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Cold War Olympics: Helsinki, Finland 1952

Posted by Eric Espig On 09:44

The years between 1948 and 1952 were significantly formative years of the Cold War. The North Atlantic Treaty Organization had been established, Mao Zedong had declared the establishment of the communist People’s Republic of China, the USSR had acquired nuclear capability, and the states of West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany) and East Germany (German Democratic Republic) were formally established and  the winter of 1952 would bring with it the paranoia of McCarthyism.War had broken out over the political future of the Korean peninsula; pitting communists against capitalist states as the conflict  escalated to involve the China and the West.

The Summer Games, held in Helsinki, Finland, were the first in which the tensions of the Cold War were strongly evident. The Soviet Union sent athletes to the competitions yet refused to house them in the Olympic Village. Instead, Soviet athletes were housed in an isolated and guarded facility near the Soviet naval base at Porkkala. Soviet Olympians  traveled to and from events under escort and were kept wholly segregated from their peers. On both the east and west side of the Cold War divide, governements equated athletic successes and medal tallies with the superiority of their particular political system. American decathlete Bob Mathias is quoted as saying, “there were many more pressures on American athletes because of the Russians. . . . They were in a sense the real enemy. You just loved to beat 'em. You just had to beat 'em. . . . This feeling was strong down through the entire team.” This sentiment was echoed by Soviet officials and both sides sought to exploit the propaganda opportunities of the Olympic Games.

In 1949 Mao Zedong had declared the establishment of the People’s Republic of China; a communist state occupying mainland China. The nationalist Chinese, under the leadership of Chiang Kai Shek had gone into exile to the island of Formosa/Taiwan naming themselves the Republic of China. On July 20, the nationalist Chinese withdrew from the competitions on the grounds that the People’s Republic of China had been allowed to participate. The 1952 Summer Games in Helsinki may have been the first where Cold War conflicts truly shared the stage with international fellowship, but they certainly wouldn’t be the last.

American propaganda "news"reel from 1952 revolving around Korea and American athletes