Ok, believe it or not, all of the truly long pieces are done until I get to the US. Having spent two days on UK Track Cycling, finishing on Tuesday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 5, I promise not to spend more than one day on any one group until I get to the US. That’s gonna be long. At this point it would be a bit redundant to just keep making the same points over and over again. So I’ll be a bit briefer so I can look at more groups faster.
So over the next few parts, I want to take more of a snapshot of a variety of different sport systems that have shown success or outright dominance in various time frames. And since it makes some logical sense, I’m actually going to look at them in somewhat of a chronological order (that is, in terms of the times they were dominant) since this makes some other points about changes in training and focus some of which I feel are relevant to my ultimate topic of US Ol’ing.
In series, I’m going to talk about the Russian Sports machine today, Bulgarian OL’ing, East Germany and, of all things, Australian swimming on Friday and then finish by looking at the most recent sports machine, Communist China, on Monday. Then, finally I can turn my eye to the US and spend too much time getting to the point.
So today, we turn our eye to the former Soviet Sports machine. And since I’m a dumb American as I pointed out on Tuesday, I will be incorrectly using terminology ranging from USSR to the Soviet Union to Russia interchangeably. I know these are all subtly different but I can’t be bothered to worry about it or even Wikipedia it. You know what I’m talking about and that’s the former Soviet Sports Machine that dominated sport for at least a solid 20 years.
Definition of Dominance
I couldn’t put a date to it but around the 1950’s to the 1970’s, the Russians/Soviet Union started to get really interested in sports, showing success in many and outright dominating some others; they won some incomprehensible number of Olympic medals during their heyday and did so in an amazingly broad number of sports (not the least of which was Olympic lifting), both summer and winter.
And irrespective of some of the points that I’m going to make further down that are critical of the training and system is that the Russian/Soviet Sport machine did truly dominate in quite a number of sports and did so for a fairly extended period. And while their true dominance has waned in recent years (most likely due to the overall collapse of the Soviet Union and other issues), their dominance was unmistakable.
Since the 70’s or so Americans have been fascinated with Russian sports secrets and how they achieved what they did. This part of the series will tell you and it wasn’t a black tar-like substance from the bottom of the ocean (mumia, we miss ye).
Perhaps the single biggest difference between the Soviet sports machine and the two groups that I’ve discussed before is the sociopolitical climate. Obviously, the Soviet union was a communist state (like the Smurf village although it’s technically a Socialist commune; whatever the difference is. And Russia had more than one woman.) and that impacted on literally everything I’m going to talk about.
First and foremost, at least one basic tenet in such a system is that the success of the state as a whole is more important than the success of the individual. Folks are raised to put the success of the country before their own individual needs and that means doing what they are told is best for the country.
Perhaps more importantly, you have to realize that when the Soviet Union (and other countries I’ll discuss next) started pouring energy into sport at the world level it was as much a political statement as it was anything else. Sport has always been sort of a metaphor for war and as the cold war was developing, international sport became the battleground where countries could ‘prove’ whose country and politics were the best. And they did this through their athlete’s performance and their medal haul. Whomever won the most medals had the best country and political system.
Before you dismiss this as the ramblings of a mad-man, lest we forget that boycotts were used to make political statements although only the athletes were truly impacted; the US boycotted in 1980 and the Soviets in 1984. World sports had become a political platform in many ways during this time period and much of what developed in many countries came directly out of that.
And don’t think this was just a Russian, East German or whatever thing. Anybody who remembers the 1984 Los Angeles McLympics may remember the US rocking out in all of its jingoistic glory during the Soviet boycott, prattling on about how many medals we won without recognizing that the current best on the planet weren’t in the stadium (just as the Soviets had done in 1980 when the US wasn’t there). As a political statement, countries were willing to do everything to succeed in sport. The Soviet union might have been the first to really do it in the fashion that they did but it certainly wouldn’t be the last.
