On May 24, 1956 a song contest was started in Lugano, Switzerland that would eventually become a major entertainment event in Europe and even attract major interest around the world over the years. It was called the Eurovision Song Contest Grand Prix back then. Now the Eurovision Song Contest heads into 60 years of showcasing music and song and is bigger than ever.
THE START OF SOMETHING BIG
The Eurovision Song Contest (ESC) is the brainchild of the European Broadcasting Union (EBU), a union of all the national broadcast associations from around Europe. It was in the early 1950’s. Europe was a divided war-torn continent struggling to rebuild itself and struggling to heal international relations that had only worsened due to the fighting of World War II that had ended in 1945.
In 1951, the Italian city of Sanremo started a music festival to help revitalize the city’s economy and the image of the city of Sanremo. The festival which was titled Festival della Canzone Italiana, or the Italian Song Festival, was held in January that year in the Sanremo Casino and was a hit.
The contest attracted the attention of the EBU and it inspired them of their own idea. They hoped for this Contest to unite the European nations through art and song. At a meeting of the EBU broadcasters in Monaco in 1955, the idea of a pan-European music festival was brought to the table. The Sanremo festival and its format served as the base for how this contest would be held. The following year on May 24, 1956, the first ever Eurovision Song Contest was held.
THE FIRST CONTEST
The very first Eurovision Song Contest was held at the Teatro Kursall in Lugano, Switzerland. The contest was only one hour and forty minutes long. The contest was broadcast both on television and radio since most people didn’t yet own a television set. Only solo performers were allowed to perform and songs were not to exceed three and a half minutes in length. There were fourteen songs performed by a total of twelve acts from seven different countries: Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Luxembourg, the Netherlands and Switzerland. Austria, Denmark and the UK planned to perform but missed the submission deadline.
All participating countries fielded two songs performed with only Luxembourg and Switzerland having the same singer sing both songs. An orchestra for the whole contest was fielded but each country would have their own conductor conducting. Voting was done by two jury members from each participating country in secret ballot. In the end, 32 year-old Swiss singer Lys Assia won the contest for her song ‘Refrain.’ Along with her prizes, Lys was to perform her winning song at the end of the contest.
The first Contest was however marred by controversy. First, the fact the winner was decided by secret ballot. Second was the fact that the two members of Luxembourg’s jury who were to vote didn’t make it to Lugano. Both members of the Swiss jury were allowed to give a second vote. In fact no one knows what the official results of the contest are to this day. The EBU knew they had to make changes for the next contest if it were to continue.
THE SECOND CONTEST SETS THE STAGE
As I mentioned, the Contest had to iron out some things if it wanted to go further. One thing that wasn’t ironed out back then was the host nation. It was planned in the future that each competing nation would have their chance at hosting. However the increasing number of countries would make that concept an impossibility. Germany who finished second at last year’s contest was allowed to host the 1957 contest in Frankfurt.
This time there were ten nations competing with all seven nations from the previous year returning and Austria, UK and Denmark meeting the deadline this time. As in the previous year, there was an orchestra which was to be conducted by a conductor from each country. This time there was to be only one performance per country. There was no time limit of songs and the contest was open to duets. Denmark would field the first-ever duet in the Contest’s history.
In response to the voting controversy from the previous year, this year would start a judging format that would still exist to this day. This time the juries stayed in their home country and watched the competition from television and they were not allowed to vote for their own country. One voting aspect for this Contest and the four following was the juries were all given a total of ten points to divide among the performers whom they felt worthy. Only two performers from last year’s contest–the Netherlands’ Corry Brokken and last year’s winner Lys Assia– returned. Brokken won the contest but the big news was of the kiss of the Danish duo who performed: it lasted 13 seconds.
However it’s not to say this contest experienced issues. There was the issue of the time length of the songs. The Italian song was 5:09 minutes in length and the UK entry wasn’t even two minutes. Further Eurovision contests would permit for a song of a maximum length of three minutes.
THE CONTEST GROWS OVER TIME
In 1958, the contest was held in Hilversum, Netherlands. This would be a Eurovision tradition as the nation of the Contest winner would host the following year’s contest: a tradition rarely broken. Lys Assia and Corry Brokken were back. For the record, past champions are allowed to perform again and there’s no limit to how many Eurovisions they can participate. The contest was won by a French singer but it was the song that finished third– Domenico Modugno’s Volare— that would win the world over. Already the first hit generated from the Contest.
