Seminal work on the role and function of sport during the Cold War era


Kristian Gerner
Department of History, Lund University

Robert Edelman & Christopher Young (eds.)
The Whole World was Watching: Sport in the Cold War
334 pages, hardcover
Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press 2020 (Cold War International History Project)
ISBN 978-1-5036-1018-7

The Cold War is an epoch in history. It was more than just a confrontation and competition between two adversaries, the USA and its allies vis-à-vis the Soviet Union and its allies. Every state in the world was affected by the military, ideological, political and economic dimensions of the Cold War between the two superpowers.

The concept the ‘Cold War’ denoted enmity short of actual real war between the two main adversaries the USA and the USSR. The Cold War did not rule out war between allies of the two. The Vietnam war and the June war in 1967 between Israel and Egypt are examples.

In the 20th century, sport became a global affair. It was conceptualized in terms of fight and competition. It was nationalized in the sense that sportswomen and sportsmen competed in their capacity as citizens of states. Whereas the Olympic Games nominally was not a competition between states, World and Continent Championships in different sports were. International sport is conceptualized as competition between states. Clubs are perceived in terms of nations – not necessarily states – even if the competition is not between states, for example in the European Champions League in football. FC Barcelona is recognized as a Catalonian and Celtic FC as an Irish club, albeit in Scotland. In individual sports such as track and field the citizenship of athletes is recognized, even if some individuals may refute to be categorized in this manner.

Cold War was war by other means. It was waged in diplomacy, in economy and in culture: the arts and sport. These were instruments of the exertion of soft power. This concept denotes a state’s capacity to exert influence over other states by purportedly projecting a positive image of itself, or without conscious agency become perceived in a positive light. Soft power made the United States the global cultural hegemon after World War II.

The Whole World Was Watching is a multifaceted analysis of sport as an instrument of soft power. It is not only about the impact states make in international contests. It is also about how actions of sportswomen and sportsmen made sense in the ideological dimension of the Cold War. Contributors to the volume analyze the role both of race and of gender as aspects of soft power in sports.1

Gorn acknowledges that at the time he liked Ali the champ but disagreed with his political posture. However, the events in the fateful year 1968 meant a wake-up for Gorn. He realized that “Ali had been right all along”.

The Cold War encompassed everything. In the Cold War epoch soft power thus could be negated in the sense that a state emerged in a non-flattering light because of events related to competitions or through actions by sports people.

After a substantial introduction by the editors – it is a summary of the book – there are fifteen special studies. There are six chapters on the two main protagonists in the Cold War: two on the United States (part I) and four on the Soviet Union (part II). They are followed by three chapters on the epicenter of the Cold War conflict, the German Democratic Republic (part 3). Part 4, on Asia, has one chapter on the Peoples Republic of China, one on Taiwan and one on the South East Asia Peninsular games. The concluding part V is labelled “The Postcolonial”. It has chapters on Portugal and footballers from its colonies, on the Caribbean, and on the Pan American Games.

There is an additional chapter, i.e., “Notes”. It is sixty pages long and amounts to an exhaustive bibliography. The index is also exhaustive. The Whole World Was Watching is a solid reference work on Cold War historiography in general. The volume is actually part of the Cold War International History Project. The project’s editor James F. Hershberg’s contribution in the book gives an eloquent example of how diplomatic use of a sport event had beneficial consequences, in this case as a promotion of a détente in the Cold War: “Breaking the Ice: Alexei Kosygin and the Secret Background of the 1972 Hockey Summit Series”. The event was a match between the Vancouver Canucks and the Montreal Canadiens. (Kosygin was the Soviet Premier at the time).

Fourteen of the contributors are affiliated with English language universities in respectively Canada, the UK, the United States and Singapore. Of the remaining, two are affiliated with German universities and one with the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History, Moscow. However, this does not mean that there is any Anglo-Saxon ideological or political bias, far from it. It does mean, however, that the objects of research to a certain respect are “the other”, i.e., nations that the presumed majority of the readers of this book know less about than they know about the West.

Elliott J. Gorn’s chapter on Muhammad Ali’s Cold War, Rob Rucks on Cold War Baseball in the Caribbean and Brenda Elsey’s on The Pan-American Games give the reader insight into the pervasive impact of US ‘racism’ in sport not only in the United States but also in the Caribbean and in the Pan-American Games. Here non-American readers meet an exotic other…

The full title of Gorn’s contribution reads “‘No Quarrel with Them Vietcong’: Muhammad Ali’s Cold War”. As is known, the African American boxer Cassius Clay changed his name into Muhammad Ali. This mirrored the man’s role in the civil rights struggle in the United States. Gorn shows that the fight against segregation and subjugation of the African Americans in the United States was an integrated part of the Cold War, of the ideological climate in the epoch. Racist politicians and journalists portrayed civil rights activists as Communists and agents of the Soviet Union. This was the context of the case against Mohammad Ali when he refused to obey his conscription into the US army.

