Sports in Soviet Union Only for Elite : There Are Top Athletes, and Then There Are Those Who Sunbathe and Watch Drawbridges Go Up

Times Staff Writer

A young language student at Leningrad University, who said her name was Helen, endorsed an American tourist’s observation on recreational patterns here recently.

After spending a week in the Soviet Union, the tourist had remarked that the citizens don’t seem to participate in sports as readily or extensively as the people of America and western Europe.

“We seldom play golf or tennis,” Helen agreed. “I’ve never met anyone who ever played a game of golf.”


Sports aren’t unknown, though, in the Soviet republics. Soviet professionals excel in many Olympic events. And their more determined amateurs find ways to amuse themselves in various participant sports, among them mountain climbing.

“A mountain climber--a woman--helped save Leningrad from the Germans (in World War II),” Helen said proudly.

Then, standing on a bank of the historic Neva River, the young student pointed to the city’s two ancient landmarks--the tall, slim Admiralty spire on the mainland and the tall, slim Fortress spire on an island across the way.

“In 1942, those were like beacons to Nazi planes,” she said. “They’re two of the highest spires in the world and had to be camouflaged somehow. Someone thought of the mountain climbers, and a woman was chosen. In one day, she climbed and painted them both.”

A patriot, Helen felt obliged to add: “Mountain climbing is, how do you say it, a distinctive (Soviet) sport. Our system is based on love for one another--and friendship is everything in climbing a difficult mountain. If you aren’t good friends, you perish.”

Even so, this isn’t a land of mountain climbers, or even volleyball players. Foreigners who have lived in the Soviet Union are of the opinion that the policies that produce world-class pro athletes here tend to discourage amateurs.


Soviet boys and girls who at an early age test high in sports skills are trained intensively in their specialties. And a salary is their reward, just as it is for those who show an aptitude for physics or the military.

The face on the other side of the coin is that of the Soviet youngster who learns officially that he is no more than an average athlete. This leads him to deduce that for him, games aren’t very important.

So, youth or adult, he almost never plays.

But what does he do?

His counterpart in Los Angeles--the average guy entertaining himself in his free time--bowls or plays cards a night or two a week, plays golf or tennis over the weekend and watches sports on television.

How different is life for the average Russian?

To spend a few summer days here is to conclude that his is a less-active life than that of an American. There is more sunbathing here and less swimming. There is more sitting around and less hiking.

As for televised sports, it was clear that soccer is as vital to Soviet fans as football is to Americans. The difference is that the Soviet viewer seems less inclined to go outside before or afterward and kick the ball around himself, or play another game.

The definitive answer in all these areas can’t be found, of course, on a quick trip to a couple of Soviet cities--even if they are the two largest, Moscow and Leningrad.


Aside from a few students and specialists, hardly anybody one meets can put together a sentence in English. Communication is strained and limited even at the stately Astoria Hotel, where Russian and foreign elements have mingled since 1910.

Even so, it is possible to gather a few impressions. An American tourist can walk all over town in either Moscow or Leningrad. He can board any bus or streetcar, for instance, get off in any neighborhood, return to the car, and ride to the end of the line, and then back.

Leningrad is full of long, lean, dilapidated streetcars, many of which run from the downtown neighborhood of the Winter Palace--the opulent old home of the czars--to the city limits on the Gulf of Finland.

On a summer evening, it takes perhaps an hour to get out there on the No. 30 tram and about that long to get back if you return another way on the No. 7 tram. And what you see on such an excursion is a beautiful city whose residents obviously take a meager interest, if that, in recreational sports.

What you see are thousands of apartment houses, millions of trees, scores of broad avenues, many parks and a few corner lots and other vacant sites--but there are no games in sight. No playgrounds. No swimming pools. No kids playing ball in the streets. Nobody playing tennis or volleyball. Nobody hiking. Nobody throwing a basketball through a hoop. In fact, there are no hoops.

A day earlier, when a Soviet team was winning a televised World Cup match in Mexico, the shouts and screams from the open windows of Leningrad’s apartment houses confirmed that soccer is indeed the national pastime here.


Commenting on that game, a Leningrad language student named Elena said: “It was a shock to my mother. She isn’t a fan, and when my little brother started screaming in the next room, my mother didn’t understand. She thought he was being killed.”

