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The Global History of Sport in the Cold War

September 23, 2014

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The Global History of Sport in the Cold War

In association with the Cold War International History Project and supported by funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities, a new collaborative project has been launched on the cultural, social and political significance of sport in the Cold War.

Sport has long been linked with politics, but never more so than during the Cold War. In this highly precarious time, nations and peoples around the world used sport to promote their political, social, and economic development. The media promoted mega-events between capitalist and Communist athletes as surrogates for diplomatic and military tension. Yet, for all its obvious ideological freighting, sport in this period reflected a complex integration of commerce, celebrity, trans-regional and trans-national fan loyalties. It revealed different and shifting notions of race, class and gender (often within a single nation), and the uneasy mapping of sports and geopolitical allegiances could even make bitter rivals of strategic partners

Despite its unrivalled visibility, sport has been only minimally examined by scholars of the Cold War, whether they study international political systems or elite and popular culture. As the hardest form of soft power and the softest form of hard power, sport crosses the divide between these two main objects of study. Meriting the same rigorous examination already given to subjects from diplomatic relations and military engagement on the one hand to ballet, theater, art and design on the other, sport has the potential to bring both strands of scholarship together in mutually enriching ways. This collaborative and comparative project seeks for the first time to understand Cold War sport in its fullest social, political, cultural and global dimensions. It will not only deliver new knowledge about significant events and processes, but also introduce innovation to the historiography of the period.

To this end, the project has assembled a group of seventy-seven presenters and discussants from many nations and humanistic disciplines to break down and scrutinize the common master narrative of East-West sporting tensions. The presenters are all currently engaged in novel and intensive research using primary sources from an extensive range of archives and other repositories. Roughly half are young scholars with emerging work of considerable significance to whom the project will give the opportunity to interact with established colleagues. Over the course of three workshops, they will seek to: (a) move beyond the role of the state to interrogate the differences and commonalities between the systems brought about by gender, the body, commerce and celebrity; (b) transcend the hitherto dominant focus on the USA and USSR by examining other key nations as well as sports outside the Olympic arena that opened up different nodes of confrontation and rivalry; (c) provide the first, comparative and archive-based examination of the much cited but little understood Boycott Olympics of Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984. In contrast to the small body of previous scholarship on the topic, presentations will cover all five continents and a plenitude of sports.

The project is led by three directors: Professor Robert Edelman (UC San Diego), Professor Christopher Young (University of Cambridge), both of whom have considerable experience in the field of sports history, and Dr Christian Ostermann, Director of the Woodrow Wilson Center’s highly respected Cold War International History Project. They are supported by a steering committee of nine scholars from the US, the UK, Germany and Russia. Workshops will be hosted over a three-year period at, and with the generous financial and institutional support of, the Jordan Center for Advanced Russian Studies at New York University (2015), the German Historical Institute in Moscow (2015), and Pembroke College, University of Cambridge (2016). There will be two forms of output. Papers will be reworked and assembled into two volumes, to be published (pending peer review) by the University of California Press and Stanford University Press. In addition, an open access internet portal on the award-winning Digital Archive of the Cold War International History Project will include detailed paper summaries, interviews with presenters, translated documents, and a timeline of Cold War sports events. Both products guarantee broad academic and public dissemination for the largest collaborative venture in sports history scholarship to date.



Robert Edelman is Professor of Russian History and the History of Sport at the University of California, San Diego. He has written four books including Serious Fun: a History of Spectator Sports in the USSR and Spartak Moscow: a History of the People’s Team, both of which won the annual book prize of the North American Society of Sports Historians. Spartak additionally was awarded the Zelnik Prize of the Slavic Association for the best work of history on Slavic, East European and Eurasian history. He has received Guggenheim, Fullbright, Woodrow Wilson and NEH fellowships and consulted on documentaries for HBO, PBS, ESPN and CBS. Together with Young, he is co-editor of the University of California Press’s new series Sport in World History, and is co-editor of the Oxford Handbook of Sports History (OUP, forthcoming).

Christian Ostermann is Director of the History and Public Policy Program (HAPP) and European Studies (ES) at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. He oversees the Cold War International History Program, the European Energy Security Initiative (EESI), the North Korea International Documentation Project (NKIDP) and the Nuclear Proliferation International History Project (NPIHP). He is a Senior Research Fellow at the National Security Archive at George Washington University. Ostermann currently serves as a co-editor of Cold War History, is an editor of the CWIHP Bulletin and is the author and editor of numerous publications on China, Korea and the GDR.

Christopher Young is Professor of Modern and Medieval German Studies at the University of Cambridge where he served as Chair of the Department of German and Dutch from 2006 to 2010. He works on medieval German language and linguistics and the history of sport in modern Europe and is the author of four books and (co-)editor of over a dozen volumes and journal special issues. Most recently, his The 1972 Munich Olympics and the Making of Modern Germany was awarded the book prizes of the North American Society of Sports Historians and the British Society of Sports History. A former Alexander von Humboldt Fellow (Germany), he currently holds a Leverhulme Trust Major Research Fellowship and is Principal Investigator on a million-pound AHRC collaborative project. He edits two book series (one in Germany, the other in the US) and has organized over 20 conferences and events in a variety of disciplines.