The contest would grow over the next ten years from ten countries in 1958 to eighteen in 1966. Yugoslavia debuted in 1961 and would become the only nation of the former Eastern Bloc to participate in the Contest during the years of the Cold War. The Contest was known for being out of tune with the common tastes of the record-buying public. While the times were embracing rock ‘n roll and Beatlemania, most songs in the Contest were in fact big band-style songs and the winners up to 1964 were all ballads. The first non-ballad to win was Luxembourg performer France Gall’s ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son’ which sounded like the popular go-go music of the 1960’s. However there would be a major problem in 1969 when four songs shared the top score and thus four winners were declared. Five countries boycotted the following year and the EBU knew it had to revamp the scoring process in time for the 1970 Contest.
1971 allowed for groups up to six to perform.1973 saw the first non-European country to enter performers: Israel. It would not be the last but it would be the most consistent, appearing a total of 41 times and winning three times. 1974 saw the performance of ABBA and ‘Waterloo’ which would launch the band into stardom and would even considered by most to be the best Eurovision Song Contest ever. 1975 would see the one-to-twelve points scoring system that would stick ever since. Before the 1976 contest, there would be protests in Sweden over how commercial the contest became. Sweden withdrew that year as a result.
1980 would see Morocco enter for the first and only time. Over the years the Contest would grow in terms of nations being broadcast to although participating nations were the only ones allows to field juries for voting. The Contest would also see more numbers include dancing in their performances as dance had a key factor in the UK’s Bucks Fizz winning in 1981 for ‘Making You Mind Up.’ Also from that winning performance was the rip of the female singers’ skirts to reveal a miniskirt. That would lead to more onstage gimmicks and more sexually provocative performances over time. The Contest would even introduce the world to a Canadian diva competing for Switzerland in 1998 by the name of Celine Dion and even won with the song ‘Ne Partez Pas Sans Moi.’ The 80’s would also see the Contest’s first and only two-time winner with Ireland’s Johnny Logan: in 1980 with ‘What’s Another Year’ and in 1987 with ‘Hold Me Now.’
1990 would pave the way for the post-Cold war era of Europe and would also change the ESC as a result. 1990 was known for featuring a lot of politically-focused songs with the fall of Communism being a top song topic. The winner was ‘Insieme:1992,’ an Italian song about the upcoming European Union. The changes of Europe were first evident in 1993 when three nations of the former Yugoslavia entered the contest for the first time. However they would be the three winners of a pre-qualifying round of seven ‘newcoming’ nations to the ESC: all former members of the Eastern Bloc. That was another difficulty for the contest: dealing with new nations who wanted to participate. 1994 saw the seven lowest-placing countries from 1993 not invited the following year and allowing for seven debuting countries all from the former Eastern Bloc. 1996 tried to solve things by having an audio-only pre-qualifying contest to reduce the 29 submissions to a manageable 23 performers.
1997 saw the introduction of televoting but only five of the 25 participating countries used televoting to decide the winners. The number would grow to 22 out of 25 in 1998. 1998 would also have the first ever transsexual, Israel’s Dana International, to perform. She even won with her song ‘Diva.’ 1999 would see the departure of the orchestra and the arrival of pre-recorded music. However pre-recorded vocals were not allowed and are still not allowed.
The maximum number of countries was always a frustration with the EBU. Due to the break-up of the USSR, the fall of the iron curtain and Yugoslavia’s republics going their separate ways, more nations wanted to compete at the contest and that would lead the EBU to make rules to put a limit on having a manageable number of countries performing on the night. That would be seen unfair in many people’s eyes. Then 2004 saw the debut of a Semi-Final for the Contest. 2008 would see the current format of two semi-finals and a Grant Final for the Contest. 2015 would feature the debut of the first non-European invitee since Morocco in 1980: Australia.
This year the contest will have 42 competing nations including Australia returning. The contest will be held in the Globe Theatre of Stockholm, Sweden; host country of last year’s winner Mans Zelmerlow who won for ‘Heroes.’ 42 countries will perform. There were to be 43 but Romania was disallowed because of unpaid debts owing to the EBU. 36 of the countries will compete in the semi-finals. The host nation and the Big Five countries (UK, Spain, France, Italy and Germany) are to bypass the semis as they qualify for the final. However they are to perform in the semis as a ‘dress rehearsal’ and they are allowed to vote on the other semi finalists who are contending for Finals berths.
RULES, RULES, RULES
It never fails. When you have a performance contest, you have rules that go along with it. Here’s a brief guide to some of the rules of the Contest. And I’ll try to make it brief.
When the contest started, a performer could sing in whatever language they wanted. In 1966, it was declared performers can only perform in their native language. The restriction was lifted in 1973 but returned for 1977 as songs sung in English from Austria and Finland at the 1976 Contest delivered sexually-suggestive lyrics. The restriction was kept intact from 1977 to 1998. However regional dialects and even rare languages native to the country–like Switzerland’s 1989 entry which was sung in Romansh– were permitted. 1999 saw a return to singing in whatever language the performer chooses to perform. There have even been entries in past Contests which consisted completely of imaginary languages.
