Soviet Military Athletes

Tuesday, February 1st, 2011

The Soviet Union supported its “amateur” athletes by giving them military ranks:

The most successful, richest and largest society in the Soviet Union concerned with sport is the Central Army Sports Club (ZSKA). Members of the club have included 850 European champions, 625 world champions and 182 Olympic champions. They have set up 341 European and 430 world records. (All figures as of 1 January, 1979.)

Such results do not indicate that the Soviet Army is the best at training top-class athletes. This was admitted even by Pravda (2 September, 1985). The secret of success lies in the enormous resources of the Soviet Army. Pravda describes what happens: ‘It is sufficient for some even slightly promising boxer to come on the scene and he is immediately lured across to the ZSKA.’ As a result, out of the twelve best boxers in the Soviet Union ten are from the Army Club, one from Dinamo (the sports organisation run by the KGB), and one from the Trud sports club. But of those ten army boxers, not one was the original product of the Army club. They had all been lured away from other clubs — the Trudoviye reservy, the Spartak or the Burevestnik. The same thing happens in ice-hockey, parachute jumping, swimming and many other sports.

What may come as a surprise is that these military ranks weren’t simple sinocures:

[T]he Soviet Army needs an enormous number of people with exceptional athletic ability at Olympic level to carry out special missions behind the enemy’s lines. It is desirable that these people should be able to visit foreign countries in peace time. Sport makes that possible. As far as the athletes are concerned, they are grateful for a very rich club which can pay them well, provide them with cars and apartments, and arrange trips abroad for them. Moreover, they need the sort of club in which they can be regarded as amateurs, though they will work nowhere else but in the club.

Spetsnaz is the point where the interests of the state, the Soviet Army and military intelligence coincide with the interests of some individuals who want to devote their whole lives to sport.

There are no women in the usual spetsnaz units:

But in the professional sports units of spetsnaz women constitute about half the numbers. They engage in various kinds of sport: parachute jumping, gliding, flying, shooting, running, swimming, motocross, and so on. Every woman who joins spetsnaz has to engage in some associated forms of sport apart from her own basic sport, and among these are some that are obligatory, such as sambo, shooting and a few others. The woman have to take part in exercises along with the men and have to study the full syllabus of subjects necessary for operating behind the enemy’s lines.

That there should be such a high percentage of women in the professional sports formations of spetsnaz is a matter of psychology and strategy: if in the course of a war a group of tall, broadshouldered young men were to appear behind the lines this might give rise to bewilderment, since all the men are supposed to be at the front. But if in the same situation people were to see a group of athletic-looking girls there would be little likelihood of any alarm or surprise.

To succeed in war, you need to know the terrain:

A private in the average spetsnaz unit cannot, of course, visit the places where he is likely to have to fight in the event of war. But a top-class professional athlete does have the opportunity. The Soviet Army takes advantage of such opportunities.

For example, in 1984 the 12th world parachuting championship took place in France. There were altogether twenty-six gold medals to be competed for, and the Soviet team won twenty-two of them. The ‘Soviet team’ was in fact a team belonging to the armed forces of the USSR. It consisted of five men and five women: a captain, a senior praporshik, three praporshiki, a senior sergeant and four sergeants. The team’s trainer, its doctor and the whole of the technical personnel were Soviet officers. The Soviet reporter accompanying the team was a colonel. This group of ‘sportsmen’ spent time in Paris and in the south of France. A very interesting and very useful trip, and there were other Soviet officers besides -for example a colonel who was the trainer of the Cuban team.

Now let us suppose a war has broken out. The Soviet Army must neutralise the French nuclear capability. France is the only country in Europe, apart from the Soviet Union itself, that stores strategic nuclear missiles in underground silos. The silos are an extremely important target, possibly the most important in Europe. The force that will put them out of action will be a spetsnaz force. And who will the Soviet high command send to carry out the mission? The answer is that, after the world parachuting championship, they have a tailor-made team.

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