Sports Diplomacy during the Cold War

The Cold War was a period of extreme tension that divided the globe between democracy and communism. Diplomacy was essential in preventing conflict between global superpowers. Diplomacy is quite an interesting subject however, as it shows up in many different forms. One of the most important forms of diplomacy in this time period was that of sport. Many nations prided themselves on the dominance of their sport programs, and in many cases used sport to provide a common ground between political ideologies. Diplomacy through sport may have ultimately proved to be the most successful in preventing the fruition of hostility. Great examples of this civility can be seen in the ping-pong tours of the early seventies, the goodwill tours in the fifties, and the diplomats in track suits of the seventies. Without sport, the Cold War may not have been so cold after all.

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In the spring of 1971, an unconventional diplomatic channel had opened up in the form of ping-pong. It all started when a 19-year old American Glenn Cowan had missed his team bus at the World Table Tennis Championship in Japan. Cowan was then waved onto the Chinese team’s bus. Chinese player Zhuang Zedong welcomed Cowan aboard and presented him with a gift, a silk-screen picture of the Huangshan mountains. At their next encounter, Cowan returned the favor by gifting a red, white, and blue shirt peace sign shirt to the great Chinese star. Even with the tension of the Cold War, these unlikely gestures of goodwill sparked positive relations between the two nations. Within a few short days, Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong proposed something that no rational person could have foreseen. Mao formally invited the United States ping-pong team on an all-expense-paid trip to China.

On the 10th of April, all 15 American competitors crossed from Hong Kong into mainland China along with an entourage of reporters, team officials, and family members. They would then embark upon a 10-day tour of Chinese cities and landmarks. Alongside the sightseeing, the two teams also engaged in a series of exhibition ping-pong matches. Even though the 24th ranked American team was quite terrible in comparison to the elite Chinese team, the Chinese players showed superb sportsmanship and allowed the US team to win a handful of matches. These abnormal series of events between rivals had enormous trickle-down effects on the international relationship between the countries. On the same day that the Americans crossed over into China, President Nixon announced that he would be lessening the existing travel bans and embargos that had been placed on the People’s Republic. The Chinese team would then also be invited to the United States for a ping-pong tour of their own. The following February, Nixon made history by becoming the first president to visit mainland China. This unusual form of diplomacy had seeming repaired a 20-year rift between the world powers. Chairman Mao put it best, famously saying The little ball, moves the Big Ball.

Sport didn’t just serve as a recreational activity for some countries, in fact the GDR utilized it as their main form on diplomacy to gain recognition as a nation. The German Democratic Republic was a communist state that had formed in the region of East Berlin, opposite of the Federal Republic of Germany in the west. After 20 years of independence, the GDR had only been recognized by the USSR, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Romania, China, Korea, Albania, Vietnam, Mongolia, Cuba, and Yugoslavia. The GDR required international recognition, but the typical routes to recognition required far too much compromise. This left the GDR in a unique scenario, one that could only be resolved through an extremely unusual strategy. The German Democratic Republic turned to dominance in sport as their main path to international recognition. They figured that if they could gain entry into international sport organizations, then that would demand international recognition of the GDR as a sovereign state. The German Diplomatic sports officials told their athletes You are sports-diplomats in track suits (Strenk).

Utilizing their unique campaign, the German Democratic Republic had amassed an impressive resume of success. In 1974 the German Democratic Republic was officially recognized by a large number of nations including France, Great Britain, and the United States. The road to finally achieving recognition was filled with great victory in the world of sport. The campaign began shortly after their formation in 1949. October of that year, the GDR participated in a FIFA sanctioned soccer match against Hungary, under the guise of a Saxony all-star team. This was their first official international competition, and many more were sure to follow. In 1952 the GDR started to make significant progress with the international sport federations. Thanks to help from the Soviets and other allies, they were admitted to the International Ski, Table Tennis, and Volleyball Federations. By 1954 the GDR had also begun to organize its own international events, hosting the I Deutsches Turn and Sportfest, as well as co-hosting the Friedensfahrt bicycle tour.

Over the next decade, the GDR would compete in various competitions in numerous countries, but not without significant backlash and controversy. On a significant number of occasions, GDR athletes were denied visas while trying to attend competitions. Nonetheless, the East German powerhouse continued to dominate. Author Andrew Strenk writes that in October of 1965, the Dusseldorfer Beschlusswas revised. The IOC decided at its session in Madrid in the same month to recognize the National Olympic Committee of the GDR. The German Democratic Republic was then allowed to send their own team to the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, separate from the FRG team with whom they had previously competed alongside. In the years following those games, the GDR would be officially recognized by 85 different nations. On the 21st of December in 1972, the FRG signed the Basic Treaty, regulating relations between the two German states. 23 years after the formation of the GDR, the fight for international recognition as a sovereign state was finally complete. The German Democratic Republic had proved to the world that sheer dominance in sport was a practical and effective form of diplomacy.