Still, if soccer is as passionately followed here as it is in, say, England, there is a major difference in the way the two countries accept the game.

By the thousands, the British play soccer themselves--on their noon hours, after work, and on weekends. Watching them, the American visitor can’t count the number of soccer games he sees from the top of a two-story London bus.

On a weekend in Moscow, by contrast, so far as the visitor can discover--from car or bus--the only soccer game in progress is being played by pros in massive Lenin Central Stadium.

In short, to most Soviet people, games seem to mean spectator sports, not participant sports.

BRIDGE TIME The kind of intramural sports that lead to some good times in U.S. universities are also unknown here.


Barbara, an American from Milwaukee, who studied Russian at Michigan and refines her knowledge in Leningrad each summer, said that her friends at Leningrad University have never shown any interest in recreational games.

Language students here, American or Soviet, all seemed reluctant to disclose their family names, as did all others questioned.

“We sit around drinking tea or beer and talk a lot,” Barbara said when asked how she and her Soviet friends spend their hobby time. “Let me think. For recreation, I can only remember three other things. They watch some soccer. They love sunbathing whenever the sun is out, which isn’t often.

“And best fun of all, they walk down to the river after midnight and watch the bridges go up,” she said, smiling.

Barbara, who is graduating to a job translating the Soviet newspaper Pravda for an American employer, said that Soviet students seem to enjoy the college life in Leningrad. She added that the consumption of alcohol hits about the same level here as on American college campuses.

But otherwise, recreationally, speaking as a veteran of collegiate amusements on two continents, Barbara said she’d much rather see Soviet ships than American football teams.


“They raise the bridges to let the big cargo ships through to the Russian interior,” she said. “That’s a lovely sight from a Neva embankment on a white summer night.”

Darkness, she said, never comes to Leningrad during the long white nights of June and July.

There is no evidence to suggest that the czar known as Peter the Great had co-ed recreation in mind when in 1703 he founded Leningrad--nee St. Petersburg--on the Neva, which is an uncommonly broad river with an uncommonly active current that pounds and seethes its way to the gulf.

What Peter wanted was a port on the Baltic Sea, and he wanted it so much that he built the city on Swedish soil, or rather Swedish water, holding the Swedes off thereafter whenever they sailed over from Stockholm to take it back.

Leningrad was entirely constructed on sea-level marshes and islands. It required so many bridges, more than 600 of them, that no east-bound freighter can steam through until after midnight, when the Neva’s bridges are lifted.

All are suspension bridges. And at a signal from somewhere, they all break open at about the same time and groan upward in two sections. And the parade of the ships begins.


A few hours later, if the Soviets are having a sunny summer like this one, the bridge watchers--and most of the city’s other residents with a day off--ride the tram over to Peter’s favorite little island and take off their shirts.

“Sunbathing is unquestionably the favorite (Soviet) sport whenever the sun shines in June or July,” Barbara said.

The bathers congregate densely in the lee of the old fortress that was Peter’s first Leningrad project.

They shelter themselves there from the cool summer wind, lying down on either side of the only Leningrad bridge that dates from Peter’s day, a rickety wooden structure.

Only the hardiest venture into the deep, cold Neva, which is frozen half the year. Quite plainly, swimming isn’t much of a Russian pastime.

Neither is yachting. Although the river is often blanketed with boats at night, almost no pleasure craft are to be seen by day.


This would sadden Peter, for he was an enthusiastic sailor who liked racing around the Gulf of Finland in a sailboat with his own hand on the tiller.

Peter wanted everyone in Leningrad--which is to say everyone of the 8-10% in the leisure class--to sail with him on the Neva and the gulf. To facilitate this, he prohibited bridges over the river to Vasilevsky Island, an early residential area that has become much of modern Leningrad.

He even prohibited the use of oars.

Although his subjects, to a man, hated boats, they were required to sail home or drown, and they did some of each.

The drownings would continue, no doubt, if the bridges all fell into the river and the residents had to sail across today. They still hate boats here.

In addition, yachting as a pastime is probably discouraged by the present government, which doesn’t want anybody sailing over the hill, so to speak.

The other day in any case, as far as the eye could see from Leningrad’s huge new Pribaltiyskaya Hotel on the Gulf of Finland, only one sailboat was moving on a brilliant, breezy afternoon.


