Wood on Rider, 'Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy'

Toby C. Rider
Molly M. Wood

Toby C. Rider. Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy. Sport and Society Series. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2016. 288 pp. $95.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-252-04023-8; $24.95 (paper), ISBN 978-0-252-08169-9.

Reviewed by Molly M. Wood (Wittenberg University) Published on H-FedHist (December, 2017) Commissioned by Caryn E. Neumann

Printable Version: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showpdf.php?id=49274

Cold War Games, a new volume in the series Sport and Society, edited by Randy Roberts and Aram Goudsouzian, is a welcome addition to the growing scholarly literature on the history of sports and international diplomacy, and the role of propaganda in Cold War foreign relations. Toby C. Rider’s analysis covers the early Cold War efforts at psychological warfare and cultural diplomacy of Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower, focusing on the Olympic Games in 1952, 1956 and 1960. He investigates the methods by which the US government used sports, and the Olympic Games in particular, “as a propaganda platform to promote U.S. foreign policy objectives” (p. 4).  The primary apparatus for achieving this goal, he argues, was an unofficial partnership between government entities and private organizations--a network facilitated by funding primary from the Central Intelligence Agency. Rider is assistant professor of kinesiology at California State University, Fullerton. He completed a PhD in the sociocultural study of sport and exercise at the University of Western Ontario, where he studied with Olympic historian Robert K. Barnet, and he specializes in the international history of sport in the Cold War. 

Rider begins, in a chapter entitled “The Cold War, Propaganda, and the State-Private Network,” with an overview of the American propaganda and psychological warfare apparatus before World War II, and the rebuilding of that machinery during the years of the early Cold War, initiated under President Harry S. Truman and enlarged and shaped by the Eisenhower administration. He discusses the formation and use of private groups in cooperation with US government agencies such as the US Information Agency to conduct psychological warfare and shape public opinion. About the Cold War, he concludes in this opening chapter, “sports could not be insulated from this total war; the Olympics could not be excluded from such a battle” (p. 28). 

“The U.S., the Soviet Union, and the Olympic Experience” includes a brief history of the modern Olympics (from 1894 through the 1930s), with a focus on the tension between the ideal of “peaceful internationalism” and the reality of “the exaltation of national identity” (p. 32). The American Olympic experience during this period emphasized the ideal of amateurism along with the shaping of American national identity.  The nation’s athletes, in other words, served as symbols of American national prestige. In contrast, the Soviet Olympic experience in international competition before the Cold War was limited. Only in the aftermath of the world war did the Soviet government pay greater attention to sports as a propaganda tool, and announced in 1948 an intention to “spread sport to every corner of the land, to raise the level of skill and, on that basis, to help Soviet athletes win world supremacy in major sports in the immediate future” (p. 43). At this point, the Olympic Games served increasingly as a “powerful medium ... for the propaganda battles of the Cold War” (p. 33). Soviet athletes participated in the Olympic Games for the first time in the 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki, Finland. The final topic covered in this chapter is the growing tension, after the Soviet Union entered Olympic competition, between the American emphasis on the “political independence of the U.S. Olympic movement” and the  state-sponsored status of Soviet government-subsidized athletes (p. 37).

Rider addresses the evolving Soviet propaganda strategy in the aftermath of Stalin’s death in 1953. Soviet officials concentrated on presenting a more favorable and “softer image of communism” to the rest of the world, primarily through travel, sporting exchanges, and emphasizing the “friendliness” of Soviet athletes instead of emphasizing hard-line anti-American propaganda. This new “cultural offensive,” Rider explains, “could be clearly discerned in the escalation of sporting exchanges between the communist bloc and the outside world” (p. 83). American officials responded to the Soviet sports overtures and the US State Department funded travel by American athletes and teams to destinations all over the world, but overall, efforts at “sports diplomacy” still fell far short of the Soviet efforts. Not only did Soviet athletes appear to be winning this cultural offensive, but American officials increasingly worried that they would also win the medal count in the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. Some officials worried that such a loss would have “an immediate impact on the man in the street, the worker, the rural citizen who reads little, the maiden who admires brawn” (p. 95).  American propaganda efforts to counteract increasing Soviet athletic prowess included US Information Agency (USIA) output around the world in the form of “radio, television, publications, films, and feature stories” (p. 96). Officials emphasized American sportsmanship, human interest stories on individual athletes, and attempts (not always successful given civil rights tensions) to highlight American racial and ethnic diversity.        

The 1956 Melbourne Olympics took place under the shadow of an unsuccessful anticommunist uprising in Hungary. In chapter 6, “Sports Illustrated and the Melbourne Defection,” Rider tells the little-known, behind-the-scenes story of the defection of thirty-eight Eastern European athletes, most of them Hungarian, when the Games ended in December 1956 and the role played in the defection by Sports Illustrated.  Chapter 7, “Symbols of Freedom,” continues the story of the Hungarian defectors. As Rider explains, the USIA and “the Eisenhower propaganda apparatus ... presented the athletes as exemplars of freedom” who had chosen to leave communist rule to live in freedom. Rider’s final chapter, “Operation Rome,” provides an overview of “sports diplomacy” during Eisenhower’s second term, including increased sporting exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union. He covers the Winter Olympics at Squaw Valley, California, and the 1960 Summer Olympics in Rome. He outlines and analyzes the ways in which the Rome Olympics reflected the evolving Cold War global situation, which was less tense than in 1956. The Olympic contests of the 1950s, Rider concludes, “set the stage for the remainder of the Cold War. The superpower rivalry continued to elevate the political significance of athletic exchanges, track meets, and a range of other competitions and interactions between sportsmen and sportswomen from the East and the West” (p. 168).   

Rider’s book is impressively researched, including access to recently declassified material. He conducted archival research in traditional and expected venues for foreign policy (the Truman and Eisenhower Presidential Libraries, the National Archives at College Park, Maryland, Hoover Institution, etc.) and at archives associated with sport and Olympic history (the archives of the Amateur Athletic Union of the United States, the International Olympic Committee Archives in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the International Centre for Olympic Studies). Cold War Games is a strong addition to the ever-growing scholarly literature on early Cold War propaganda, public opinion, cultural (soft) diplomacy, and psychological warfare. It successfully joins one strand of this historiographical tradition to the also-growing body of work by scholars who primarily identify as sport historians, who have already identified many ways in which “the Cold War pervaded sport in many ways and by many means” (p. 2). Rider’s extensive research is presented in a series of compelling and interconnected examples, all of which support and sustain his thesis. If anything, there are almost too many fascinating vignettes, strands of evidence, and twists and turns, all relevant to the main topic, for the reader to juggle all at once. Some parts of the book are somewhat repetitive, and a few chapters, notably chapter 8, attempt to cover too much ground. This minor problem results from an embarrassment of well-researched evidence--hardly a damaging criticism. In this well-written and truly fascinating study, Toby Rider convincingly integrates the study of propaganda and psychological warfare with Olympic competition in early Cold War and makes a significant contribution to the merging of sports history with Cold War propaganda history.  

Citation: Molly M. Wood. Review of Rider, Toby C., Cold War Games: Propaganda, the Olympics, and U.S. Foreign Policy. H-FedHist, H-Net Reviews. December, 2017. URL: http://www.h-net.org/reviews/showrev.php?id=49274

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