Sport and the Russian Revolution

“People will divide into “parties” over the question of a new gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the weather and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution

At the start of the twentieth century sport had not flourished in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as Britain. The majority of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours each day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was difficult to come by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Of course people did still play, taking part in such traditional games as lapta (similar to baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A smattering of sports clubs existed in the larger cities but they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was beginning to grow in popularity, and the upper echelons of society were fond of fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment most people would never have been able to afford.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, before the dreams of the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two of the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.

As the name implies the hygienists were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits – like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a period of time the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and comrades with those who were most critical of sport during the debates on physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were close to Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for the Enlightenment, shared many views with Proletkult. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing that they “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

It is clear that that they regarded participation in the new physical culture as being highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the revolution, sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

This tension between the ideals of a future physical culture and the pressing concerns of the day were evident in a resolution passed by the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920:

“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential element in the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, aimed at creating harmoniously developed human beings, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also has direct practical aims: (1) preparing young people for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power.”

Sport would also play a role in other areas of political work. Prior to the revolution the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is to free the female body of its fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks attempted to put his ideas into practice. The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from across the globe would come together to participate in a whole range of events including processions, poetry, art and competitive sport. There was none of the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Men and women of all colours were eligible to take part irrespective of ability. The results were very much of secondary importance.

So, were the Bolsheviks anti-sport? They certainly did not seem to go as far as Proletkult’s fervent ideological opposition and, as we have seen, were prepared to utilise sport in the pursuit of wider political goals. No doubt there were many individual Bolsheviks who despised sports. Equally many will have greatly enjoyed them. Indeed, as the British secret agent Robert Bruce Lockhart observed, Lenin himself was a keen sportsman: “From boyhood he had been fond of shooting and skating. Always a great walker, he became a keen mountaineer, a lively cyclist, and an impatient fisherman.” Lunacharsky, despite his association with Proletkult, extolled the virtues of both rugby union and boxing, hardly the most benign of modern sports.

This is not to say that the party was uncritical of ‘bourgeois’ sport. It is clear that they tackled the worst excesses of sport under capitalism. The emphasis on competition was removed, contest that risked serious injury to the participants was banned, the flag-waving nationalist trappings endemic to modern sport disappeared, and the games people played were no longer treated as commodities. But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like.

The position of the Bolsheviks in those early days is perhaps best summarised by

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How to Prevent Winter Sports Injuries

Despite chilly temperatures and shorter days, winter is the favorite time of year for many sports enthusiasts. No matter how skilled at skiing, snow mobile riding, ice-skating or hiking, you may be at risk for serious injuries while performing your favorite activities. Whether you hit the slopes every weekend or spend most of the winter season curled up by a roaring fire, there are tips you can use to stay fit, healthy and free of injury when you venture outside for some winter fun.

Do You Know the Risks?

Winter is a wonderful time to participate in sports. During the colder months, many of us spend long hours indoors. We may choose to eat lunch at our desks rather than venturing out, or spend a weeknight watching TV instead of going to the gym. Taking part in outdoor physical activities, even if it is only on the weekend, is an effective means of preventing feelings of melancholy that often surface when we can’t spend a lot of time outdoors.

I encourage all of my healthy patients to participate in sports and other activities during the winter, as long as they are aware of the risks. For example, in 2007, snowboarding was the leading cause of winter sports injuries, sending over 149,000 people to emergency rooms and other treatment centers. Many veteran skiers think their sport is less dangerous than snowboarding. On the contrary, skiing was a close second to snowboarding when it came to injuries. Over 131,000 skiers sought medical care in 2007 due to mishaps on the slopes.

While awareness of these risks is crucial, you should not hesitate to take part in the winter sports you enjoy. There are a number of simple steps you can take to reduce your risk of injury and have your best winter sports season to date. Try the following tips and remember that in order to play hard, you also need to play smart.

6 Tips to Prevent Winter Sports Injuries

1) Don’t strain if you haven’t trained – If you haven’t been on skis for 8 months, don’t start taking on black diamonds right out of the gate. Your muscles are more prone to injury after a long break. Prepare for your first day of snow-shoeing or ice hockey by lifting weights and stretching your muscles during the off season. You can also stay conditioned with video games, such as those for the Nintendo Wii, which simulate various sports like snowboarding.

2) Extend your warm up – Most fitness experts recommend a five to ten minute warm up, but that may not be enough during the winter. Low temperatures mean it may take longer to ease your muscles into an activity. Double your warm up time and don’t push yourself until you feel loose and relaxed.

3) Check your gear twice – When it comes to winter sports, the right gear is more important than ever. Snowboarding without a helmet or sledding without water-resistant footwear will not only make the activity less enjoyable, but it may leave you vulnerable to injury. Make sure all equipment is in excellent working order, and don’t leave home without the proper clothing and gear you need to enjoy your day.

4) Drink up – One of the biggest winter sports mistakes is not staying adequately hydrated. No matter what your sport, you need to drink water or sports beverages every hour or so to provide enough fluids and electrolytes for your body to function. We often don’t realize we are sweating because perspiration evaporates almost instantly in the cold, dry air. Drink even if you aren’t thirsty and you will perform better and prevent muscle cramps and weakness.

5) Dress for the chill…or the sun – When you do winter activities, your body temperature undergoes extreme shifts. Wear layers of light, moisture-resistant, breathable clothing so you can adjust to any condition. For skiers and hikers in particular, sun protection is just as important as preparing for the cold. Snow reflects damaging UV rays back to your face, so wear sunscreen and sunglasses at all times.

6) Know the terrain – When hiking or snow shoeing, stay on marked trails. To prevent surprises, familiarize yourself with the terrain ahead of time and ask about any unexpected obstructions like ice or snow

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