The perfect paradox: Political ideology and sports

Nick Paumgarten has a terrific post at The New Yorker about the stylishness of golden age Soviet hockey in spite of the rigid Communist political system that spawned it. Anatoli Tarasov was appointed by Stalin after World War II to develop a powerhouse national program from scratch, and he tapped into some of the best features of Russian culture:

“He integrated elements from ballet, chess, and bandy, and put players through rigorous and unorthodox training rituals. The players lived together most of the year and played together in units of five for years on end. The result of all this, in the rink, anyway, was a free-flowing weave of improvisational keep-away, with the flamboyance, if not the laughs, of the Globetrotters on ice. Their greatest successes, and most aesthetically pleasing performances, came when they were coached by a dictatorial apparatchik and former player named Viktor Tikhonov, whom most of them came to hate. The irony was always there and is central to Polsky’s film: a rigid, oppressive system, at both national and team levels, created the freest, most expressive hockey there ever was.”

Now, Paumgarten points out, present-day Russians and other eastern Europeans in the NHL play a similar style as Swedes and North Americans, blended as they are on professional, multi-national rosters and serving up a homogenized product. The quality of play may be better here, he notes, than over there, back in mother Russia.

Paumgarten spoke to Viacheslav Fetisov, a Soviet great who fought for his right to leave and play in the NHL in the early 1980s. Appointed by Vladimir Putin to revive Russian hockey on the international scene, the Russian sports minister instead has become part of the establishment.

This is a paradox that isn’t unusual in the annals of Iron Curtain and Communist sports. In China, the training system for its once-powerful women’s national soccer program was just as spartan and demanding, but from it came the gifted forward Sun Wen. She shined at the 1999 Women’s World Cup, with a touch and comfort on the ball not uncommon in Brazil and Europe.

But overtraining in that system also led to a knee injury from which she never really recovered. A year later at the Sydney Olympics, she managed to bend in a beautiful dipping free kick for a goal against the U.S. despite being braced up heavily. When I interviewed her in 2001, as she struggled to regain fitness for the Atlanta Beat of the Women’s United Soccer Association, she had undergone surgery in Virginia, and maintained her “sunny” disposition although her career was essentially spent.

Hailing from the repressive East Germany, Katarina Witt embodied the power, grace and artfulness of her sport like no other woman.

The product of an equally repressive East German regime stylishly won Olympic gold in Sarajevo in 1984, with her dazzling, smoldering sexual prowess on display. It was hard for the media not to take notice.

But American feminist “sport media scholar” Mary Jo Kane, of the University of Minnesota, scolded the press for stating the obvious, and other Western critics trotted out the tiresome “male gaze” argument to denounce what they saw as too much frothing at the mouth of a siren athlete.

Which brings up another, truly dispiriting paradox. As I wrote in my 2012 book “Beyond Title IX:”

“I remained intrigued by the irony than an athlete from a totalitarian society regimented by the Stasi has a better grasp of the eternal allure of sex, sports and the body than a highly educated, privileged American woman like Kane. With all the freedom to think for herself, and with an intellectual base at an outstanding American university, she has chosen to let an arid feminist ideology do it for her.”

Some of the most enduring, powerful forms of art and human expression come out of the worst forms of political and cultural repression. In America, slaves and their descendants created the blues and jazz traditions that in my mind represent the essential art form of this nation, more popular today on other shores than here.

Stalin and his eastern European henchmen understood the subversive power of art well enough to suppress it through excessive means, politicizing the expression of literature, music, painting and sculpture and even dance.

Athletes were hailed as heroes and heroines for their mastery of Western rivals in competitive endeavors, and rebelled, with Fetisov as the catalyst, because of the opportunity to cash in on their talents. But perhaps the aesthetic achievements of the Red Army team and Witt also may have been rooted in part in the deeper, humanistic impulses described by Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz in “The Captive Mind,” his classic treatment of art and totalitarianism:

“The creative act is associated with a feeling of freedom that is, in its turn, born in the struggle against an apparently invincible resistance. Whoever truly creates is alone.”

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