Maybe you’re still not convinced, here’s my final example: if you ever get a chance to read Matveyev’s or Harre’s original texts on periodization, you’ll see what I mean: about 1/4 of both books talks about how sport is being used to show the superiority of Communist/Socialist ideology over Western bourgeoise belief systems and how sport is meant to inculate kids into communist and socialist ideology. It sounds absurd but I’m so not kidding about this. This is a quote from page 17 of Matveyev’s book Fundamentals of Sports Training, arguably one of the first periodization manuals translated into English. Read that again, this is a book about periodization:
The ruling circles of the imperialist states, as is known, persistently try to use sport for implanting bourgeois ideology. They are interested in international sports ties, above all, as a means of propagating an imaginary superiority of the “Western way of life”. The slogan “Sport outside politics” in practice becomes nothing but political hypocrisy in this case. Reactionary forces do everything to place sport at the service of anti-communism, chauvinism and race discrimination.
Of course, the above is hilarious because the Soviets were using sport for exactly the same damn thing but that’s the nature of politics; it’s always the other guys doing something bad even if you’re both doing the same damn thing. Anyhow, there’s way more of that throughout his book, how sport is meant to teach Communist (or Socialist in the case of East Germany and Harre’s book) kids to be good little Communists and Socialists.
And how ultimately, through sport, you can prove the superiority of your political system. That was really the driver for all of this in the first place. It wasn’t about money, fame or anything else; it was about proving that Communism was a superior political ideology without having to go to actual war and risk getting nuked.
And having decided to dominate sport, the Soviets threw an immense amount of resources at the problem. This included testing and selection for young kids, intensive training, ‘research’ (this included scouring the West for ideas about training; they left no stone unturned), coaching education and, of course, doping. I’ll touch on some of these below.
Of some relevance, athletes were pushed/forced into the sports that they were expected to perform in and only Olympic level sports were an option (it’s only in recent times that non-Olympic sports such as powerlifting or bodybuilding have been allowed to be pursued). People are raised to do what’s best for the country and that means doing what they are told will bring the best results for Mother RRRRrrrussia.
Location, Location, Location
It’s critically important to remember that the Soviet Union was an absolutely monstrous entity, encompassing an absurd land mass and many, many smaller countries all under it’s banner. This had a number of implications in terms of their domination and what developed there.
Perhaps the most important was that, with such a large population the Soviet Union simply had a staggering number of athletes going into the sports that they were focused on (and as I mentioned above this only included Olympic sports at the time, nothing else was relevant, considered or allowed).
As the only example relevant to this discussion I saw it recently stated that, at one point the USSR had 450,000 active Olympic lifters. Let that number sink in. 450,000 in that singular sport. That’s half the population of Austin, Texas devoting their lives to what is, in the US anyhow, a niche activity.
I’m quite sure that other sports had an equally absurd number of athletes going into them after all of the testing and early competition children were put through. And the simple fact is that when you take that many people and put them into intensive methodical drug-assisted training from an early age and you’re going to find some stars just on statistics alone (and make no mistake I will touch on the talent/physiology/genetics issue when I get to actually discussing US Ol’ing).
And since there’s only one gold medal to be had, you only need one world beater out of all of the hundreds of thousands you train the bejesus out of. It doesn’t even matter who wins so long as it’s a Russian. In this sense it shares some commonalities with Kenyan running, although all Kenyan runners are out to win, it’s more important that a Kenyan win at the end of the day. It’s simply that the Kenyan idea comes out of tribal ideas more than communist ideology per se.
A second impact and one that I will eventually cover in another over-written series has to do with the training and specificity versus variety. Since the USSR was so diverse, covering so many different countries, there doesn’t appear to have been any truly central sports system or program in place (beyond, perhaps, win at all costs). Make no mistake there was a general philosophy that appears to have existed but beyond that you see a lot of different stuff going on because everything was so spread out. That was at least the case for OL’ing (and see my sources if you want discussion of this) and I’m assuming it held for other sports.
A third impact, and one that would be relevant for not only OL’ing but other sports was that briefly, after the collapse of the Soviet Union (which had been limited to a single team), all of the individual countries were able to send full teams under their home flags to the major events. So the Soviet machine went from sending only the top 6 athletes to the top 6 from every little (previously) no-name country that had existed under the Soviet banner. With the depth that they already had, this simply pushed almost everybody to the bottom of the board at least until the rules were changed to prevent it (I’m not clear on the details of this nor does it particularly matter).
