On December 6, 1956, the national water polo teams of the Soviet Union and Hungary faced off in the Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. By the end of the match, the water in the swimming pool was red from the blood of the competing athletes. Such was the ferocity born of intense hatred with which these two countries competed in a water sport. And they were both members of the Warsaw Pact, the Moscow-led group of Soviet Bloc European countries that confronted the Western alliance known as NATO, or North Atlantic Treaty Organization. Why was there such an intense level of violence? One month earlier, the Soviet Union sent its tanks into Hungary to squash a revolt against the dictatorship established and controlled by Russia. The two sides in that Olympic swimming pool were using the water polo match as an extension of the military-political conflict still playing out in Budapest.
This anecdote illuminates the extent to which sports, along with the other areas, were dominated by the rivalries that characterized the Cold War. Both sides sought to display superiority over the other in virtually all areas, with the manifestations of this competitive atmosphere sometimes reaching ludicrous proportions. Sports was seen in the Soviet Union as a potential showcase for the superiority of the communist system installed in 1917, with Russian athletes, such as Greco Roman wrestler Alexander Karelin, weightlifter Vasily Alekseyev, and the Soviet Union’s prized Red Army ice hockey team, all used for propaganda purposes to suggest that the successes of these athletes were the product of Soviet, and especially Russian, superiority. From the American side, the Olympics were less of an extension of the Cold War, but Americans still took enormous pride in every victory over the Soviet Union and its satellite states, especially East Germany—the women’s swimming teams from which were poster models for the effects of steroids administered in an especially irresponsible manner.
Many Americans are familiar, courtesy of the film “Miracle on Ice,” with the dramatic victory by a young team of American college students over the highly regarded and highly professional Soviet Red Army Hockey Team during the 1980 Winter Olympics. That victory exemplified as well as any the intensity of the competition between Cold War adversaries, but that competition was also very present during a Summer Olympics basketball Gold Medal game between the two countries—a game ultimately won by the Soviet Union despite an extremely controversial final minute of action. The Soviet victory was psychologically tantamount to the ice hockey outcome eight years later. Cold War tensions dominated the athletic competitions and would do so for the duration of the Cold War. Similarly, the well-known 1972 chess match between Soviet Grand Master Boris Spassky and American Bobby Fischer bore all the marks of an international competition between adversarial nations. As the Soviets had dominated hockey and the Americans basketball only to see their domination end in Olympic competitions, the chess match between Spassky and Fischer was played out against a backdrop of Cold War politics, with Fischer’s victory seen as an important political victory for the United States.
Cultural competition is where the Cold War competition was particularly pathetic, with the greatest single example of the phenomenon being the famous “Kitchen Debate” between US vice president Richard Nixon and Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev. At an exhibit in Moscow of Americana, the two political leaders found themselves engaged in impromptu debate regarding the merits of their respective economic policies, the model American kitchen being a stand-in for American cultural and economic superiority. The competition for global perceptions of superiority extended into every facet of the two adversaries’ political and military stand-off—a stand-off that the Soviets found difficult to sustain given the number of Soviet cultural figures defecting to the West, including ballet dancers Mikhail Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov, and the fact of Soviet repression of dissident authors, including Boris Pasternak (author of Dr. Zhivago) and Aleksander Solzhenitsyn (author of The Gulag Archipelago, among other works), the latter eventually being allowed to emigrate to the United States (but not before being imprisoned).
The scientific competition between the US and the USSR was a little less well-known, at least in the United States, but still intense and heavily influenced by Cold War politics. Starting with the competition to see which newly-emergent superpower could capture the most German scientists near the close of World War II—scientists who proved instrumental for the United States in the development of the American space and military ballistic missile programs—the two countries sought to outdo each other in the scientific realm. The space race, in fact, was the greatest single manifestation of this phenomenon. The Soviet Union’s successful launch of the world’s first intercontinental ballistic missile in August 1957, followed soon after by the equally successful and infinitely more well-known launch into Earth's orbit of the world’s first satellite, known as Sputnik, represented an enormous victory for Russia not just in the realm of scientific achievement, but in the equally important realm of global public relations intended to illuminate the innate superiority of the Soviet system.
In conclusion, Cold War politics infiltrated and influenced every aspect of US-Soviet relations, whether in the realm of athletic competition, in each side’s efforts at portraying itself as culturally superior, or in the area of scientific exploration and achievement.