The former two examples of diplomacy in sport showcase the method being used as a necessity. However, this is not the only way to utilize sport as a diplomatic channel. Instead, sport diplomacy was used as an extension of political relations between the United States and the Soviet Union in order to promote cooperation and peaceful coexistence. In 1958, Soviet ambassador Georgi Zarubin and the American ambassador S. B. Lacy signed an agreement known as the Lacy-Zarubin Accord. The agreement stipulated exchanges in cultural, technical and education fields (Kozovoi). The Lacy-Zarubin Accord also established the organization of two track and field meets between the Soviet Union and the United States. The first of these meets was to be held in Moscow in 1958, followed by a meet in the United States one year after. The Moscow meet took place in July of 1958, amidst tension stemming from Eisenhower’s dismissal of a political summit organized by Khrushchev. Polish scholar Michael Marcin Kobierecki explains that the track and field dual meet between the Soviet Union and the United States in Moscow in 1958 was assessed by the Soviet press as ‘the match of the century’.

It was believed to be an important moment concerning the American-Soviet relations, as for the first time the two Cold War superpowers arranged a sports exchange in a sport that was important to both of them. The fact that this particular sport was equally important to the Americans and the Soviets was essential in ensuring the effectiveness of diplomacy. The two-day event featured star-studded teams, with an impressive number of Olympic medalists and world record holders on both sides. American decathlon Rafer Johnson expressed the importance of the event, saying it was Communism vs the Free World. Ultimately, the United States ended up losing 172-170 to the Soviets. While the Americans may have lost, the event evoked heightened levels of patriotism and interest in the competition between the two Cold War rivals. The next American-Soviet track would be held in Philadelphia the following summer.

The second track meet at Franklin field in Philadelphia resulted in another Soviet victory. Both nations were very pleased with the meets thus far and although the initial agreement only included the 1958 and 1959 meets, sports leaders in both countries desired a long-term series (Turrini). Seven total meets would occur between 1958 and 1965, alternating host nations with each event. Attendance at these events was incredible, blowing the usual AAU annual championship track meets out of the water. Turrini writes that the 1962 two-day meet at Stanford University drew a phenomenal 153,000 in paid attendance, which Track and Field News claimed ‘was the largest in US track history’. The popularity that these events achieved caused the US to expand further with their international track program. American track athletes were no longer only travelling to the Soviet Union, they were now competing in Europe, Asia, and Africa as well. The dual track meets with the Soviets were held all the way until 1966, persisting even through political catastrophes such as the construction of the Berlin Wall and the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Eventually though, the 1966 competition in Los Angeles was cancelled when Soviet leaders decided to withdraw. Deterioration of relations between the two nations and American involvement in the Vietnam War had caused the USSR to boycott the event. The dual-meet track events were an extreme diplomatic success for both nations. Cooperation and peaceful coexistence between conflicting ideologies had been proven possible through sport.
Diplomacy through sport has had quite a mixed history, professor of sports policy Jonathan Grix writes that sports as diplomacy only works in such staged cases if it follows a logical pattern. As successful as diplomacy through sport has shown to be, it doesn’t always work out as planned. Sport is unique with the nationalism and pride that surrounds it on the international level. This sense of nationalism can create tremendous tension during competitions, resulting in damaged relations between nations. As the great British author George Orwell once said, Serious sport has nothing to do with fair play. It is bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence. In other words, it is war minus the shooting. While the following events didn’t necessarily spur military action between powers, they certainly did not help to improve relations.

In the years following World War II, Hungary served as a satellite state of the communist Soviet Union. The Hungarians frustrations with the Communist Party and the Soviet policies came to fruition with the Hungarian Revolution in 1956. The revolt was quickly crushed as 200,000 Soviet troops responded, storming into Budapest with their tanks to put an end to the liberation effort. Nearly 2,500 Hungarians were killed and about 250,000 more fled the country. Just one month later, the Hungarian national team water polo team was slated to participate in the Melbourne Olympics. Spain, Switzerland, and the Netherlands had already withdrawn from the Olympics in support of the Hungarians. The Hungarian team faced an important dilemma, defect and withdraw from the Olympics, or compete with honor. The water polo team chose the latter alternative (Rinehart). The reigning gold medal team would have a very important Olympic games, playing not only for themselves, but for all of Hungary.