Genetics and Physiology
Since the Soviets didn’t dominate in any singular sport, I can’t really talk about physiology or genetics in the same sense that I did in the two previous groups I described. However, I do think it’s worth noting when the Soviet Union was truly dominant which was during the 60-70’s (make no mistake they were still producing in the 80’s and still do so today but that was not time of their dominance).
But keep in mind that this was a time when not only was overall competition standards lower but many of the groups that would show up to truly dominate certain sports (such as the West Africans in Sprinting or East Africans in distance events) simply weren’t on the field yet. In a more modern environment, it’s unlikely that the Soviet machine would have shown results in nearly the same broad array of sports. There is much more specialization nowadays for a reason.
As a bit of a teaser, you’ll see the real-world outcome of this when you see the very narrow list of sports that Communist China focuses on in the modern era on Monday; they don’t even try in sports that they know they don’t have the available genetic talent to win in. With the same ultimate sociopolitical goal in mind, the Chinese only focus on about a half-dozen sports they know they can dominate. And that doesn’t include track sprinting or distance running (there is that one weird high hurdler example).
So while Valeri Borzov was the top 100m sprinter of his day and won the gold in 1972, he was racing in the time BEFORE the majority of West African sprinters came to complete dominance. Ben Johson and Carl Lewis wouldn’t show up until the mid 80’s and now you will basically never see a non-African at the starting line of a 100m final unless they just aren’t present at all. Countries without folks who come from a West African (and specifically Jamiacan) background may have short sprinters but they won’t be producing for the most part (a recent exception was a female Greek sprinter).
The same would hold true for the Soviet distance runners who weren’t running against the East Africans (who not only weren’t present but weren’t focused much on the Olympics). The first Kenyan runner showed up in 1966 and the true influx wouldn’t happen until later as their sports domination got rolling (and again the Keynays were not Olympic focused to the degree that the Soviets were). The Soviets were good, make no mistake, but they weren’t competing against the best during their day.
Again, this isn’t meant to dismiss what the Soviets accomplished by any means. But realistically, many of the sports that the Soviets dominated during their heyday are not sports they would show results in now. They don’t have the right ethnic groups present because, despite their massive landmass, it’s still a fairly homogeneous group ethnically speaking. And while I’m sure that any Serbs and Croatians will surely take issue with this statement, I think you get what I’m saying. Not a lot of folks of any African descent in Russia. Or pretty much any other ethnic group (again, I won’t use the word ‘race’).
I’d also note, a bit snarkily, to keep that in mind when you seek to learn from 30 year old sports ‘secrets’ in sports that the Soviets really only dominated in many sports for lack of top notch competition (who simply weren’t there yet). I’ve read some Soviet sprint programs and, simply, they bear no resemblance to what any top performer does today. It might have ‘worked’ in 1970 against the other non-competition but it doesn’t now.
Which isn’t to say that their training was in any way bad or should be ignored, you just need to keep some perspective about it, how it developed, where it came from and why it ‘worked’ (i.e. put 450,000 people through any training program and drug them enough and at least one will probably do well on it).
Russian training evolved as much out of their sociopolitical and country structure as it did anything else. For example, exercise and fitness for health was also part of Russian ideology for various reasons; in the same way that Russian children were expected to learn chess (as a way of learning military tactics), they were put into multi-faceted training at a young age and that was part of making them well-rounded little Communists as much as anything.
It’s another thing to keep mind when you look at Russian training methodology and the idea of using that type of multi-faceted training in early development versus what most countries and top athletes are doing now which generally being very specific from a very early age; for example Chinese kids are learning the Olympics lifts at age 4, not dicking around with calisthenics.
Also keep in mind the time that the Soviets dominated, it was before all of the world cup and big money meets came into play (that would happen in the 80’s). You can set up huge long-term year-long periodization plans when all you care about is the Olymipcs or the World Championships and nothing else matters. Those old annual plans are more or less dead outside of a handful of sports because they don’t apply to modern sport and the demands of competing frequently for World Cup points or money.
