by Ryan Poffenbarger
With the success of China in the 2022 winter Olympics, ranking 3rd, the Philadelphia Inquirer published an article entitled “The Olympics: Where Communism Wins.” Is this accurate, has the western world failed to win a sports version of the arms race? If so, did this continue after the USSR was dissolved?
The first time a communist country participated in the Olympics was the 1952 Summer Games, where both China and the Soviet Union participated. In these Olympics the Soviets won their first medal, a gold medal by Nina Romashkova in the women’s discus throw. This was followed by 21 other gold medals and 71 total medals throughout that year’s Olympics. China participated in soccer, basketball, and swimming. Disputes between the PRC and ROC within resulted in China following up these games with a hiatus from the Olympics until 1984.
During this hiatus however, there was no shortage of success by Marxist-Leninist counties in the Olympics. In the 1960 Winter Olympics the Soviets had 62 athletes participate, taking home 21 medals, 7 of them gold. This put them in first place, with the most medals of any country, taking home more than double the second place (and host) country, the United States. Later that year, in the summer games, the Soviet Union continued that success, taking home over 100 medals in total, with 43 gold medals, again more medals than any other country.
In 1964 the Soviets continued their Olympic triumphs, taking home 25 medals, 11 of them gold. Soon after, in the 1964 summer Olympics in Tokyo, Communist nations had their most success thus far, with the Soviet Union and Cuba taking home many medals. Unlike the Soviet Union, Cuba has only participated in Summer Olympics, and the 1964 summer games were a coming out party for post-revolution Cuban athletics, with them taking home their first medal, a silver medal in the men’s 100 meters by Enrique Figuerola. In these 1964 summer games the Soviet Union was awarded the most medals of any country, 96, and finished in second for gold
medals to the United States, with 30 gold medals for the Soviets. In the 1968 Olympics the Soviets had a down year, taking home second place in both the summer and winter games. In that year’s summer games the Cubans increased their medal count from the previous summer games. These 1968 summer Olympics also famously contained the black power salute by athletes Tommy Smith and John Carlos.
In the 1970s communist countries were very dominant in the Olympics. The Soviets took home first place in all 4 games in the decade. Cuba also had a lot of success, taking home their first gold medals post-revolution and drastically increasing their overall medal count. Under the leadership of captains Viktor Kuzkin and Boris Mikhailov the Soviet hockey team swept through the Olympics, going undefeated in the decade. Their goaltender at the time, Vladislav Tretiak remains the only male hockey player to win at least 3 gold medals and 1 silver medal in Olympics history.
Soviet athletes of the 1980s are most well known in the United States for the “Miracle on Ice” in 1980, when the underdog Americans upset the Soviet Hockey team 4-3 in New York. Despite this, the Soviets still took home first place in terms of overall medals in both the summer and winter Olympics that year. Along with this, East Germany finished second place in both sets of 1980 Olympics. In short, that year America won the battle, but the communists won the war. Furthermore, in the 1980 summer games, which were held in Moscow, the Cubans also continued their growth, taking home 8 gold medals.
In the 1984 winter games this success continued with the Soviets finishing in second and East Germany in first place. This was followed by the 1984 summer games in Los Angeles, which were boycotted by the Soviet Union, Cuba, the DPRK and the GDR. Despite this, these were the first Olympic Games for China after their hiatus, and they had some success, taking home 15 gold medals, ranking 4th. At the forefront of China’s success was Li Ning, a gymnast who took home 6 medals that year, including 3 gold, which earned him the nickname “the Prince of Gymnasts” in China. In another notable victory China defeated the United States in the women’s volleyball final to obtain gold.
For the 1988 games Cuba and the DPRK again did not participate. But, in their Olympic return the Soviets again won first place in both the summer and winter games. Furthermore, second place in both 1988 Olympics was the GDR, highlighted by Christa Rothenburger becoming the only athlete to win medals in both summer and winter Olympics in the same year. So, in their last participated games the Soviets and the GDR absolutely dominated the Olympics.
The 1990s were a down period for communists in the Olympics but they still put up a fight. China finished in fourth place in both the 1992 and 1996 summer games. Along with this in said 1992 summer games Cuba took home their most gold medals ever, achieving 14 of them. Some of the most stellar performances in this period were from Cuban boxing, a sport they would come to reign over in the Olympics, in both the 1992 and 1996 summer games they took home in gold or silver in every boxing event Cuba participated in and won gold in baseball. Along with this, in the 1992 summer games the DPRK ranked 16th, achieving 4 gold medals, including Choi Chol-su obtaining gold in the men’s flyweight boxing event.
In 2000, Cuba won 11 gold medals in the summer games, including 4 in boxing, led by the dominant performance of star boxer Guillermo Rigondeaux. Along with this, in those same 2000 summer games China had their highest ranking to this point, placing third with 28 gold medals. Highlighting this was a near sweep of the diving events, as well as many authoritative wins in badminton. China improved on these numbers moving forward, in the 2002 winter games Yang Yang had 2 commanding gold medal victories in women’s speed skating, and China ended up ranking 3rd in the 2004 summer games in Athens. Along with more dominance from Cuban boxing and baseball China’s performance in the 2004 Olympics was led by the fantastic performances Chinese athletes had in weightlifting, diving, and air rifle shooting. During the 2006 winter Olympics Chinese athlete Han Xiaopeng had a beautiful run in the freestyle skiing event, taking home gold. China was set to host their first Olympic games in 2008.
In those 2008 Olympics China finished in first place with 48 gold medals, led by their domination of the diving, weightlifting, and men’s gymnastics. Cuba earned a silver medal in baseball along with four boxing silver medals. The 2010 Olympics had China’s most success in the winter games to that point, finishing 7th with 5 gold medals, driven by Wang Meng’s stellar performance in speed skating, winning 3 gold medals that year.
China finished 2nd and 3rd respectively in the 2012 and 2016 summer games, but had disappointing results in the 2014 and 2018 winter games. After a down year in 2008 there was a lot of success had by Cuban boxers in the 2010s, winning multiple gold and other medals in the events in both summer Olympics in the 2010s. A similar pattern unfolded in the 2020 summer games where China came in
second and Cuban boxing was dominant. Most recently we have had the Olympics held in China in 2022 and the hosting nation had quite a lo of success, with China taking third place, their highest placement in any winter Olympics. One of the biggest stories of these games was Eileen Gu, a Chinese American competing for China who became the first skier to win 3 medals in one Olympics.
China and Cuba have put up very valiant efforts and had much success of their own since the Soviet Union was dissolved. Seeing how well eastern Europe has been doing in the Olympics as of late, with many of the best players in the world, makes one wonder about what heights a modern Soviet men’s Basketball team. Here’s hoping for a return of the Soviet Union and being able to see Luka Dončić and Nikola Jokić play on the same team in the Olympics one day.