my friendly antagonists at the hunting and fishing societies—they make up a mosaic of memories which I treasure. The Soviet people seem to be so many things; both sad and happy, melancholy, suffering sometimes, and yet playful; shabby, chunky, and still handsome; childlike in a way and yet very mature; withdrawn and yet outgoing, so unlike Americans in so many ways, but altogether likable and human. They are quite a different people from the concept we have had of them for 40 years.

In Moscow, the statues come to life as a crew of young girls prepare to launch their eight-oared shell

Some Soviet sports have a surprising Western look; these are thriving everywhere...

Tennis in Tbilisi, capital of Georgia, Stalin's home province, draws vocal, fiercely partisan spectators.

A Star boat at Leningrad's Yacht Club features new plastic sails, developed by a chemical engineer.

Over the practice hurdles goes a steeplechaser at the Tbilisi School of Riding, which boasts 61 mounts.

Sports are for the masses, and mass-organized, but there is room, too, for the individual to go his own way

In a lively corner of the huge Dynamo Stadium in Kiev basketball players compete against a backdrop of glaring propaganda posters.

And on the peaceful Dnieper River nearby two silent fishermen with long bamboo poles symbolize the worldwide brotherhood of the angler.

For girls, the sporting life is strenuous, but they find in it glory and a new fulfillment

Thrice weekly for two hours Larissa Netchvolodova, 17, meets fellow students to practice at the Moscow Burevestnik stadium.

And here at Kiev, in the huge Khrushchev Stadium, the girls train with the men in that highly popular sport, track and field.

Another Kiev girl is taught the rudiments of gymnastics, a universally beloved sport and one in which the Soviet Union's young athletes excel.

Soccer is big time in Moscow...A hundred thousand strong, fans gather in Lenin Stadium for an international match with France

Far from the stadiums, those who love solitude and small pleasures find them in this land of lovely urban parks

A couple of kayak paddlers ply their peaceful way through canal in Leningrad's Kamenny Ostrov park, one of the most beautiful in the country.

And farther along on the same canal a small boy hangs monkeylike from a crooked tree high above a tailor-made Soviet version of the old swimming hole.

His head wrapped in a shirt, a Moscow dramatics student raptly studies his role, oblivious to the family relaxing near him in the quiet of a summer day.

The organized vacation is a Soviet specialty.... from reveille to bedtime, those who so desire get their fun en masse

Loudspeaker calisthenics at 7 in the morning starts day at Sanatorium of Miners in Sochi. This Black Sea resort, one of the most popular, was built entirely by government.

Hikers pause on the final lap of three-week tour through the Crimea. From far north in Siberia, they may be sputnik workers.

Chris-Craft à la russe, a ZIS-powered speedboat with a dented bow, offers low-cost pleasure rides on Caucasus' Lake Ritsa.

Coney Island on the Black Sea...the names are different, but the postures are the same

Though pebbly, the beach is a paradise where usually puritanical citizens gaily shed stodgy clothes for bright bikinis.

A mother and son lie blissfully in warm Black Sea water at Yalta. As in Western Europe, small tots are often nude.

Some simply wear shorts and underwear bra, others have fashionable two-piece suits, as shown here on Sochi's shore.

Physical fitness starts at walking age and is preached even in fairy tales

Mishka the Bear gets out his accordion and leads the bunnies in song: "Exercise helps you to run fast, to become agile and to strengthen your health...."

And in real-life version a smiling nurse leads toddlers through their exercises in the playground of the Odessa rope factory in which their parents work.

In an Odessa gym class boys and girls join hands in push-me-pull-you exercise. Now and always, calisthenics will be a habit.

Two-man tug of war with instructor who is also his father limbers up a Moscow youngster starting on his fencing career.

PHOTOVERA KONENKOVA SEVEN PHOTOSSporting statues, seen everywhere, symbolize the physical fitness ideal TWENTY THREE PHOTOS PHOTOIN A MOSCOW PRINTING PLANT, OFFICE WORKERS PERFORM THEIR DAILY EXERCISES PHOTOA HUNTER CHECKS OVER THE GUN HE WANTS IN A BIG MOSCOW SPORTING GOODS STORE PHOTOKIBITZING IS A SPORT IN MOSCOW, TOO PHOTOBOY AND GIRL IN KIEV, IN A TIMELESS TABLEAU, TAKE A LITTLE BREAK IN THE SHADE

HOW SPORTS ARE ORGANIZED IN THE U.S.S.R.

Dynamo, Spartak, Torpedo—the names of these Soviet sports clubs are already familiar to many Americans. But there are many more—17 in all—and between them they provide sports and physical culture facilities to virtually every citizen in the U.S.S.R.

The parent organizations of the sports clubs are the trade unions. Depending on the industry or profession in which he works, the Soviet sportsman is assigned by the union to his club; and each club services from six to 20 different unions.

The whole structure is supervised by the Soviet Committee for Physical Culture and Sport, located in Moscow, and its various branches in the Socialist Republics and the larger cities. The committee sets standards, recognizes records, arranges the big national and international meets and generally acts as a legislative and supervisory body for Soviet sports. City committees do the same on a more local level, and they occasionally provide additional facilities for recreation, where necessary.

Largest of all, and characteristic of most, is the Burevestniks, or Stormy Petrels. The Burevestniks have approximately 2 million members from 13 industries and their unions. The club has at its disposal 117 stadiums, 110 athletic halls, 119 winter sports centers, 45 water bases—for various aquatic sports—and hundreds of other miscellaneous bases where people can participate in whatever sports they are interested in. All expenses for these facilities are met by the fees that the various unions pay to the Burevestnik organization. In addition, like all the other clubs, the Burevestniks maintain a number of so-called children's sports schools, which cater to their members' children and for which the unions provide a special fund.

The yearly fee for members is three rubles—75¢ at the official rate of exchange, 10¢ at the free rate. They are given a list of facilities in their area, decide which sports they are interested in and proceed to participate. The necessary teachers and coaches are ready for them and all necessary equipment is available and free.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)