Sport made Muhammad Ali well known in the whole world. The Cold War made him an ideological actor of consequence. As an African American he would not go into military battle against an Asian people on behalf of whites. Ali noted that “the real enemy” was at home. Elliott Gorn concludes: “Communism, the Cold War, the Soviet threat, the Vietcong were all distractions from the main issue or, maybe more precisely, masks that once ripped away, revealed the real enemy”. Gorn acknowledges that at the time he liked Ali the champ but disagreed with his political posture. However, the events in the fateful year 1968 meant a wake-up for Gorn. He realized that “Ali had been right all along”.

Elliott Gorn notes that Ali denounced ‘intermarriage’ and integration. The champ had been socialized in a ‘racist’ society. Gorn does not censor his protagonist. He presents him in his own right. Anette F. Timm is equally fair towards the protagonist in her chapter “‘The Most Beautiful Face of Socialism’: Katarina Witt and the Sexual Politics of Sport in the Cold War”. Timm places Witt’s career and her public image both into the wider context of the GDR’s attempt to be regarded as a legitimate state and into the context of another major arena in the Cold War – popular movies, in this case the portrayal of sexy Russian women in James Bond films.

The erudite Anette Timm’s brilliant essay ends with words that demonstrate how and why The Whole World Was Watching. Sport in the Cold War is a seminal work on Cold War history:

The phrase “the most beautiful face of Socialism” must be understood as a shorthand for how sex, sports, and politics had collided in particularly powerful ways during the Cold War. Even while likely being unaware of some of the mechanisms of this collision, Witt masterfully capitalized on these tensions, demonstrating in the process that sex sells rather differently in each historical context (p. 160).

Copyright © Kristian Gerner 2022


[1] It must be observed that the concept ‘race’ is American. The context is the history of slavery, the defeat of the Confederation in the American Civil War, and the introduction of Jim Crow laws in the southern states. After the demise of Nazi Germany, ‘race’ is not a politically valid concept in Europe. In European languages there is not any ‘Caucasian’ ‘race’. ‘Race’ belongs in colloquial language only and there certainly are many “racists” in Europe. Because of the fact that the United States is the hegemon, the American usage of the concept has recently entered political and ideological discourse in West Europe.


Table of Content

Introduction: Explaining Cold War Sport
Robert Edelman and Christopher Young

      1. The State-Private Network: Overt and Covert US Intervention in Early Cold War Sport
        Toby C. Rider
      2. “No Quarrel with Them Vietcong”: Muhammad Ali’s Cold War
        Elliott J. Gorn
      3. Breaking the Ice: Alexei Kosygin and the Secret Background of the 1972 Hockey Summit Series
        James Hershberg
      4. Action in the Era of Stagnation: Leonid Brezhnev and the Soviet Olympic Dream
        Mikhail Prozumenshikov
      5. Soccer Artistry and the Secret Police: Georgian Football in the Multiethnic Soviet Empire
        Erik R. Scott
      6. Russian Fever Pitch: Global Fandom, Youth Culture, and the Public Sphere in the Late Soviet Union
        Manfred Zeller
      7. Eulogy to Theft: Berliner FC Dynamo, East German Football, and the End of Communism
        Alan McDougall
      8. Sports, Politics, and “Wild Doping” in the East German Sporting “Miracle”
        Mike Dennis
      9. “The Most Beautiful Face of Socialism”: Katarina Witt and the Sexual Politics of Sport in the Cold War
        Annette F. Timm
      10. Learning from the Soviet Big Brother: The Early Years of Sport in the People’s Republic of China
        Amanda Shuman
      11. “The Communist Bandits Have Been Repudiated”: Cold War–Era Sport in Taiwan
        Andrew D. Morris
      12. New Regional Order: Sport, Cold War Culture, and the Making of Southeast Asia
        Simon Creak
      13. Negotiating Colonial Repression: African Footballers in Salazar’s Portugal
        Todd Cleveland
      14. Deflected Confrontations: Cold War Baseball in the Caribbean
        Rob Ruck
      15. Ambivalent Solidarities: Cultural Diplomacy, Women, and South-South Cooperation at the 1950s Pan American Games
        Brenda Elsey
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