Since 1999, all but one winner have been sung either partially or completely in English. It’s very common for a performer to sing their song in the national song contest in the native language but sing their song in English at the Eurovision Contest. Thirty-nine of the 42 songs in the Contest this year will either be partially or completely sung in English. Only three songs will be sung completely in another language and an additional three songs will mix English lyrics with lyrics of another language. The one song with a regional language is Ukraine as Jamala’s ‘1944’ will be sung both in English and Crimean Tatar.
It’s pretty obvious most of the performers at the ESC are citizens of the country they represent. However it’s not set in stone. There have been many times certain countries would field a singer or songwriters from other countries. The best example is Luxembourg. In its 37 appearances from 1956 to 1993, only four singers were actual citizens of Luxembourg. In fact all five singers who won the ESC for Luxembourg were in fact citizens of other countries: four from France and one from Greece. And Monaco’s winning entry from 1971 consisted of the lead singer, backup singers, songwriter and conductor all French citizens. In fact lead singer Severine only ever set foot in Monaco only once just weeks before the Contest when she performed her song live before Prince Ranier.
It’s still happening in modern times. There have been three times when a Canadian singer sang for Switzerland including a then-20 year-old Celine Dion back in 1988. Azerbaijan always fields singers that are citizens of their country but hires Swedish songwriters to write winning songs. Ir’s paid off as Azerbaijan has had five Top 5 finishes including a win in 2011.
Although this is a European Contest, there have been countries outside of Europe who have participated. Israel is the most notable with 38 appearances and even winning three times. Morocco participated only once in 1980. Australia was invited last year and they were invited again this year.
Ever hear the saying “Never work with animals or children?” I’ve never known of a Eurovision act with a live animal involved but I’ve learned about children. There have been times when children performed as backup singers or even as a performer and the EBU didn’t have a problem with that. However the problem first started when 13 year-old Belgian singer Sandra Kim won the contest with ‘J’aime la Vie.’ The problem was she passed herself off as fifteen in the song. But it would be the 1989 Contest that would cause chagrin among the EBU as France’s entry was an 11 year-old girl and Israel’s entered duo consisted of a 12 year-old boy. The EBU made a rule for the following year that performers on stage must be 16 years of age in the Eurovision year, including dancers and backup singers. Performers under 16 would have to wait until 2003 for the Junior Eurovision Song Contest to begin to have their day in the sun.
There’s no specific guidelines for what topics the songs should be about. For those who’ve seen the contest, anything seems to go. There have been topics that are universal like love and peace, topics that are regional like war or triumph among past genocide, topics that are sexual in nature, topics that are political, topics that are humorous and even topics that are either ridiculous or sent in an eccentric manner. Anything goes, almost. The only time I’ve heard of a song disqualified for its content was back in 2009 when Georgia entered ‘We Don’t Wanna Put In.’ Many felt it referenced Russia’s Vladimir Putin especially since Georgia was part of the victorious Orange Revolution years earlier. The fact that the ESC was being held in Moscow that year made things that more complicated. There was one case in 2012 when the act for San Marino was to perform ‘The Facebook Song’ but couldn’t because it interfered with the Contest’s product placement rules. The song would be retitled ‘The Social Network Song.’
The Performance and Performers In A Nutshell:
There are some unbasic rules when it comes to submitting a country’s performer and/or performance. Some countries hold their own national song contest to determine the national entrant for the ESC that year and some have a board that picks the performer and the song. Most likely they are a citizen of the country but they don’t have to be. Past performers are allowed to return again, even if they’re a past winner, but Johnny Logan the only two-time winner as a performer.
Then there are the basic rules. The song must be no longer than three minutes in length. The limit of on-stage performers varies over the years but the current limit is six performers on stage at once, including dancers. Up until 1999, the song was to be orchestrated even if musicians were added along. Live music, even by artists performing on stage, has been banned since 2004. Vocals are all to be done live with no lip-syncing. The biggest thing however is that the song is to be completely original. No cover songs are allowed and no sampling of other records are allowed either, not even in rap entries. Recorded versions of the song are allowed to be released before the Contest or even the national contest but a release before September 1st of the year before the Contest would disqualify them. These eligibility rules have led to a number of entries in the past being disqualified.
