The Soviet Road to Olympus, Theory and Practise of Soviet Physical Culture and Sport, by N. Norman Schneidman, The Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, 180 pp., $9.95 paperback.
Schneidman, 55, is an associate professor of Slavic Languages and Literature at the University of Toronto. So what does a teacher in an obscure academic discipline know of the ins and outs of the Soviet system of producing seemingly innumberable world-class athletes? Probably as much as anyone writing in English.
Schneidman is a product of the very system he dissects in The Soviet Road to Olympus. He is a graduate of a state institution for physical culture in Minsk who went on to do graduate work at the Moscow Central Institute for physical culture. More than a theoretician, he was also a versatile sportsman, competing in boxing, hockey, and basketball, and coaching Soviet boxers to several gold medals in the 1956 Olympics.
Of equal relevance perhaps is the fact that Schneidman is no embittered defector with an arsenal of axes to grind. He has maintained close contacts with the sports establishment in his native country, and has visited the Soviet Union twice, in 1970 and 1976, since emigrating to Canada.
Schneidman’s prose sometimes reads like a graduate thesis in metallurgy but, tough sledding though it often is, it is must reading for anyone entertaining thoughts of Moscow next summer.
“When the levels of the most advanced athletes are nearly equal,” he says, “victory is often determined by the wise application of tactical devices and by an understanding of opponent’s weaknesses … To learn about future opponents one has to study and to understand the system which produced them.”
Schneidman contends that we in the West have made little effort to understand our principal antagonists. The Soviets, on the other hand, he says, have incorporated most of the useful aspects of our system into theirs.
One of the basic questions Schneidman confronts in his top-to-bottom analysis of sport and fitness in the USSR is whether Soviet sport serves the purposes of their system better than our sport serves ours. He concludes that, despite some major philosophical contradictions, it does.
Offical Soviet ideology promotes sport and fitness as a method of producing better Marxists-Leninists: a fit worker is a more productive worker. The truth though is that the average Soviet citizen is probably in worse shape than the average Canadian (to say nothing of the average 65-yearold Swede). The reality is that Soviet international victories have a much higher priority than the official line of physical well-being for the masses.
Despite a severe shortage of facilities (in 1977, there were only 66 artifical ice rinks in the USSR, undoubtedly fewer than the number in the Toronto area alone), the Soviets maintain a highly organized and centralized sports structure that allows them to make optimum use of both facilities and elite athletic talent.
Overall, the country with superior facilities and, in many cases, more raw talent, Schneidman suggests, when faced with a country with superior organization, loses every time. (He cites the example of USSR – USA track meets, which the Russians invariably win despite having fewer top track athletes than the Americans).
Since the USSR joined the Olympic movement in 1951, international sport has assumed political and ideological overtones, Schneidman implies, that the West has never quite come to grips with. Early on, the USSR clearly defined what it hoped to achieve in international sporting arenas. Almost three decades later, most non-communist countries have yet to attempt a comprehensive definition.
“The political implications of sport relationships between athletes from states with different social systems,” says Schneidman, “are considered [by the Soviets] to be of prime importance . . . The successful appearance of athletes from socialist states is often more beneficial to the cause of communism than direct, political, economic, or ideological measures.”
In Munich in 1972, the USSR and 10 of its satellite states won 100 gold medals as compared to the 93 won by the remaining 112 countries represented. Athletes from these 11 communist countries comprised only 10 per cent of participants, and yet they won 47.5 per cent of all medals awarded.
And the gap widens. In Montreal in 1976, the East Germans bumped the Americans another rung as they took second place behind the Soviets in the unofficial standings.
In light of the implications of Schneidman’s analysis, however, most of his recommendations for change are disappointing, mainly because of their contentious and, some would say under the realities of our system, fanciful nature.
He suggests, for instance, taxation of professional sport to aid amateurs. He also suggests a licencing system for professional athletes similar to that existing in boxing (and golf). A licencing system, he says, “could induce amateur athletes who intend to become professional to pay their debt to amateur sport and to their country in full before being permitted to join the ranks of the ranks of the professional.”
Schneidman’s main recommendation though is that while we should be thankful for the efforts of laymen and volunteers in many sports, we should be moving towards employing more professional expertise.
“The rapidly growing level of athletic performance,” Schneidman says, “is based on and connected with the development of related sciences such as physiology, psychology, medicine etc. and often leaves the layman ill-equipped to deal with the contemporary complex problems of athletic training.”