The United States and the Soviet Union formed an uneasy pact to help turn back Nazi Germany during World War II. Less than a decade later, most global events were seen as part of the Cold War between the two super powers, including the Olympics.
The Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland set a record for countries (69) and participants (nearly 5,000), numbers boosted by the USSR's first appearance in the games as a communist nation. The Soviets felt winning medals — and blocking the Americans in the process — could boost their profile on the world stage while espousing the superiority of their way of life.
In 1951, the USSR produced the equivalent of $8.2 billion in today's money on sports equipment. It was part of an effort designed to, not just close the gap on the Americans, but surpass them.
They nearly did. The U.S. topped the medal table with 76 thanks to dominance in track, followed closely by the Soviets’ 71 thanks to a serious haul on the wrestling mat. The competition began an athletic tug-of-war at the world's largest sporting event that continues seven decades later. Either the Americans or the Russians have finished with the most medals at each of the last 17 Summer Olympics, the U.S. doing it nine times and their counterparts eight.
The USSR was still a mystery to much of the world in 1952. Details of the country's athletic progress were sketchy in the West. Reports of world records and eye-popping performances all came from the highly-filtered government-controlled media. The decision for all Soviet bloc nations to live in an Olympic village separate from Western nations only deepened the mystery.
Then the USSR surprisingly invited Westerners — including Americans — to enter the communist Olympic Village. The Soviets even hosted a swanky dinner for members of the U.S. Olympic delegation replete with vodka and whitefish caught in the Volga River, toasting goodwill under paintings of Joseph Stalin and the Politburo.
“We can't reciprocate,” an unnamed American official told The Associated Press. “We simply don't have the money.”
The Americans did hold onto their edge in the medal standings, but just barely. And over the course of two weeks in a city less than 500 miles from the Arctic Circle, the Soviets sent a very loud message that they were very much ready to challenge the U.S. for global athletic supremacy.