Amid Zatopek Zips and Cold War records tumbled at Helsinki 1952 | Sunday Observer

Amid Zatopek Zips and Cold War records tumbled at Helsinki 1952

5 June, 2021
Athletes’ Parade at Helsinki 1952
Athletes’ Parade at Helsinki 1952

The 1952 Summer Olympic Games, officially known as the Games of the XV Olympiad, were held from July 19 to August 3, 1952 in Helsinki, Finland. These Games were the 12th occurrence of the modern Olympic Games and Helsinki became the northern most city to host Summer Olympics. Finland, known as the ‘Land of the Midnight Sun’, experience daylight for 24 hours a day for almost 70 days after the summer solstice on June 21, and same coincided with the Games.

These were the first games to be held in a non-Indo-European language speaking country. They were also the Olympic Games at which the most world records were broken since Athens 1896. The Olympic Flame was lit by two heroes of Finland – Paavo Nurmi and Hannes Kolehmainen. Nurmi first lit the cauldron inside the stadium, and later the flame was relayed to the stadium tower where Kolehmainen lit it.

Helsinki had been earlier selected to host the 1940 Summer Olympics, but were cancelled due to World War II. Later, Helsinki was chosen as the host city at the 40th IOC Session held on June 21, 1947, in Stockholm, Sweden, over bids from Amsterdam, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Detroit, Chicago and Philadelphia.

A record 69 nations at  Helsinki 1952

The participation of 69 nations is a record in Summer Olympic Games. 13 nations made their first Olympic appearance: Bahamas, People’s Republic of China, Ghana, Guatemala, Hong Kong, Indonesia, Israel, Netherlands, Antilles, Nigeria, Soviet Union, Thailand and Vietnam. Japan and Germany were reinstated after being banned for their instigation of World War II.

The newly established People’s Republic of China participated for the first time, although only one swimmer, Wu Chuanyu of its 40-member delegation arrived in time to take part in the competition. Taiwan withdrew from the Games in protest of the IOC decision to allow the People’s Republic of China to compete. The 1952 Games were the first Olympics in which the Soviet Union participated and the international tension caused by the ‘Cold War’ initially prevailed.

The Soviet Union announced plans to house its athletes in Leningrad and fly into Helsinki each day; these plans were dropped, but a separate Olympic Village for Eastern bloc countries was created in Otaniemi. The Games themselves, however, were friendly, and by the end of the competition Soviet officials had opened their village to all athletes.

Soviet Olympic team was notorious for skirting the edge of amateur rules. All Soviet athletes held some nominal jobs, but were in fact state-sponsored and trained full-time. According to many experts, that gave the Soviet Union a huge advantage over the United States and other Western countries, whose athletes were students or real amateurs.

The Soviets turned the athletic competition into a metaphor for political propaganda as reported by ‘Sovetsky Sport.’: “Every record won by our sportsmen, every victory in international contests, graphically demonstrates to the whole world the advantages and strength of the Soviet system.”

The first meeting between the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia in football is still the most famous. On the political level, the Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and the Yugoslav leader Josip Tito split in 1948. The origin of the conflict was Tito’s refusal to submit to Stalin’s interpretations and visions of politics and in process becoming a Soviet satellite state.

Before the match, both Tito and Stalin sent telegrams to their national teams, which showed just how important it was for the two head of states. Yugoslavia led 5 - 1, but a Soviet comeback in the last 15 minutes resulted in a 5 - 5 draw. The match was replayed, Yugoslavia winning 3 - 1.

Emil and Dana Zatopek Zips at Helsinki 1952

The breakout star of the Games was 29-year Staff Captain in the Czech Republic Army who ran as if he was in deep agony and his next step would be his last. Emil Zatopek, nicknamed the “Czech Locomotive” won three gold medals at Helsinki 1952. On July 20, he won 10,000m clocking 29:17.0 which was an Olympic record; on July 24, he established his second Olympic record in 5000m with a time of 14:06.6; on July 27, he ran his first marathon in life and won with an Olympic and world record time of 2:23:03.2. Zatopek’s feat of triple gold in distance running has not been repeated since. He also won a gold in 10,000m and secured a silver in 5000m at London 1948.

In 1954, Zatopek was the first runner to break the 29-minute barrier in the 10,000m. Three years earlier in 1951, he had broken the hour for running 20 km. He was considered one of the greatest runners of the 20th century and was also known for his brutally tough training methods. He was the originator of interval training and hypoventilation training. In February 2013, the editors at Runner’s World Magazine selected him as the ‘Greatest Runner of All Time.’