Steering Committee

Jutta Braun is President and co-founder of the Center for German Sports History, Berlin, and Associate Scholar at the Center for Contemporary Historical Research, Potsdam. Over the last decade, the former group has won wide acclaim for the originality and impact of its research with political institutions, the media, schools, and the broader public. Braun is recognized as one of Germany’s foremost experts on the history of GDR sport.

Jane Brown Grimes has been involved with the sport of tennis for over 30 years. She opened the New York office of the International Tennis Hall of Fame in 1977 and became the Hall of Fame's Executive Director in 1981, serving as the Tournament Director for both ATP and WTA Tour events during that time. From 2007-2009, she was Chairman of the Board and President of the United States Tennis Association. The WTA Tour presented Brown Grimes with the David Gray Special Service Award in 1991 for outstanding contributions to the Tour.

James G. Hershberg is Professor of History and International Affairs at George Washington University. As the founding director of the CWIHP and editor of its Bulletin and book series. He has been a leading figure in the effort to “internationalize” the history of the Cold War. Hershberg has worked in archives in virtually every country of the former Communist world and has played a key role in conceiving and organizing conferences to present and assess new evidence. His major publications include James B. Conant: Harvard to Hiroshima and the Making of the Nuclear Age and Marigold: The Lost Chance for Peace in Vietnam (Stanford University Press, 1995 and 2012).

Anke Hilbrenner is lecturer at the University of Bonn. She completed her PhD in East European History in 2003 and specializes in Jewish culture, political violence and sport in the region. She has led an international network sponsored by the German Research Foundation on the latter topic since 2009 and is editor of its digital handbook. She has also co-edited three seminal volumes on the history of football in Eastern Europe (Überall ist der Ball rund – Zur Geschichte und Gegenwart des Fußballs in Ost- und Südosteuropa, Essen 2006-2011).

Vince Hunt (project media consultant) is an award-winning broadcast journalist and producer with substantial news experience at the UK’s leading stations, including BBC’s Radio 4, 5-Live (sports channel), and the World Service radio and television. He produces live celebrity music shows (including the annual Folk Awards) and makes documentaries for BBC Radio 2, the most listened to station in the UK. He was lead reporter on the six-part Olympic history series of the acclaimed Historical Ballads concept, which was broadcast as the channel’s main feature in the run-up to 2012 Olympics.

Nikolaus Katzer (local host, Moscow) is Director of the German Historical Institute in Moscow, professor of Russian and East European History at Helmut Schmidt University in Hamburg, and a member of the German-Russian Commission for the Study of New History. His major book publications treat the politics of the Whites in the Russian Civil War (1999), Cold War diplomacy after the death of Stalin (1994), and the political biography of a controversial Soviet author (1990). His edited volume Euphoria and Exhaustion (2010) explores the history of modern sport in Soviet Russia.

Yanni Kotsonis (local host, New York) is the Director of the Jordan Center and Associate Professor of History and Russian Studies at New York University. Educated in Athens, Montreal, Copenhagen, London, Moscow, and New York, he is an expert on Russian economic history and political economy. Kotsonis is completing a book on the history of tax reform in Russia and the USSR and is the author of Making Peasants Backward: Agricultural Cooperatives and the Agrarian Question in Russia, 1861-1914 (MacMillan, 1999)

James F. Person earned his PhD in History at George Washington University and is the Senior Program Associate for the History and Public Policy Program and coordinator of the North Korea International Documentation Project at the Woodrow Wilson Center. He is editor of the latter’s Working Paper Series, co-editor of the CWIHP Bulletin and their Critical Oral History Conference Series. He regularly organizes international conferences and has worked as a consultant on historical documentaries.

Mikhail Prozumenshikov is Deputy Director of the Russian State Archive of Contemporary History (RGANI), Moscow, where he has edited countless document collections and organized exhibitions on topics as diverse as the history of development of the virgin lands in the USSR, the 20th Congress of the CPSU, the Chernobyl nuclear disaster and the 1980 Summer Olympics. He has published over 150 articles on the history of international relations during the second half of the 20th century and the history of sport (most notably Big Sport and Big Policy, Moscow, ROSSPEN, 2004).

Sergey Radchenko is Reader in International Politics at the University of Aberystwyth, UK. Previously he worked as Director of the Institute of Asia Pacific Studies at the University of Nottingham’s Ningbo Campus, China, and Fellow at the London School of Economics. His research focuses on the international history of the Cold War. He is the author of Two Suns in the Heavens: the Sino-Soviet Struggle for Supremacy, 1962-67 (Stanford UP, 2009), Unwanted Visionaries: the Soviet Failure in Asia at the End of the Cold War (Oxford UP, 2013) and co-author of The Atomic Bomb and the Origins of the Cold War (Yale UP, 2008). In his recent work he has explored the interplay between sports and politics in Soviet foreign policy in the 1980s.

Related Program

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more