Aletho News


Why sports is politics by other means in US-Russia ties

By M K Bhadrakumar | Indian Punchline | February 26, 2018

One of the enduring legacies of my two diplomatic assignments in Moscow in the seventies and eighties has been my passion for ice hockey. Of course, ice hockey is not played in India and it was the thought of experiencing something startlingly new that one evening took me to the famous Dynamo Stadium in Moscow with some course mates in the Moscow University, friends who lured me with the promise of a spectacle unlike anything I’d have known before. Actually, I didn’t need to be encouraged, having watched on television that epic “3-3 game” on New Year’s Eve in 1975, which became the stuff of legends in the world of ice hockey, when the Montreal Canadians played CSKA Moscow (Soviet Red Army team).

The North Americans and the Russians played radically different systems of play. The Canadian (and the American) style was marked by ‘individualism’ even as the players aggressively moved the puck to the goal and fired it on net the moment they got a chance. Whereas, the Soviets weren’t so cavalier or aggressive – they circled like eagles and would keep passing the puck to one another to incessantly disorient the enemy while tightening the noose around him – and then in a sudden swoop would close in on the net like a tornado, but even then, only when he was confident of a reasonable scoring chance would the player take the shot lest his team lost possession of the puck wastefully.

Arguably, it was a metaphor for the Soviet DNA – be it in politics or in sports. No adventurism, no swagger or boastfulness — for god’s sake. Yet, by the way, the Soviet Red Army team was a top dog in world ice hockey. It was the European Champion not less than 20 times. Some of the CSKA players became iconic figures – Vladislav Tretiak as the unbeatable goalkeeper, peerless in ice hockey. Up front, my own favorites were Valerie Vasiliev and Alexander Maltsev (who previously played for Dynamo Moscow club before joining CSKA.)

The CSKA would be in full war cry when it played an NHL team (from Canada or the United States) – something like an Indian cricket team encountering its Pakistani adversary. More than four decades later, ice hockey in Russia still remains the ultimate national sport. Cold War has ended, but an ice hockey match between Russia and the West is still invested with the halo of an inchoate power struggle, unspoken but deeply felt. National prestige comes into play.

So, when Russia won the men’s ice hockey title yesterday at the PyeongChang Winter Olympics, it became for the victorious players a moment dripping with patriotism and national honor. They were forced to play under the rubric Olympic Athlete from Russia (OAR) – thanks to shenanigans of the US from behind the scenes to humiliate Russia. As per the agreed formula, Russian national anthem wouldn’t be allowed during the ceremonies and the victorious OAR athletes had to accept their medal with the Olympic song being played in the background.

However, when the actual moment came yesterday, the victorious Russian ice hockey team disregarded the understanding and sang their national anthem. A Russian player was quoted as saying, “We’re prohibited from having the flag so we had to do something at least. We sang because we’re Russian people and when you win, the anthem is played. It was in our souls and heart.”

Back home, the event had huge resonance. While reading President Vladimir Putin’s message congratulating the Russian ice hockey team, one could sense that he probably had a lump in the throat as he wrote it. The Russian people’s love for sports (or reading books or going to the theatre) can be seen as a legacy of Soviet culture. With the great social mobility that the October Revolution opened up, culture ceased to be the prerogative of the nobility or the leisurely class. Indeed, culture became ‘accessible’ to the ‘proletariat’ and the Soviet state encouraged the citizen to enrich himself from childhood. Seamless opportunities were provided to imbibe culture. It explains the staggering heights unparalleled in human history that the social formation scaled in the Soviet era.

Politics, inevitably, crept in. The Russian’s excellence in sports became an eyesore for the Americans who somehow took it as a slur on the capitalist world. The triumphalism in humiliating Russia is obvious even today in the western media reports when its athletes must perform under the Olympic flag and Russian national anthem will not be played even when they won medals.

February 26, 2018 - Posted by | Timeless or most popular | ,

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