Nor was anyone swimming or playing tennis. Although as a resort hotel the Pri boasts a small bowling alley, the place was built without a tennis court or a golf course, and its only swimming pool is a small one in which to cool off after a spell in the sauna.

Sitting in a sauna is the kind of thing a Soviet sportsman does very well.

THE TALENTED Not surprisingly, the citizens who seem to have the most fun in the Soviet Union are those with the most talent and energy.

A couple in this class are Anne (not her real name) and her fiancee, Alexander.

She’s 20, he’s 22. She’s a Leningrad University-trained interpreter. He’s a full-time tennis player.

Or, as Anne put it: “Alexander is a full-time student at the Sports Institute, where he plays tennis.”

Alexander, who originally learned the game at a private sports club of the kind that are familiar in European lands, has one goal: to represent the Soviet Union internationally.

“But I’m afraid he’s too old,” Anne said. “He’s a fine athlete, but we (the Soviets) just got started in tennis, and younger players have a better chance. I think Alexander will be a great tennis coach someday. I hope so.”


As for herself, Anne said her sport is skiing.

“I go to the Caucasus (Mountains) every Christmas for two weeks of slalom racing,” she said.

It’s a three-hour flight that the family can afford because her father is a university-trained geologist. He also has a car, Anne said, and a summer home.

Soviet summer homes, or dachas, are small, identical, box-like structures clustered like tenpins around beautiful lakes, or sometimes in forests.

Most dachas are considerably more attractive than American slums. But on balance, they’re only marginally appealing as viewed from the windows of the Russian trains that transport passengers, very much on time, from Helsinki to Moscow and Leningrad and back.

During a week in the Soviet Union, a traveler also notices things like this:

--At the height of summer, there aren’t many swimmers at Leningrad’s ocean, the Gulf of Finland.

--The wild but lovely gulf shore doesn’t even attract many picnickers.

--Or joggers. There are more runners and joggers today in any Chicago suburb, no doubt, than there are in the whole of the Soviet Union, judging by what one can see from city trams and Soviet trains.


--The omnipresent trams, which are not only frequent but cheap, possibly inhibit physical exercise. Few persons even pay the 5-kopeck fare. They climb on for short distances that could be walked easily and, for exercise, more profitably.

--At Leningrad University, only one language major, Sergio, said that he runs for amusement. A typical enthusiast, Sergio said: “Jogging was America’s greatest invention.”

--Only occasionally does a runner come along the picturesque Neva embankment.

--There aren’t many fishermen, either, although in winter they do fish through the ice. The catches in the Neva, a grizzled old-timer indicated, aren’t bad.

--Curiously, nobody is ever seen water skiing on a big, wide-open river that is bereft of interference from boats and swimmers both.

--In recreational terms, there are, however, some lucky kids here: the subteens who sometimes ride in the cockpits of Soviet canal boats and railroad trains. The drivers are doubtless their dads, who at times let the kids steer.

--Also presumably lucky are the kids who, like Mikhail, are already graduates of Soviet chess schools.


Mikhail, who shared a first-class compartment with his mother on a Moscow train one night, said he’s 12. He has played chess for three years.

Russian chess players have been among the world’s best since the days of Peter the Great, who carried a portable chess set with him on military campaigns. Peter also played chess and checkers in a royal garden that still exists here next to his old summer house a mile or so upriver from the Winter Palace.

--Soviet motorists are among the world’s fewest and fastest, hitting 50 m.p.h. or more on downtown Moscow streets. A growing number of residents own cars, and Moscow now carries twice as much traffic as it did a few years ago--and twice as much as Leningrad today. In numbers of cars on the streets, Leningrad looks like a U.S. town in the 1920s.

--Motoring as Americans know it, with gas stops and hamburger stops and motels at night, doesn’t exist here.

--On the other hand, the two great amusement enterprises that have identified Russia since the time of the czars--the circus and the ballet--still thrive. Peter the Great aimed to attend the circus every week, and in modern Moscow some Russians still do.

--By comparison, the newest Soviet entertainment effort, home television, is a near bust. Soccer and hockey games are all that keep it from notoriety as a total bust.


Technically, the picture is better than the ones Americans get. But artistically, the presentations are unbearably worse.

DR, MICHAEL HALL / Los Angeles Times