As well, with such a massive landmass and being so spread out, as I mentioned above, there was no real centralized training structure. Rather it was a bunch of individual countries and locations doing somewhat of their own thing. It’s been suggested (see my sources below) that a lot of the ‘variety’ that you see among Russian programs seems to stem from the fact that there were so many different coaches doing so many different things with so many different athletes in so many different locations
They were all based around the same central ideology, mind you but you saw different ‘flavors’ in different areas. So Belarussian OL’ing has it’s own nuances compared to more central Soviet coaches which probably differed from another of the satellite countries that was doing it’s own thing. And I imagine the same held for other sports.
Even some of the overall training philosophies and ideas that came out of the Soviet sports machine were as much to do with the harsh Russian winters as anything else. For example, Verkoshanky’s own recent book Special Strength Training describes how his heavy use of weight training in the ‘off-season’ was done primarily because his jumpers had no facilities to jump in. They lifted weights because it was that or nothing.
I’d also note (and folks who have read me have seem me be rather critical of a lot of Russian methodology) that when you have that many freaking athletes in a sport, pretty much irrespective of the training that you use, if it’s hard enough and you grind enough people through it (and drug them sufficiently) at least one person will respond to it. And when all you really care about is generating a single world beater, that’s all you need: one guy to respond and peak on time (and pass the drug test).
Even some of the block training and ideas about pounding on your athletes for months at a time to try and get a big rebound when they recover really only works when you have enough athletes. I actually saw this first-hand in SLC during the No Regrets period; one summer we worked with a Russian trained coach who used standard Russian methodology (not recognizing that it doesn’t work well without ‘assistance’).
For 6 months straight he pounded on his athletes, everyone got injured including him. And with trials in December, the one athlete that stayed with him did in fact peak and was flying…in Februrary. Sure, use that system with hundreds of athletes and one will hit it just right and that’s all you care about when all that matters is the medal. But it doesn’t work well with small groups because there is no guarantee that someone will hit it right.
My point is simply this, remember the era (in terms of sports performance and competition standards) and the sociopolitical climate that Russian training methodology developed during and under. That as much as anything explains it’s structure and, as I’ll come back to later in this series, it doesn’t necessarily work outside of that structure.
Regardless of the above, the simple fact is this: once selected for a given sport, Russian athletes were trained mercilessly. The 80’s where when training volumes just went through the roof and most of this was being driven by Russian methodology (it’s since come down a bit).
Coaches were highly trained, a tremendous amount of ‘research’ was done (I’ve read some of the translated stuff, by Western standards it’s crap). And note that Soviet scientists were under huge pressure to tell their superiors what they wanted to hear. There are also rumors of deliberately false information being disseminated by the Soviets to confuse other countries who were trying to follow them.
As well, going to the support, rest and recovery issue, not only were the athletes full-time and not required to work, the Soviets did a lot of the early work on various recovery and regeneration methods. The athletes trained, rested, ate, recovered, slept and did it all again. For years and years and years. Top level athletes have their own entourage of support; their personal coach, massage and restoration experts, timers, and anything else they would need. All they have to do is train, rest, dope, compete and win. Everything else was completely taken care of.
Their job was to be an athlete and the countries skirted the silly-ass amateur rules (a leftover from when sports were played by rich white guys who didn’t need to make money from sport; they already had money) by giving them ‘jobs’ or ‘putting them in the mlitary’ to give their athletes the best opportunity to win. Rules that kept American athletes perpetually hamstrung because US federations were still enforcing the old amateur rules.
Basically, the Russian sports machine, on top of whatever else it did right or wrong really worked through nothing more than an immense grinder system. And I’m not saying that’s good or bad, just making the point. Athletes were tested and told what sport to pursue and then put into what is arguably one of the largest grinder systems ever to have existed or deliberately created (China is arguably bigger in modern times).
The training was systematic, intense, and voluminous, the athletes fully supported to do nothing but train. And with the knowledge that there are 10 or 100 or 1000 other athletes working just as hard to be the top guy. It’s not unlike the intensely Darwinistic system that developed organically in Kenya, everybody is competing with everyone else and it pushes everyone to either success or destruction.
The Soviets were happy to destroy 99% of their athletes so long as they got a gold medal; throwaway athletes were used for ‘research’. There is a famous study where the Russians tested depth jumps off a 3m box, that’s 9.9 feet, just to see what would happen (I bet what happened was not good); you can bet that their top potentials weren’t the ones recruited.
