I’m currently up to my eyeballs in research on a piece about Soviet athletic excellence, which was a more enigmatic phenomenon than most folks realize. There really isn’t one definitive explanation for the nation’s sporting success throughout its last three decades of existence, though there are certainly plenty of theories. As I’ve become immersed in the topic, I’ve started to believe that the primary reason for the Soviets’ athletic achievement was total dedication, made possible by a system that offered unusually special privileges to those who gave up their entire lives in pursuit of world records—many of which are still held by Soviets who competed in the 1980s. For a small glimpse of the devotion required to be an elite Soviet athlete during this time period, I encourage you to check out this interview with hockey star Anatoly Firsov, who discusses (in poorly translated English) the constant effort demanded by his coach, the legendary Anatoli Tarasov:
Lucky were those who were close to [Coach Tarasov]. All out free time with him we were going out. He especially liked to go for mushrooms. He had a place slightly farther than I now have my dacha. We arrived in the evening, went into forest while it is slightly going darker. He gave us some 15-20 minutes, and then we returned after a whistle. And then the most sweet began — preparation of mushrooms, in oil, in sour cream, in own juice. Then we laid down to rest. Early in the morning we wake up, he about 3:00 a.m., we a little bit later. And here I realized for the first time what it costs to me. When he saw, how I pick up mushrooms, — when you calmly came by, bend, cut, put it in, get a joy — he shouted for a half of the forest, “First, what are you doing! You must pick up mushroom! To sit down on one leg, on another leg, land on one buttock, and then tear off the mushroom, not only with one hand, but with another as well, and keep an eye to make sure, that nobody else could pick the mushroom up!” So he in every moment looked for an opportunity to train.
Once, when we after Olympic games, went by train was it to Sverdlovsk or where? Olympic champions, we went in a common 3rd-class carriage, together with everybody else, no special compartment, nothing. On one station, in Kazan, it seems, he suddenly says, “Well, boys, everybody quickly out and begin training. We have 10-minutes stop, and we must train very well.” We had been going already about two days, and for him it was very fearsome that we are without training. So he forced us to jump on steps of a carriage, run, tumble, we were looked at like strange people. “Olympic champions, what they are doing?” But for us it was important to hold a training in any conditions, and when we were tumbling on a platform, people could not understand what are they doing, is it an Olympic team or they are being transported to a crazy house? How it is possible to jump, leap and tumble on a snow, on an asphalt? But for Tarasov there was nothing more important than training with a use.
These anecdotes, of course, remind me of how this East/West paradigm was flipped on his head by the training montage from Rocky IV, in which Ivan Drago uses the latest technology to prepare for the climactic bout, while Sylvester Stallone saws wood in foot-deep snow.
(Image via English Russia)