As the Winter Olympics come to a close in Sochi, Russia, we look at the longstanding rivalries between the U.S. and Russia.
Unless you live in a cave, it’s hard not to notice Sochi right now. The Russian coastal town is an oft-overlooked destination (it ranks as only the 52nd most populous city in Russia, with Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then 49 other cities, constantly stealing all the glory). But this year, all eyes are on Sochi for the Winter Olympics, thanks to Vladimir Putin—Russia’s perpetually dour but occasionally shirtless president—have commanded the world’s attention.
How could they not? The 2014 Games, the most expensive in history, have reportedly cost Russia and investors over $50 billion (although that number is contested), saddling the region with debt and even exceeding the cost of Beijing’s gratuitous grandeur in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games. Such lavish ruble spending—done in order to turn a little known seaside town with a humid subtropical climate into a winter wonderland for two weeks—can only mean one thing: Russia is attempting to rival American excess and our inalienable right to spend money we usually don’t have on absurdly unnecessary items.
The US and Russia have a long history of trying to outdo one another, so, in honor of Russia stepping it up in the opulence game, let’s explore a few other bilateral rivalries that have occurred throughout the tumultuous history of the two superpowers.
1. Astronaut v Cosmonaut
After World War II, an arms race between the US and the Soviet Union (now Russia) ignited, with both powers vying to be the king of advanced weaponry. This technological rivalry naturally evolved from mere rocket-based munitions tinkering to the exploration of the cosmos, as both nations raced to put a satellite, an animal, and a man into orbit beyond our atmosphere. The Soviets darted fast out of the gate, launching the satellites Sputnik 1 and Sputnik 2 (with Laika the dog in tow) into orbit in 1957. However, when the astronauts (US), cosmonauts (USSR), and a space-minded president (John F. Kennedy) entered the picture in the 60s, the race really heated up. On April 12, 1961, the Soviets catapulted Yuri Gagarin—a pilot in the Soviet Air Force who had once fled his village from a German invasion—into orbit.
Not to be outdone, President Kennedy soon addressed Congress and the nation, all but demanding the US to up the ante and put a man on the moon by the end of the decade. Heeding the call, American astronaut John Glenn one-upped Gagarin by orbiting the Earth three times in 1962. The next year, Cosmonaut Valentia Tereshkova became the first woman in space. And so a back-and-forth power-and-prestige grab ensued and lasted until the end of the decade. On July 20, 1969, the astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin—both former US military pilots—touched down on the surface of the moon. Moments later, when Armstrong announced that “the Eagle has landed” and stepped onto the moon, the space race had been won.
2. Fischer v Spassky
The Cold War significantly altered the daily lives of Americans during its many decades: elementary school children learned about nuclear fallout, those questioning social inequality were labeled as commies, and the game of chess suddenly symbolized, for many, one superpower’s supremacy over another. In 1972, Bobby Fischer took it on himself to topple the Soviet Union’s almost 25-year dominance in the realm of chess when he went up against current world champion Boris Spassky. Given the bilateral relations between two countries at the time, it’s no surprise that the 21-game match in Reykjavik, Iceland, drew more worldwide interest than any match before it or since. Despite some infuriating disappearing acts and seemingly high-maintenance demands from Fischer, the eccentric American genius ultimately proved victorious (and even won a rematch against Spassky in 1992) and is considered by many to be the greatest chess player who ever lived.
3. Reagan v Gorbachev
These days, Ronald Reagan is a figure often revered by conservatives and loathed by liberals. But in the 80s, he gained favor on both sides of the aisle when he directly challenged Mikhail Gorbachev, the leader of the Soviet Union. Standing in front of the Brandenburg Gate in Berlin on June 12, 1987, Reagan firmly commanded Gorbachev to “Tear down this wall!” The wall in question was, of course, the infamous Berlin Wall, which separated Germans in East Germany—a socialist zone occupied by the Soviet Union—from those in NATO-aligned West Germany. Reagan’s directive, often labeled as the four most famous words of his presidency, was met (as you can imagine) with criticism from the Soviet Union, with some calling it “openly provocative” and “war-mongering.” However, twenty-nine months later, the wall—a stark symbol of the capitalist West and communist East and all the rivalries between them—was opened and soon fell completely.
4. Obama v Putin
If you ever see a photo of Barack Obama and Vladimir Putin sitting together in the same room, you’ll notice that the tension between them is palpable. It would be easy to claim that their coldness stems from simple and mutual disdain, but that would be glossing over the many rivalries between the powerful men. The political and social trajectories of Obama and Putin, and the respective nations under their proverbial wings, are starkly different, causing the two men to be at odds on almost everything: the nature of government, economic policies, free speech, gay rights, and a host of other issues.
The two presidents’ views on gay rights have especially taken center stage at this year’s Olympics, with Putin voicing antigay sentiments leading up to the Games (not to mention passing repressive laws) and Obama proudly noting that the US has sent two openly gay athletes to Sochi. This may be seen as a direct message to Putin, intended to call out the leader’s Bronze Age ideology and suppression and to subtly influence him to lose the KGB persona of his past and, instead, adopt a more tolerant and modern style of governance. The rivalry could certainly be softened by Obama serenading Putin with his rendition of Al Green’s “Let’s Stay Together.” Fingers crossed that this will be the climax of Sochi’s closing ceremony.
5. Balboa v Drago
And last but not least, we have to give credit to one of the most epic U.S.-Russian rivalries, even if it played out in Hollywood. In a crucial scene from Rocky IV, when discussing his upcoming match against Soviet powerhouse Ivan Drago, Rocky (played by Sylvester Stallone) tells a skeptical Adrian that “Maybe I can’t win. Maybe the only thing I can do is just take everything he’s got. But to beat me, he’s going to have to kill me. And to kill me, he’s gonna have to have the heart to stand in front of me. And to do that, he’s got to be willing to die himself.” Considering the times, have any more apt words ever been spoken?
In 1985, Rocky IV distilled the US-Soviet rivalry into a highly entertaining and patriotic microcosm of the Cold War. Going up again Ivan Drago, a chiseled and robotic monster of a man played by Dolph Lundgren, the Italian Stallion is fighting not for money or fame; he is fighting for his country, democracy, and American values at large. The whole film gloriously reeks of heavy-handed intercontinental strife and conflict resolution, with Rocky, upon (spoiler alert!) taking down Drago, exclaiming, “If I can change, and you can change, everybody can change!” While the Cold War didn’t officially end until 1991, I’d like to think that Rocky Balboa played no small role in bringing about its conclusion.