During the group stage of the water polo competition, the Hungarian team was far from their usual dominant nature. The athletes had far larger things on their mind, worried about their country’s future and their families back home. Even with these formidable distractions, the team, considered one of the best in Olympic history, easily advanced. Water polo is a major sport in Eastern Europe, and the Hungarians have long been a dominant power, winning eight Olympic gold medals, more than any other country (Corwin).

The Hungarian team would then go on to defeat Italy, Germany, and the United States with ease. Only the Soviets and Yugoslavia were left standing in their way of the gold medal. The match against the Soviet Union would be far from any typical Olympic competition. From the very beginning, the tension between the two teams was evident. Less than minute into the game, a Soviet player put one of the Hungarian’s into an arm lock and ended up in the penalty box. Fighting would continue above and below water throughout the match, with two more Soviet players finding themselves in the penalty box for punching the Hungarian players. As the match neared its end, Hungary was up 4-0. In the last minutes of the game a Russian hit rival Ervin Zador with such a vicious and violent blow over the right eye that it split his brow and stained the water red (Rinehart).

The Hungarian-majority crowd poured out of their seats and crowded the pool. The referee ended the competition and police were brought in to prevent a riot. Zador would receive 8 stitches for his laceration and sat out for the gold medal match against Yugoslavia. The Hungarian team would continue on to take home the gold medal. The 1956 Melbourne Olympics had shown precisely what can happen when political tensions find their way into sporting competition. Zador would later say I wish sports could be exempt from politics, but that’s just a dream. It’ll never happen”.

At the 1972 Olympics in Munich, the United States faced off against the Soviet Union in the gold medal basketball match. This game between the opposing world powers of the Cold War would go down in infamy as on of the most controversial contests in Olympic history. The United States team was very impressive, boasting a 63-0 undefeated record in international play. The US basketball team had won the gold medal in every Olympics since the addition of the sport in 1936 at the Berlin games. The Soviet team was up against quite a formidable opponent. The Soviet team started the game off with the first basket, and then did not relinquish their lead for nearly the entire contest. As the clock wound down to its final moments, the United States was down 49-48. Doug Collins, the United States’ shooting guard, stole the ball from the Soviets, drove down the court and went in for a layup. As Collins tried to score, he was fouled and crashed down hard, subsequently knocking him unconscious. With 3 seconds left on the clock, he was awarded two free throws and now had the chance to tie the game and even take the lead. Pushing through his pain, the noise of the crowd, and the immense pressure, Collins managed to sink both shots and put the United States ahead 50-49. It is at this point that things start to get interesting.

Down by 2 points in the gold medal match, the Soviet team had 3 seconds remaining to inbound the ball and score. On the first inbounding play, the Soviets passed the ball up the court but play was stopped when the USSR coach stormed the scoring table. He insisted that the team had called a timeout prior to the second free throw. The officials decided to nullify the play and reset the clock to 3 seconds. On the second inbounding play, the Soviets were well guarded by the US team and the play resulted with the ball bouncing off of the backboard as time expired. The United States appeared to have won, and the fans stormed the court to celebrate. For reasons unknown still, the officials ordered the court to be cleared and for the Soviets to have 3 more seconds to try the inbounding play one more time. On this third attempt, Soviet player Ivan Edeshko threw the ball down the length of the court to teammate Aleksandr Belov. Belov jumped into the air, grabbed the ball, and made an uncontested layup as the American defenders had fallen to the floor around him. The game had finally ended for the last time, and Belov, arms aloft, sprinted all the way to the other side of the court to be enveloped by his teammates, all dressed in Soviet-issue red jerseys. The Soviet players rolled around on the floor, hugging each other as well as their coaches and trainers, and swigging from bottles of vodka that had appeared out of nowhere (Gallagher). The United States Olympic Committee immediately filed a protest against the Soviet victory. The protest was shortly rejected by the FIBA jury. The US team unanimously decided to reject their silver medals and did not attend the medal ceremony. Shrouded in extreme controversy, the Soviets had finally defeated the previously unbeatable United States team. This Olympic scandal did little to help relations between the Cold War enemies.

Throughout the Cold War, sport was utilized as a means of diplomacy with many different goals and outcomes. In 1971, ping-pong served as an unexpected channel to bring the United States and China closer together. In the rising nation of East Germany, sport was the path to international recognition for the GDR. The ugly face of political relations showed itself in a bloody water polo match between the Soviets and Hungary. A controversial basketball game for the ages handed the Americans their first loss in team history. Even through a variety of results, sport as a means of diplomacy proved to be a large factor in how the Cold War played out. It is my honest opinion that without sport, the Cold War may not have been so cold after all.

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Sports Diplomacy During the Cold War. (2019, Apr 26). Retrieved February 5, 2023 , from

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