Review of The Olympics and the Cold War

Redihan, Erin Elizabeth. The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S.-Soviet Rivalry. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Co., 2017. Pp. vii + 264. 16 unnumbered pages of plates and index. $35.00 hardcover, $3.99 e-book.

Reviewed by Tony Calandrillo

In The Olympics and the Cold War, 1948-1968: Sport as Battleground in the U.S. Soviet Rivalry, Erin Elizabeth Redihan uses sports, and the Olympics in particular, as a window into the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. While this may, on the surface, seem like an obvious point, Redihan engages this question in a way that provides a deep, yet nuanced understanding of how the Cold War played out in the various Olympic cities during this 20-year period.

One of the first issues that Redihan tackles is the politicization of the Olympics, an occurrence that, at first blush, many people would argue, ruin the pure nature of the Olympics. In a succinct elucidation of her point, Redhian argues, instead, that diplomacy is inherent in all forms of international sport, and that, “the Games would not be the same without these heightened stakes” (p. 24). This premise provides a nice set-up for the rest of the book, with the author not lamenting the presence of politics in the Olympics but declaring politics “as much a part of the Games as the sports themselves” (p. 24).

Redihan CoverRedihan proceeds in an organized fashion, beginning with one chapter each on the history of Olympic level sport in both the American and Soviet systems. These two chapters give the reader an explanation of the divergent tracks that both the United States and the Soviet Union took to the politicization of their Olympic experiences. For example, Redihan notes that sport had already been entrenched in American society through the 1920s and 1930s, leading to a natural boom in athletic participation at the dawn of the Cold War (p. 48). The Soviet experience seems as if it was the inverse of the American experience in that the political importance of sports was well defined in the Soviet system well before it was in the American system. As Redihan explains, the Soviets felt that they needed to use sports as a way to attain the international legitimacy and respect that the United States already enjoyed, especially at the end of the Second World War (p. 71-72). The author explains explicitly that Stalin recognized the power of sports diplomacy long before the idea ever occurred to politicians in the United States (p. 72).

After this discussion, each of the Olympic years are discussed beginning with 1948 and ending with 1968, after which, Redihan notes, the onset of détente changed the nature of the Olympic games (p. 3). Within these discussions, Redihan looks at the athletic battles that characterized the proxy Cold War that developed on the athletic fields. She discusses the famous Soviet-Hungarian Water Polo match which took place while the two countries were engaged in an armed conflict, and the idea of West Germany versus East Germany as a proxy war within a proxy war during the larger Cold War. Most importantly, however, is how Redihan puts the Cold War sporting conflict into a larger context.

One of the significant points Redihan makes is that, as in many instances during the Cold War, the United States engaged in a reactive foreign policy in relation to the Soviet Union, with the two approaches to the Olympics being a microcosm of this point. Redihan shows that the Soviet Union mad a concerted effort to use the games as a political battleground against the United States soon after the Soviet debut at the 1952 Helsinki games. Given the common American perception of an imminent Communist victory in the struggle for the world, which Redihan, notes, the United States had to react to these developments much like they had to react to Soviet policies in the more traditional diplomatic spheres. While the Soviets made international athletic success a goal of the state, and a function of the state, the United States took a different, more privatized approach leading to a deficit during the early years of this conflict.

In this work, Redihan succeeds at her goal of placing the Olympic games in the context of the larger Cold War struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union. Her work also illuminates larger realities about the respective foreign policies of the United States and the Soviet Union during the most dangerous period of the Cold War. This is a well-researched book, with Redihan using U.S. government sources, International Olympic Committee source, and contemporary media accounts. Redihan’s work also has the additional benefit of being a smooth read as well. Fans of international sports, international politics, and the nexus of the two will enjoy Redihan’s book.

Tony Calandrillo is a Doctor of Letters candidate at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey, whose research involves the intersection of American foreign policy and sports. His dissertation is an examination of baseball as a tool of American foreign policy in the context of International Relations theory.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s