And while many have tried to downplay the doping issue (it’s not as if US athletes haven’t or weren’t doping), the Soviets, as the East Germans would do later, took a fairly systematized approach to it. The 70’s and 80’s were when doping really started to come on the scene of international sport in a big way (they weren’t even banned until the 80’s) and the Soviets doped the hell out of their athletes.
It’s been suggested that some of the Soviet periodization ideas were actually set up to correspond with drug cycles; more training when they were on, less when they weren’t. This is one of those contentious points that everyone argues about and nobody knows for sure. There are rumors that Soviets believed that female athletes got a boost from the hormones that are released during pregnancy and that female athletes were told to get pregnant (by a boyfriend or their coach if they didn’t have a boyfriend) and then abort to get it. The Soviets were willing to do anything to win.
But that Soviet athletes were using heavily is not up to debate. They doped, figured out clearance times and made sure that their athletes could pass the tests when it was time. There is actually a famous story about the Soviets setting up a floating lab at one of the big competitions. Athletes had their blood tested there and if they couldn’t pass the test, they were pulled out of the competition.
With the depth that the Soviets had in most sports, it didn’t matter. Like I said in the training section, when all you care about is producing a single gold medal, you only need one athlete to survive the training, hit their peak just right and be able to pass the drug test. That requires a lot of athletes because some things are not controllable. But when you have dozens at the top level (who survived out of the thousands or hundreds of thousands you ground into paste), at least one will hit it right. Which brings us to.
Incentives and Motivation
In Kenya, runners train to create a better life, to follow the tradition of their heroes, but they ultimately do it voluntarily. The same is true of cyclists in the UK; they choose to follow the sport. In a communist country like Russia, this was not the case. As I mentioned above, the overall country motivation to pursue sport was primarily a political one, to ‘Demonstrate the superiority of Russian ideology against the western pinko burgeoise blah blah blah’.
On an individual level, it’s a touch different. First and foremost, in a communist or socialist country, Folks are raised to believe that the country is more important than the individual. I don’t know if it’s so much national pride (especially given how many defect to get the hell out of those countries) so much as having been raised to do what you’re told and do whatever is necessary for your country.
As well, despite it’s massive resources, the realities of Communism and the rest meant that most people didn’t have a very easy life. Make no mistake, the folks in power always had it better than those not in power (anyone who thinks that Russia was a ‘true’ communist country with all shared by all is naive) but the majority were simply trying to survive. Being given food, housing, the chance for a better life to pursue sport in the Soviet grinder was as much of a motivator as anything else. I’d make a joke here about Siberia but it might be inappropriate.
I don’t get the feeling that most Soviets grew up wanting to emulate heroes or the sports tradition or that that is the primary motivation. Most were put into sport whether they liked it or not, told what to pursue but offered enough reasons to suffer (money, food, a better life, helping provide Communist superiority) to put up with it.
I could very well be wrong about this. But it ultimately doesn’t matter. Since sport wasn’t voluntary, you don’t need people choosing to pursue sport to follow their heroes. As the old joke goes “In Russia, anything not forbidden is compulsory.” Sports was compulsory; you do them or get sent to the salt mines (in Siberia?). Sorry, couldn’t resist.
So again we see a similar story to the ones I’ve told already even if the system was set up a bit differently than the others: thousands of potential athletes, channeled into sport (though in this case without much say in the matter), given full time support, coaching, drugs, and intense motivation to reach their potential.
It was similar to the UK approach to track cycling in that it was put in place and set up deliberately but different in that the overall culture and motivation came more out of Communist political ideology than anything else. And the sheer numbers available, along with the realities of weather and location (and the focus on Olympics and World Championships) had as much to do with the training methods And during the heyday of the Soviet machine, the results spoke for themselves.
As I was starting this series, I had contacted Glenn Pendlay to ask for input on some of the individual parts and he was nice enough to provide it. Having been taught the Olympic lifts by Coach Medvedev himself and having spent a good deal of time in Russia, Glenn is one of a few in the unique position of having first hand knowledge of what went on in the Soviet Sports Machine.
