Diplomats in Tracksuits or Simply Olympic Athletes? Eastern European Female Oarswomen at the Olympic Games during the Cold War

By Schweinbenz, Amanda N. | Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research, Annual 2008 | Go to article overview

Diplomats in Tracksuits or Simply Olympic Athletes? Eastern European Female Oarswomen at the Olympic Games during the Cold War


Schweinbenz, Amanda N., Proceedings: International Symposium for Olympic Research


Introduction

Former International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage was renowned for his unwavering belief that politics had no place in the Olympic Games. However, during Brundage's presidency, the Olympic movement was bombarded with political crises, and the effects of the Cold War were at the forefront. Alfred E. Senn has argued that "with the Soviet entry into the Olympic family in 1951, the IOC became a Cold War arena in which the superpowers competed directly." (1) The Games became the stage upon which communist and democratic political ideologies were played out.

Although socialist leaders originally rejected bourgeois sport and the Olympic Games, the potential to use international sporting achievement as a vehicle to communicate state ideology at home and on an international basis took precedence. (2) Communist leaders regarded international sport competition as a spotlight of world attention to demonstrate the superiority of their ideology over leading capitalist nations, particularly the United States. (3) Soviet journalists indicated, "Each new victory is a victory for the Soviet form of society and the socialist sports system; it provides irrefutable proof of the superiority of socialist culture over the decaying culture of the capitalist states." (4)

Talented young girls and women were central to the development of the Eastern Bloc sporting machine and women's rowing was a sport in which communist female athletes excelled. These women not only dominated international rowing championships, but also provided evidence of the expectation of athletic equality of the sexes during a time when that was not apparent in the West. German sport historian Gertrud Pfister has argued that "above all it was the top performances achieved by women, 'the diplomats in tracksuits,' that brought to [nations like] the GDR the prestige of a world-class sports nation." (5)

However, while these 'diplomats in tracksuits' were expected to perform on the water and embody their nation's political ideologies, their Olympic experiences were not solely focussed on these tasks. Eastern European oarswomen had similar experiences at the Olympic Games to their Western competitors including, for example, the excitement of travelling to a foreign nation, the exhilaration of walking in the opening ceremonies, a sense of interest in meeting and speaking with other competitors, and the awe of living in the athletes' village. These women were not naive about their responsibilities, the expectation of success, the political motivations of their sporting administrators, or the political significance of their success. However for many, the Games were about more than winning medals or the politics that surrounded them.

Using data collected from interviews with previous international oarswomen from former Eastern Bloc nations as well as Western nations, this paper examines their experiences as Olympians. I argue that while success and winning were priorities for all of the participants, that was only a small aspect of their Olympic experiences. Much has been written about the role of Eastern Bloc female athletes in the promotion of Communist superiority, and the women articulated what was important to them, and winning medals as a tool to promote political ideology was not their priority. (6)

Women's Competitive International Rowing

In 1954, the international rowing federation (FISA), hosted its first-ever women's European Rowing Championships. (7) This introduction of women's events to the international racing program was fraught with issues and controversies regarding the appropriateness of women's participation in the sport of rowing, as well as the physical limitations of the female body. Many male rowing administrators were unsupportive of women's rowing on the international racing program, citing medical and social reasons to prevent women from gaining access. Yet, the increased number of women participating in rowing prompted several female and male rowing administrators to work for the introduction of women's events at FISA-regulated international regattas. …

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