The U.S. and its NATO allies allegedly won the Cold War, but in terms of athletic success, they finished a distant second. In fact, if you examine the all-time Olympic medal counts, Communist and formerly Communist nations dominate. The Soviet Union placed first in the medal count at all but four Summer and Winter Games held between 1956 to 1988. The much smaller East Germany didn’t finish lower than third from 1972 to 1988. And other Eastern Bloc countries (e.g., Romania, Bulgaria and Poland) often placed in the top ten and occasionally ranked among the top three as well.
Now, I’m no apologist for Marxism, Leninism, Maoism, “scientific atheism” or the horrors that can accompany the bureaucratic sorting of humans for both athletic and physical purposes, but a deep dive into the historical record shows today’s fitness-obsessed American missed out on plenty by not growing up in a top-down society where physical culture wasn’t just prioritized but standardized and heavily subsidized. We often fell into whatever sports we did because we happened to be strong or fast, and improvised our way to success until one coach or another used their idiosyncratic methods to help us achieve peak performance.
In that context, it’s interesting that we haven’t looked East for workout tips — especially when every workout fad these days seemingly has retro roots (from eating like cavemen to running through the woods like other early hunter/gatherers to the Olympic-based circuits of the almighty CrossFit). Because if nothing else, it’s readymade for reinvention as the next craze to be licensed to gyms across this great democracy of ours. But until then, here’s the broad strokes of how the Soviets and its Eastern Bloc neighbors scored all that gold.
Their P.E. Classes Weren’t an Invitation to Play Hookey
In 1931, party leadership declared that Soviet kids must have “nerves of steel and muscles of iron.” In order to determine if this was the case, it implemented “ready for labor and defense” tests (dubbed GTO for its Russian translation — Gotov k trudu i oborone) in jumping, running, gymnastics, swimming and skiing. Between 1931 and 1960, 28 million citizens passed the exams, and increased funding for sports and physical culture saw many millions more clear them between 1968 and 1988. In 1978, the newspaper Sovetsky Sport discussed the necessity of enrolling one-third of Soviet men and women between the ages of 10 and 60 in sports, noting, “there is a preoccupation with spotting and encouraging young talent to ensure a rich national reserve.”
In fact, the official GTO championship motto was “from the GTO [merit] badge to the Olympic Medal.” James Riordan, author of Sport in Soviet Society, wrote in the Guardian in 1975 that “the secret of Soviet athletic success lies in central planning, complete coordination among the education system, local and national government, trade unions and industry, to provide salaried and degreed coaches first, facilities second.”
Similar methods came to be implemented in China, Olympian and Olympic weightlifting coach Ma Jianping explained, following exploratory visits by Chinese physical education reformers whose study of Soviet training methods was made possible by the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance, and Mutual Assistance. “Under Friendship treaties, Soviet experts assisted their Chinese counterparts in building their programs, while a delegation of nine Chinese weightlifters went to train in the Soviet Union,” Jianping wrote in his book Chinese Weightlifting. “They learned about all aspects of training such as the organization and duties of individuals in the coaching and management teams, financial incentive structures, organizing training camps, programming, nutrition, recovery and technique.”
For these delegates, the key was a system filled with well-educated and state-subsidized coaches and doctors who all followed a uniform approach to physical training. “The delegation found that the Soviets had a network of training facilities that were chosen based on the requirements of the sport being performed,” Jianping wrote. “They also noticed the cadre of coaches, researchers, therapists and doctors present during the training and each playing a clearly defined role. Everyone was paid a salary and were retained or promoted based on results and need.”
For China, the result of this study was the creation of its own “organized system of athlete selection that assessed children using standard criteria along with visual inspection that led to China’s rise over previously dominant countries such as the Soviet Union and Bulgaria.”
Your Intramural Team Was the Local Pro Team
Sport in the Soviet Union and other Communist countries was built around the notion of mass participation, not leisurely spectating. Competitions between sports clubs, such as the KGB-backed Dynamo Sports Club and the Soviet Army-backed CSKA Moscow, were intense across activities ranging from wrestling to water polo. But even though hockey and soccer showdowns between such clubs could draw large crowds, “these champions are not professional sportsmen,” read a 1939 English-language introduction to Soviet sports. “They are workers in factory or office, they are Red Army men, collective farmers or students who devote their leisure hours to sports. Professional sports is unknown in the U.S.S.R. The Soviet sportsman has no need to exchange the seconds and centimeters of his records for coins; he has no need to ‘make money’ out of his football or boxing glove.”
