Moscow amasses medals but sport's not for the masses
Lecturing to 1,500 people on "sport for the people" just before the Moscow Olympics, the party official flashed a slide onto a screen. "Here's a swimming pool at a block of workers' apartments," he said. "Here's a sauna. The state provides tennis courts as well."
But he was interrupted by shouts from teh floor: "Khvartit, khvartit" -- "That's enough, go on with you, what you're saying is not true. . ." Later, when it was time for questions, more criticism emerged.
A veteran of World War II stood up, medals clinking on his civilian jacket in Soviet style. "Where we live," he said, "we have been waiting for a tennis court for 10 years. That's longer than I had to wait for my car."
The party tells the Soviet people ceaselessly that no other government on earth provides so much sport for so many people. But Soviet as well as Western sources disagree.
It's true, they say, that schoolchildren have many opportunities. But the system, they insist, is primarily geared to finding and developing Olympic and international champions who can win fame for the Soviet system at home and abroad.
Moscow won an overwhelming 80 gold medals in the 1980 Olympics -- yet, compared to other countries, little is provided for the average adult. The Soviet Union remains a developing society that pours most of its national resources into its military, heavy industry, and space programs. There's not much left over for the average, non-Olympic sportsman.
Westerners who visit or live here are struck, for example, by how almost no one jogs, even in warm weather. Daily life for the ordinary worker is rigorous. In many parts of the country, winters are long. Jogging just doesn't happen.
Nor do people ride bicycles the way they do in Western Europe, although the system produces champion racing cyclists, both indoor and outdoor.
Riding horses is far from a mass-participation sport. No children apart from a handful of elite families ever get on a horse here -- yet splendidly accountered Soviet riders took equestrian gold medals in Moscow.
For years, enthusiasts tried to persuade Soviet authorities to provide facilities for karate and judo. Not until the recent realization that judo could produce Olympic medals was anything done. Even now, it's on a small scale.
The closest to mass-participation sports in the Soviet Union are cross-country skiing, ice-skating, ice hockey for youngsters on ponds and rivers as well as rinks, volleyball played at beaches and on outings, and soccer.
None of them require much expensive equipment. All are learned in schools and are continued in haphazard fashion in later life.
"Yes," says one Western sportsman familiar with Soviet conditions, "cross-country skiing is very popular. But I have not seen one trail lit at night so that people can ski into the evening hours during the long winters."
A number of large factories in Moscow and other major cities possess elaborate sports complexes, both indoor and outdoor. But both Soviet and Western sources believe such plants are the exception rather than the rule.
Compared to the West, tennis courts, swimming pools, stadiums, and rowing canals are in extremely short supply.
The Soviet population is about 264 million. But even official Soviet statistics cite only 3,282 large stadiums, 66,000 gymnasiums, 1,435 swimming pools, 19,000 shooting ranges, 100,000 football fields, and 6,600 ski centers.
"I can see more than 1,435 swimming pools from the plane flying over a single suburb of Los Angeles," comments another Western sports expert.
"I realize the Soviet Union has other priorities for its money, but it's just not true to claim that the Soviet government provides a lot of facilities for a lot of people."
Tennis is a sport only for the Moscow intellectual elite and a handful of semiprofessional players in Soviet Georgia and other warm republics. The entire country had only about 100 indoor courts in 1976, according to one Soviet official, about 2,500 outdoor courts, and 300 full-time coaches.
"But if tennis is approved as an Olympic sport in the Los Angeles games in 1984 or later," comments a Western sportsman, "just see how quickly the Soviet system will draw youngsters into the sport, to develop more champions."
Officially, Soviet publications (such as "Soviet Sport: Questions and Answers" published by the Novosti Press Agency) says 12.6 billion rubles ($19.8 billion) were allocated to "the public health and physical training program" in the country in 1978. But no figure is given for how much was devoted to sport rather than public health programs.
Soviet officials also say the country has 220,000 factory, institute, and farm sports clubs, with a membership of 55 million people. Entrance fees are about 50 cents a year. Annual dues are also 50 cents. Western experts say most of these clubs provide facilities for only a handful of sports, and that the gyms and tracks are extremely overcrowded. In general, the best athletes get the most time to play.
The state pays more attention to schoolchildren than to adults -- and particularly to physical training. Special sports schools develop champions. Each ordinary school has three periods a week of physical training, each 45 minutes long.
"These periods have often been criticized for trying to include too much and not really giving children much knowledge of any particular exercise or sport," says one Moscow mother. "In general they are good introductions to sports, though, and a child can specialize at a local sports society."
The periods include basic gymnastics, volleyball, and basketball. Very fe high schools have their own sports grounds, tennis courts, swimming pools, or other facilities considered customary in the United States and Britain.
Schoolchildren must compete in a countrywide program called "ready for labor and defense," which sets various standards for running, jumping, throwing, shooting, swimming, and cross-country skiing. Started 40 years ago, it is openly designed to improve physical fitness in the cause of national military preparedness.