And in reading today’s piece he said that while he felt I captured the overall tone of the former Soviet Union and how their system worked, he did take issue with description of it as a pure grinder system with the only goal being success at all costs no matter how many athletes it destroyed. And while I thought about trying to include what my conversation with him entailed in the above, it would have required a near complete rewrite. This is easier.
In any case, he told me of many things. First and foremost, sport was culturally a huge part of Soviet thought, this goes to my comment about training and fitness being part of their goal of developing well-rounded Communists. As well, coaches in the Soviet Union are highly trained, highly educated and highly regarded (compare that to the US where a typical high-school coach is usually thought of as ‘just another dumb jock’).
He also told me that, culturally speaking, the Russians are very protective of their children and that junior and developing athletes are often not pushed as hard as I might have implied (or thought initially). Certainly Russia did have somewhat of a tradition of their top athletes having longer careers than many (cf. the Bulgarians who I’ll describe tomorrow).
When I mentioned where some of my ideas/attitudes about what compromised Soviet training methodology came from (the handful of major authors that have been translated into English such as Verkoshanky, Issurin and Bondarchuk), he pointed out that, just as in the US, a number of coaches that we know about here not only weren’t quite as big in the Soviet Union, they were far from the only coaches around or producing results. Many of my ideas about ‘beating on athletes for months and hoping someone peaks’ come out of Supertraining and Special Strength Training; both representing primarily the work of Verkoshansky.
Basically, we hear about a handful of coaches and methodologies, as I mentioned training methodology was spread among thousands of trained coaches and there was no single system or approach being used. In contrast to most of what I had seen, Glenn described a system of training focused on gradual long-term development (what the Soviets called the Process of Attaining Sports Mastery or PASM) moreso than a brutal Darwinistic type of system that I implied above.
Some of this may also be a difference between what was done with junior/developing vs. elite athletes (i.e. at the top levels guys got pushed harder as you would expect them to); at the very least it probably reflected differences between what Soviet politicians wanted in a global sense (sports success at the World level for sociopolitical reasons) and what was going on locally.
This goes to the fact that the Soviet Union comprised a ton of smaller countries, many of which had great rivalries with each other. This is not unlike the situation in the US where states or geographic locales (North vs. South, East vs. West) are highly competitive with one another even if they all fly under the US flag when the time comes to do so. Collegiate swimming programs are cut-hroat as hell with one another in local competition, but everybody puts it aside when the US Flag goes on the cap.
Glenn said that at least some of the motivation for Soviet athletes came out of this rivalry. With so many athletes at the highest levels and the fact that there could be only one Gold medal winner, many were competing for individual country-wide pride or points (the Soviets put on a number of internal competitions) or to prove their local superiority as much as anything else. Of course this still has the end result of driving athletes to attempt to achieve the highest levels, bringing the cream to the top. The end result was still somewhat the same, the reason for it was subtly different.
In any event, I want to thank Glenn for taking the time to not only read my rambling but share the above with me; that’s why I’m taking the time to express his thoughts. I specifically asked for his input so I wouldn’t get anything glaringly wrong (except basic geography) and hopefully the above sheds some light on what went on.
The Weightlifting Encyclopedia: A Guide to World Class Performance by Arthur Dreschler. This has a discussion of the variety issue inherent to Russian sports due to the huge geographic area that was encompassed.
Supertraining, 7th Edition by Dr. Yuri Verkoshanksy. If anybody reading my site hasn’t heard of this book I’d be shocked. If you want a broad overview of Soviet training methods, read it. Expect to get a headache from all of the differential equations. There are a bunch of other books related to this training methodology (I highly recommend both of Issurin’s books and Bondarchuk’s SECOND book) on Ultimate Athlete Concepts.
Special Strength Training: A Practical Manual for Coaches by Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky. Perhaps one of the most coherent explanations of the Soviet’s ideas of special strength training and Verkoshanksy’s block training. I’m mainly sourcing it for the explanation of the history of how it all developed (out of a lack of facilities and poor winter weather).
See, I told you I could get through an entire system in just one day. Tomorrow I’ll continue chronologically by looking at the East German sports machine and Bulgarian Olympic Lifting with a very brief stopover in Australia.
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 8
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 7
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 14
- Fat Loss for Athletes: Part 1
- Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: OL’ing Part 5