By comparison, as late as the 1970s, the U.S. was limited to a small subculture of meatheads, and gyms were regarded by many as seedy places where sordid activities occurred (the legendary Gold’s Gym, Paul Solotaroff wrote in Men’s Journal, was a place that expanded under the ownership of a former gay porn star as well as a site where bodybuilders rented out their sexual services). Meanwhile, many top athletes in baseball and football openly shunned “pumping iron” for fear of becoming “musclebound.” YMCAs, YWCAs, municipal gyms and other organizations tried to fill the gaps as best they could, but for the most part, training in the U.S. was highly individualized and often left entirely up to the athlete or clique of athletes.
Olympic sports were more or less what they’ve always been here — lacking in financial support and/or falling under the purview of unscrupulous/eccentric patrons. For example, York Barbell founder Bob Hoffman, an egomaniacal businessman whose own weightlifting track record had been spotty at best, basically ran the USA Weightlifting team out of his company headquarters for the better part of four decades, with champion athletes such as Steve Stanko and John Davis earning money working part-time selling weight sets for Hoffman. And USA Wrestling, always in a sorry and benighted state when it came to money, essentially became the property of mentally ill philanthropist John du Pont, who built his Team Foxcatcher an impressive training facility and lavished attention on the wrestlers until he ambushed and murdered his hand-picked coach, Olympic medalist Dave Schultz, in early 1996.
Jianping, in particular, found this obsession with special benefactors and individualized methodologies problematic for trainees attempting to learn a sport. “We find that many amateur lifters and coaches outside of China, Bulgaria and Russia do not implement a system supporting a concept of technique,” he wrote. “One strong factor for the success of weightlifting in China is that trained, government-employed professional coaches agree on this technical concept, so athletes do not have to make major changes to their technique or learn substantially different styles as they work with different coaches during their careers. Athletes outside of China learn many different styles of weightlifting often based on a coach’s personal belief, which naturally changes from coach to coach.”
On the Playing Field At Least, Everyone Remained Gender-Blind (Especially Because Women Were Best Suited for Steroids)
Despite reams of propaganda arguing the superior equality and inclusiveness of Communist systems compared to those of the West, the contrary appears to be true — life was never particularly sunny for women, LGBTQ people or minority ethnic groups in these countries. But sports were another matter, since Communist countries intuitively grasped that a medal was a medal, regardless of who won them. (Russia has continued this inclusive tradition today, even doping members of its Paralympic team.) In particular, women’s sports, which finally came into their own in the U.S. in the 2000s after decades of being relegated to the second tier, offered an ideal spot to mine for gold medals.
The East Germans took this phenomenon to its logical conclusion, producing an outsized number of female medalists in swimming, rowing, and track and field from 1972 to 1988. (Their female swimmers, for example, took gold in 11 of 13 swimming events at the 1976 Summer Olympics in Montreal.) Under the careful supervision of Minister of Sport Manfred Ewald and physician Manfred Hoeppner, the country built a sophisticated doping regimen. Hoeppner and his fellow physicians benefited primarily from the fact that anabolic-androgenic drugs have the most profound effects, both good and bad, on female users. (By way of comparison, CrossFitter Natalie Newhart wrote an interesting post about her own experience with PEDs in a growing sport where rumors of heavy use by women abound).
Even if women in Western countries were doping during this period, they certainly weren’t doing it as effectively as the East Germans. Nor were those countries honing in on female athletes as a means of boosting medal counts with the same sort of precision. “West Germany doped just as much, but it wasn’t done as systematically as in East Germany,” University of Mainz professor Perikles Simon told Newsweek in 2014. “In West Germany it was basically done by individual clubs, and athletes could decide to participate or not.”
Women also found a measure of success as coaches for male sports far earlier than their Western equivalents. Case in point: Vladimir Vasin, the first Russian gold medalist in diving, was coached to his 1972 win by Tatyana Petrukhina. Petrukhina, one of the USSR’s many “godmother” coaches during this era, developed an all-encompassing program that saw her ministering to the needs of Vasin throughout his daily life as well as during his training sessions. In fact, Petrukhina and Valentina Dedova, the coach who had “godmothered” Yelena Vaitsekhovskaya to a diving gold medal at the 1976 Olympics, were famed for micro-managing all of the details of their trainees’ existences — right down to the number of times they chewed their food prior to swallowing.