Zatopek’s wife, Dana Zatopek won javelin gold with an Olympic record of 50.47m, just an hour after her husband had claimed 5,000m gold. She later set a world record in the javelin in Frankfurt in 1958, managing a throw of 55.73m. She also won the silver at Rome 1960 Olympics, prior to retiring and continuing as a coach, promoting women’s causes in athletics.

Emil was known for his friendly and gregarious personality and for his ability to speak six languages. He was regularly visited at his home in Prague by international athletes he had befriended at competitions. Emil Zatopek was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal in 1975. In 2012, he was named among the first twelve athletes to be inducted into the IAAF Hall of Fame.

Magnificent Bob Mathias in Decathlon

American Bob Mathias stamped himself as the world’s greatest all-around athletes becoming the first Olympian to successfully defend his decathlon title with a total score of 7,887 points which was a new Olympic and World record. He was just 21 when he defended and then promptly retired. “This is for sure,” Mathias said. “There’s nothing left.”

At 17, he won his first decathlon gold in London 1948. After graduating from Stanford University in 1953 with a BA in Education, Mathias spent two and a half years in the U.S. Marine Corps. He was promoted to the rank of captain and was honorably discharged. He later became the first director of the United States Olympic Training Center.

Athletes, sports and medal count

A total of 4,955 athletes – 519 women and 4,436 men competed at the 1952 Summer Olympic Games that featured 17 different sports encompassing 23 disciplines, and medals were awarded in 149 events. Handball and Pesapallo were included as demonstration sports. With an annual average temperature of 5.9 °C, Helsinki became one of the coldest cities to host Summer Olympics.

The United States contingent to Helsinki comprised of 286 - 245 men and 41 women. They took part in 133 events in 18 sports and won the highest of 76 medals - 40 gold, 19 silver and 17 bronze, including 6 podium sweeps; the highest number of medal sweeps in a single Olympiad by one country since World War II and still a record. The Soviet Union came second with 71 medals - 22 gold, 30 silver and 19 bronze. Hungry managed to win 42 medals to be placed third overall with 16 gold, 10 silver and 16 bronze medals. Sweden won 35 medals - 12 gold, 13 silver and 10 bronze to secure the fourth position.

Soviet gymnast Maria Gorokhovskaya, unhindered by the limits set on female competitors at earlier Games, set a record for the most medals won by any woman in a single Olympics, with two golds and five silver medals. In all 4 individual apparatus events – the balance beam, floor exercise, the vault and the uneven bars – she won silver medals. This performance earned her the gold in the all-around competition. With seven of the eight Soviet gymnasts finishing in the top ten, it was clear that the team gold medal would go to them. Gorokhovskaya won her seventh medal in the team exercise with portable apparatus, where the Soviet team finished second.

Back in 1924, Bill Havens had been chosen to represent the United States in coxed eights rowing, but declined in order to stay home with his wife, who was expecting their first child. 28 years later, that child, Frank Havens, won a gold medal in the Canadian singles 10,000m canoeing event. In a telegraph addressed to his father, Frank said, “Dear Dad, thanks for waiting around for me to get born in 1924. I’m coming home with the gold medal you should have won. Your loving son, Frank.”

The American men, led by pole vaulter Bob Richards and 800m specialist Mal Whitfield, won 14 of the 23 events. The women’s track competition featured the sprinting of Marjorie Jackson and the hurdling of Shirley Strickland de la Hunty, both of Australia. Soviet women, led by Galina Zybina, made a strong showing in the field events.

The 1952 Olympics also saw the debut of the Soviet gymnast Viktor Chukarin, who won the first of his two individual gold medals in the combined exercises. American diver Pat McCormick won two gold medals. Rules in equestrianism now allowed non-military officers to compete, including women. Lis Hartel of Denmark became the first woman in the sport to win a medal by securing a silver. Swedish equestrian Henri St. Cyr won a gold medal in both the individual and team dressage competitions.

Fifth consecutive Gold for India

The men’s field hockey at Helsinki 1952 Summer Olympics was the seventh edition of Summer Olympics. The India field hockey team won its fifth consecutive gold under the captaincy of Kunwar Digvijay Singh. India was given a bye in the first round, along with Great Britain and Pakistan. Thus, they began their campaign against Austria in the quarter-finals.

Both captain and vice-captain, Balbir Singh Snr netted a goal each and Raghbir Lal and Randhir Singh Gentle added to the tally as India beat Austria 4 - 0. The victory looked great but India looked sluggish in their passing and the damp conditions made it difficult for the Indians to demonstrate their artistry on heavy grass.

