It may be one of those “Back in my day…” old man things, but it seemed the undercurrent of the Cold War always added a a large amount to the appeal of the Olympics. While I like to see the US win in their events, I think I was more invested back in the 70 and 80s.
I think they were. Taking on the pros from the Soviet Union and the dopers from East Germany with amateurs and seeing them come out on top confirmed the righteousness of the United States for me when I was younger. Now it’s a free-for-all with nobody to hate. It’s lost focus.
It definitely was a bigger thrill when the USA beat the Soviets/Eastern Europeans, especially since everyone knew they were really professionals, and a lot of people suspected they were taking drugs.
On the other hand precisely because of that, the Soviets/Eastern Europeans were unbeatable in many sports for decades, and that made some things boring. The gold medal soccer match at Montreal 1976 was between Poland and East Germany. I was in the stands, and I can tell you it was the most boring important soccer final I ever witnessed. I don’t even remember who won.
Also, for most of that period mainland China did not participate in the Olympics, and we see now that that was a big gap.
Oh, for sure they were. The Olympics were more like single combat of the cold war era than just a happy sporting event. It wasn’t just ‘national pride’ on the line, but an overall victory for a country was often depicted as a demonstration of that country’s superior political system, and would actually have diplomatic ramifications.
And of course, the Olympics were often wrapped in the politics of the day, with boycotts, the mass murder of Israeli athletes, various protests against specific nations, etc.
Then there were the regular defections of athletes. For example, during the Montreal Olympics five different eastern-bloc athletes defected to Canada. Whenever this happened it would cause a diplomatic furor. The potential of defections added another element of drama to each Olympic games.
Plus, at that time we didn’t have the kind of media and entertainment fragmentation that we have today, so the Olympics were more of a shared national experience in the same way that watching Johnny Carson or Walter Cronkite was a shared national experience of the sort that doesn’t exist any more.
I think for people in the US and USSR, it was more interesting then. These days, the US doesn’t have a really big rival like the USSR was back in the day.
For people not in the US or the USSR, it probably wasn’t more interesting then. I am guessing that for the rest of the world, rooting against both of them then and now is a cottage industry. I don’t think that many people outside of the US root for US athletes, and many actively root against them.
I don’t think the Cold War aspect of it was very apparent to us over here in the UK. I vaguely remember some hoo-hah over an ice hockey game, but otherwise, if say an American athlete and a Soviet athlete were running in a race, I don’t think we put any “east vs. west” spin on it.
That said, we weren’t keen on the heavy state sponsorship of the Soviet bloc competitors, and in some cases such as the DDR it was pretty much assumed that they were using state-sanctioned doping. (Not that Western athletes were entirely clean, of course, and nowadays British athletes receive quite a lot of public or quasi-public money).
I have never noticed any antipathy towards US competitors. Many of the star names such as Carl Lewis and Michael Johnson were very popular here.
The other thing is that the Olympics went to a two-year cycle and I think that really diminished the “specialness” of it.
For me they are far more interesting now than during the Cold War. So many events back then were considered a proxy for politics that it overshadowed the athletic competition. Either “our” side won, or “their” side won. Now I can enjoy it for the sport and the competition, without getting into the politics. Although I’m an American, I find that I generally prefer events in which the U.S. isn’t a strong contender, unless the athletes have a particularly compelling story, for this very reason. A swimming race in which I’m seeing whether the Swedish world record holder will defeat the up-and-coming Lithuanian is more interesting than one in which the only goal is to see the American win.
I do agree that the two-year cycle has created some Olympics fatigue, which is why I have largely stopped paying much attention to the winter games.
I can’t think of any off-hand either, and the two you mention were indeed very popular. The latter is still highly, highly respected when he does his pundit stuff for the BBC. I mean, Usain Bolt is a superstar in terms of public profile, but people genuinely like Tyson Gay too.
I do wish that they had kept the winter games on the same cycle as the summer ones. The winter games are a bit of a sideshow in the UK though, for most people.
There’s a good account of the tensions involved in Rome 1960: The Olympics that Changed the World. Even at that point, the games were propaganda vehicles.
Agreed. How am I supposed to keep track of who’s good in archery, who’s good in rowing, who the best swimmers are, etc. In the good old days we knew if the USA beat the USSR then we did good, even if we ended up losing the gold medal to someone like Ecaudor.
I like the Games more now. The boycotts sucked. Although they did produce a great moment when Romania, alone among the East Bloc, declined to let politics dictate; they came to Los Angeles in 1984, and got a huge ovation from the (mostly) American crowd. And then they proceeded to kick ass in their events.
Agreed. The cheating judges were always good for outrage as well. I was at the pool a few weeks ago and a friend make a perfect dive. I said that got a 2.3 from the East German judge. He didn’t know what in the hell I was talking about. The 72 Basketball Gold Medal game was the highlight of this with that ancient Eastern bloc administrator charging on the court and demanding that time be added…outrage! But those were the Olympics!
The boycotts sucked, no doubt. But I think the OP is talking about the years before the boycotts, when the cold war was in full steam. Mainly 1960 to 1976, I would guess.
As we used to say:
From the Canadian judge, 9.5; from the UK judge, 9.4; from the US judge, 9.6, from the Australian judge, 9.5; from the Soviet judge, 8.3, and from the East German judge, 8.2. Yeah, right. There was something wrong there.