Everyone Trained Exactly Like Ivan Drago — Never Changing a Thing
One of the biggest advantages of Communist training systems is that they could be easily standardized and controlled via a steady stream of licensed, credential-holding coaches from accredited sports colleges — many of whom were accomplished athletes themselves. This was taken to the point of parody in Rocky IV. In it, Dolph Lundgren’s Ivan Drago is a scientifically-trained killing machine, while Stallone’s Rocky Balboa is a hard-nosed streetfighter who lifts logs and runs in the snow.
For Jianping, as for the Soviets, creativity places a distant second to careful, universally-applicable design. Chinese weightlifters and other trainees passing through Jianping’s system don’t devise clever new ways to drop into a clean or snatch; instead, they repeat a mantra — “close, fast, low, timing and stable” — that reminds them to keep the barbell close to the body after it’s quickly and powerfully yanked from the ground, where it’s caught in the lowest possible position with perfect timing and core stability.
Such structure was borne out of a 20-year period from the 1970s to the 1990s, when a handful of competing ideas about where to start the Olympic lifts — low-hip (bad) or moderate hip (ideal), balanced barbell trajectory (ideal) or back extension barbell trajectory (bad) — was one of unhelpful confusion that ended only when the Chinese athletic authorities mandated the proper gravity principles and training words. “The situation was unstable due to power struggles among factions in the Chinese leadership, so athletes and coaches experienced persecution based on their political allegiances,” Jianping has written. “Teams did not have a unified understanding of training due to lack of access to information. Therefore, Chinese weightlifting greatly lagged.”
Everyone Probably Cycled Like Drago, Too
“The only real difference between West and East [regarding steroids] is the way access to the drugs is organized,” says Anthony Roberts, the author of Anabolic Steroids: Ultimate Research Guide. “In a country like the USSR or [East Germany], all of this passed through state doctors running state blood tests, doing state-sponsored research. But when someone in the U.S. like legendary female sprinter Marion Jones is caught doping, who is the source of the drugs she’s using? Victor Conte, a former bassist with the band Tower of Power.”
In some ways, Roberts adds, this is much better for the U.S. Olympic Committee — since there’s no single centralized source of doping to blame, athletes are suspended, if at all, on an individual basis and a ban on national team participation, like what happened to Russia at the 2018 Winter Olympics, remains unlikely. But it also means that each athlete is seeking out his own source of drugs, his own doping coach, his own ways of beating the drug tests. As bad as the doping doctors in the Soviet Union and East Germany undoubtedly were, there were multiple licensed physicians participating in every part of that process. Here, in the U.S., a weightlifter hoping to add some explosive strength might find himself buying a masking agent from a shadowy figure who also deals MDMA to college kids and chemsex partiers. In other words, as with everything else, American competitors are on their own, for good or ill.
What Can We Learn from All This?
My takeaway, as someone who has participated in sports and studied sports history for close to two decades, is that I probably got a raw deal. As a kid, I was a promising athlete, a good youth-level, high school and club wrestler whose career was interrupted by graduating from high school at 15, but impaired far more due to being poorly coached by a loud-mouthed, cliché-spouting father who had zero wrestling experience — plus a bunch of other dimwit coaches who made up stupid names for imaginary maneuvers. (I remember performing a series of hips-away sit-outs and having them called dumb shit like “Jaflakio” and “Flajakio” because the coach’s last name was Flake.)
So part of me wishes all of these talent identification programs — GTO tests for American youths — could be implemented in time for my own kids to benefit. Unlike me, they wouldn’t miss their date with athletic destiny. No, they’d be swinging kettlebells and discussing Pavel Tsatsouline’s methodologies straight out of the cradle as I and the licensed coaches paid by our totalitarian nanny state oversee their rapid rise to glory — and even more rapid rise to burnout. Unlike me, still searching for the holy grail of muscle at the increasingly advanced age of 35, my offspring would be hitting their potential like those Chinese weightlifters Ma Jianping coaches: In their primes at 20, finished by 25 and put on some kind of a state pension or rewarded with a state sinecure thereafter.
I’m inclined to believe it beats tracking down all this information on their own, wondering time and again why nobody taught them about grinding their feet into the ground on squats to increase torque until they’re 31 and nearly too old to care. Then again, perhaps for me and everybody else making our way down the haphazard and heavily-improvised road to American enlightenment, the journey through all of this misinformation is half the fun. In that regard, maybe we should meet in the middle, with elementary-school gym classes that amount to more than 10 minutes of kicking a red ball around but are still less all-consuming than 10 years of the entire national security apparatus pinning its hopes for Greco-Roman wrestling glory on the tiny shoulders of a six-year-old.