It was widely reported: The Champions won, as they were expected to, but they found the Austrians no easy obstacle on a pitch rendered slippery by rain. However, the Indian hockey team put on an improved show in the semi-final, beating Great Britain 3 - 1 with Balbir Singh Sr. scoring the second of his three Olympic hat-tricks.

The vice-captain commented: “We were a completely changed lot in the semi-final against Britain. We moved swiftly and smoothly and scythed their defense with copy-book moves... It was an accident that I got that goal. But I scored two more before the interval to get my second hat-trick in Olympic hockey… India had reached the final.”

The final against Netherland was expected to be a close affair. This was because of two reasons. First, the rains had made the ground wet and slippery, conditions that were expected to favor the Dutch more than the Indians. Second, the Indians looked to be over-reliant on Balbir Singh Sr, a point repeatedly emphasized by the ‘Times of India’: “The Indians need to visit the practice grounds regularly to remedy defects in their forward line, for it is too much to expect Punjab’s 28-year center forward Balbir Singh to initiate and execute all his side’s attacks.”

These predictions weren’t accurate, as the Indians reigned supreme over the Netherlands in the final of the Helsinki 1952 Olympics on July 24, 1952, defeating Netherlands 6 – 1 to clinch the gold medal for the fifth time overall. Balbir Singh Snr was once again the star, scoring his third Olympic hat-trick and scoring 9 out of 13 Indian goals. In his own words: “I was in my element that day and scored five of my team’s six goals. The match gave me another hat-trick, my third in Olympic hockey. Netherland got a consolation goal, but overall, it was a one-sided final.”

The five goals by Balbir Singh Snr. on the day, a record in the final of a men’s Olympic field hockey tournament that stands to this day, and captain K. D. Singh Babu put his name on the scoresheet as the scorer of the sixth goal. This is still an Olympic record for the most individual goals in an Olympic final. Indeed, the longest world record and still stands unbroken even after 69 years. The biggest moment for Indian field hockey was when India bagged their sixth consecutive Olympic Games gold in Melbourne 1956.

The US, the USSR and the Cold War

The relationship between politics and universal sport is troubled with tension and drama: the same qualities that make for the most riveting athletic contests. The Olympic Games are no stranger to this dynamic, as the Games have long enabled global superpowers to enact their political and ideological conflicts in sport.

When the Soviet Union made its Olympic debut at Helsinki 1952 Summer Games, no one quite knew what to expect from a country that had rejected not only the Olympic Games but most athletic competitions with the west since the 1917 Revolution.

The Soviets in Helsinki 1952 demanded separate lodgings for their team. Team officials insisted on isolating their athletes in cramped, overcrowded dorms to prevent too much interaction with non-communist athletes or attempted defections. The presence of a Soviet team heightened the competitive spirit among the participating nations, especially the United States.

Four years earlier, at London 1948, most of Europe was still recovering and rebuilding after World War II. As such, the Americans, saw a need to scale back their performance at the Games, so as not to show up their weakened competitors. The United States Olympic Association reminded its athletes before London that sportsmanship should come first. That sentiment vanished once the Soviet Union joined the IOC in 1951 and announced its intention to compete in Helsinki.

As ‘New York Times’ sports columnist Arthur Daley observed in June 1952, “There will be seventy-one nations in the Olympics at Helsinki. The United States would like to beat all of them but the only one that counts is Soviet Russia. The communist propaganda machine must be silenced so that there can’t be even one distorted bleat out of it in regard to the Olympics. In sports the Red brothers have reached the put-up or shut-up stage. Let’s shut them up. Let’s support the United States Olympic Team.”

Daley’s words condensed the feelings of a ‘Cold War’ conscious readership who relished all chances to compete with the Soviet Union. Even the US President Harry Truman was drawn into. In a 1951 letter to incoming IOC President, Avery Brundage, he emphasized the importance of a strong American showing because, “Certain countries which have not participated for many years will be represented. Others will take part for the first time... The eyes of the world will be upon us.”

Politically-charged sports commentary increased on both sides of the ‘Iron Curtain’ as the Opening Ceremony approached. Yet, an atmosphere of camaraderie on the field, the heavy emphasis that the superpowers placed on the total medal count intensified the competition and put added pressure on the athletes. According to Bob Mathias, decathlon champion in both London and Helsinki, “There were many more pressures on American athletes because of the Russians than in 1948. They were in a sense the real enemy. You just loved to beat ’em. You just had to beat ’em.”

(The author highlights spectrum of sports extravaganza. He is the winner of Presidential Academic Award for Sports in 2017 and 2018 and recipient of National Accolades for Academic pursuits. He possesses a PhD, MPhil and double MSc)