Microkhan by Brendan I. Koerner

Mushrooms for Strength

April 27th, 2011 · 7 Comments

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)

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7 Comments so far ↓

  • Captured Shadow

    I think the Russians really punched above their weight in sports in the ’80’s in part because there was so much national effort behind it.. It reminds me of an old Cuba joke.
    “Do you know the three successes of the Cuban Revolution?”
    “Yes, Medicine, Sports, and, Education”
    “Do you know the three failures?”
    “Ummm, Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner?”

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Captured Shadow: Yeah, the national support was huge, especially when it came to sports that are a bit off the radar. The Soviet government was obsessed with Olympic medal counts, in particular, so it put a lot of resources into events where it knew the country could “corner the market,” so the speak.

    I’m spending a good part of today focusing on the ways in which the Soviet economic and political system contributed to the nation’s athletic dominance. Because of the USSR’s generally poor economy throughout the ’70s and ’80s, athletes were easily incentivized by offers of cars, apartments, and pensions–privileges that one could lose by not performing up to expectations. Let’s face it, you’re going to try that much harder if you know that failure will result in true disaster, rather than just losing the limelight.

  • Jordan

    My freshman year biology teacher in high school told us a story about being a competitor at an international swimming meet, probably back in the 70s. She went into the womens’ locker rooms and heard what sounded like a whole bunch of men chatting. Turned out to be the East German womens’ swim team.

    Nasal administration of androstene does some crazy stuff.

  • Brendan I. Koerner

    @Jordan: The scope of the GDR’s systematic doping was pretty egregious. It’s thanks to the rapid disintegration of the country that we know so much about the program–no one had time to prevent those damning files from being released.

    I’m sure that PEDs were used by many Soviet athletes, too, but I don’t think it’s a one-size-fits-all explanation. For starters, it’s not like athletes in the West were entirely clean during that time period. But there are also a lot of events in which steroids can only provide so much help; technique is often much more important than sheer strength.

  • monkeyball

    TWCTS

    when you calmly came by, bend, cut, put it in, get a joy

  • monkeyball

    And: In former Soviet Russia, mushrooms prepare you in your own juice.

  • Greg

    One word. Drugs.

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