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

July 22, 1986|BOB OATES | Times Staff Writer

LENINGRAD, Soviet Union — 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.

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