War of five rings

MOSCOW. (RIA Novosti military commentator Ilya Kramnik) - Sports might not seem a befitting subject for a military commentator, but only at first sight.

In ancient times, sports originated as competitions between warriors. Running, boxing, wrestling, discus and javelin throwing, and chariots racing were all elements of their training, and the best of them demonstrated their skills once every four years during the Olympic Games. A truce was announced for the duration of the games, though it was violated on more than one occasion.

The Ancient Olympics were held for more than 1,200 years. The first confirmed antique Games took place in 776 B.C., while the last were held in 394 AD, after which they were banned by the Roman Emperor Theodosius. He forbade any pagan festivals, which included the Olympic Games.

For a millennium and a half, mankind forgot about sports. Different contests continued to be held, and the middle ages saw impressive tournaments between knights, but they could hardly be qualified as sporting competitions.

During this period, people had no time for sports. The disappearance of a common centre of civilization, a role which Greece and later Rome played for more than a thousand years, and the empire's subsequent barbarization and permanent wars, were incompatible with the Olympics Games.

The ancient tradition was revived only in the late 19th century, when Europe once again came to perceive itself as a common civilization. A French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin, was the author of the idea. He pursued two goals - to make sports more popular at home (he believed that the poor physical shape of French soldiers was one of the reasons for the defeat in the 1870-71 war with Prussia), and to unite different countries through peaceful competitions, which he considered the best way of avoiding wars.

The first modern Olympic Games were held in Athens in 1896. In the subsequent decade the Olympic movement had to fight for survival, because none of the major powers were particularly interested in Coubertin's ideas. The Games in 1900 and 1904, combined with world exhibitions in Paris and Saint Louis, were not very popular because they were too long and lacked spectacular events.

The Olympic movement grew stronger by the fourth Games in London, which attracted some 2,000 athletes, more than all the previous Games put together. The fifth Games in Stockholm in 1912 confirmed the trend - 2,407 sportsmen, including 178 from Russia, took part. But there was still a long way to go before they became a key element of the global confrontation between the great powers. Big-time sports had to be born first.

As a complicated social and political phenomenon, big-time sports emerged in the 1930s when the Third Reich tried to use the Berlin Games to prove the "Aryan race's supremacy" to the whole world. This phenomenon became fully established in the 1950s, when Soviet-U.S. competition was transferred to the sports ground. From then on, the idea of sports independent of politics ceased to exist.

Sports were not only subject to politics, but became a major part of it. The two superpowers could not afford an open armed clash, and Olympic and other international arenas became the only places where the confrontation between the Soviet Union and the United States, and, on a broader plane, between the East and the West, could be fought in real time, without any obliquity, and before the eyes of hundreds of millions of people.

John F. Kennedy said that a nation's prestige was determined by two things - space flights and Olympic gold medals, and this was probably the most honest motto of the Cold War. Big-time sports became part of this war, with teams turned into military units, and sports grounds into battlefields.

There were some breathtaking moments during this great confrontation at the Olympic Games, world cups and championships, and other competitions, but for lack of space I would like to quote only one.

For the Soviet team, the 1972 Munich Games were a very convincing revenge for the defeat by the Americans in the non-official point-count in Mexico four years before. The Soviets simply could not afford to lose in the year of the Soviet Union's 50th anniversary. Soviet athletes won 99 medals, including 50 gold, one third more than the Americans.

The crowning glory came in the Basketballhalle, where the Soviet team was competing in the finals against the Americans, the absolute favorite which had not lost a single Olympic game in several decades running.

The last three seconds allowed Alexander Belov to score the victory in this incredible game.

It would be no exaggeration to say that even today those three seconds in Munich remain the unprecedented concentration of content in the unit of form.

Regrettably for all sports lovers, this long-standing confrontation was marred by two boycotts. The United States and many other Western countries refused to attend the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviet Union reciprocated by boycotting the 1984 Games in Los Angeles.

The Soviet Union proved its worth in Seoul in 1988. It received 132 medals, including 55 gold, which compared to 94 and 36 American medals, respectively. The United States came third after East Germany.

The last Soviet triumph took place in Barcelona in 1992. The Soviet Union had already collapsed by that time, and a "combined team" played under the Olympic, rather than Soviet flag. It won 112 medals, including 45 gold, against the United States' 108 and 37.

In the Atlanta and Sydney Games in 1996 and 2000, the Russian team ranked second in the non-official point-count, and was third in Athens in 2004.

Very soon, the world's athletes will compete in Beijing. China's economic and political might has been steadily growing in the last few years, and Beijing hopes to win the Games in the non-official point-count. The United States wants to preserve its global lead, while Russia will have to fight hard to regain its lost positions.

The opinions expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.

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