Voting The Winner:
As the rules of the Contest are ever changing, so are the rules in declaring the winner. Starting with the topic of who decides the winner, the secret-ballot from the first Contest caused friction. Then from 1957 to 1962, it was ten member juries who viewed the Contest from their home country and called in their results. 1963 brought it to a twenty-member jury but was reduced back to ten from 1964 to 1970. Then from 1971 to 1973, there were juries of only two that were present at the actual contest to give points to the winners. In 1974, the format returned to juries staying at home to decide and call in the results. The number of jury members started at 11 but eventually rose to sixteen.
In 1996, it was noted how out of sync the ESC juries were with the record-buying public in terms of deciding winners. In 1997, televoting where viewers called in their favorites was introduced but used as an experiment given to five of the 25 countries at the Contest that year. In 1998, it was expanded to all countries except those that had weak telephone systems. 2001 and 2002 allowed the country’s respective broadcasting association to decide between televoting or a jury decision. The Contests from 2004 and 2008 were exclusively televoting. From 2009 to 2015, televoting and jury results were combined into a single score per country with the televoting result taking precedence if there was a tie. In 2015, it was the juries that took precedence.
Deciding the winners is harder to explain than the points system for the songs. From 1957 to 1961, juries were given a total of 10 points to divide among the performances they liked best. In 1962, juries gave 1 point for 3rd place, 2 for second or 3 for 1st. From 1964 to 1966, it was a point for 3rd, three points for 2nd and five points for third. 1967 marked the return of 10 points to divide however 1970 saw an introduction of tie-breaking rules after the four-way tie in 1969 which led to many countries respond by boycotting. From 1971 to 1973, the juries gave anywhere from 2 to 10 points per song. 1974 was a return to 10 points to divide.
However it was the 1975 Contest that would introduce a scoring format that has stuck since. Each country would rank their Top 10 but of course would not vote for their own country. The country they rank 10th would get one point, 9th would get two points, and so on until 8 points for 3rd place. The country they ranked second would be awarded 10 points and the country they ranked #1 would get 12 points. Since then, twelve points or douze points would be synonymous with Eurovision.
For This Year:
This year’s Contest will be held in the Ericsson Globe Arena in Stockholm, Sweden. They were awarded the Contest upon the win of Mans Zelmerlow for his song ‘Heroes.’ In a rare turn of events, Zelmerlow will co-host the Contest with Petra Mede. Not that often the reigning champion co-hosts. It seems right that Sweden hosts as they have one of the biggest Eurovision legacies with a total of six wins. Only Ireland has won more with seven.
The Contest will be broadcast to 50 countries and can be viewed on LiveStream through the website eurovision.tv. The USA will have live broadcast of the final for the first time ever: on Cable channel Logo-TV. Draws were held months ago to decide who competes in the two semi-finals. The officials allocated the draw for geographical means to keep ‘neighbor voting,’ which I will reflect on later, down to a minimum. Most countries will have citizens of their own country as performers but Switzerland will again have a Canadian as a performer: Vancouverite Rykka with ‘The Last Of Our Kind.’ Romania wasn’t the only country to experience friction before this year’s Contest. Germany had to replace its entry because it soon came to light their originally entered performer had been vocal in the past of extreme right-wing views.
There’s the interval acts too: performances taking place while viewers place their televotes. Zelmerlow will perform his winning song from last year ‘Heroes’ during the interval of the first Semifinal held on Tuesday the 10th, the interval act for the second Semi on Thursday will be a dance ensemble and the interval act for Saturday’s Final will be Justin Timberlake performing ‘Can’t Stop The Feeling’ from the movie Trolls. Interesting note is Timberlake co-wrote and co-produced the song with two Swedish songwriters: Shellback and Max Martin.
Also something new for this year’s Contest. You know how there’s always confusion with the 50/50 system of televoting and jury voting on which overrides in the case of ties. Well, introduces for the first time this year countries will deliver two sets of scores. Now both televoting and juries from each country will give their own separate one to twelve points. This should take away from the confusion and make the contest more even.
I’ll admit I like seeing the Contest. I was lucky to see it live on LiveStream in 2013 and 2014. I live in Canada and none of the networks will be showing the contest live. I will be too busy to watch any of the Contest live thanks to my work schedule and music rehearsal.
I can understand of the Contest’s greatness. It’s the world’s most watched non-sporting event with a wide array of performers of various countries performing their song to win over the rest of Europe. It’s excellent that it helped launch the careers of Celine Dion, ABBA, Bucks Fizz and Ruslana as well as a stepping stone for Julio Iglesias and Nana Mouskouri. It’s also been the stage for established acts like Toto Cutogno, Cliff Richard, Lulu and Engelbert Humperdinck. It has also unleashed some classic songs like ‘Poupee de Cire, Poupee de Son,’ ‘Waterloo,’ ‘Making Your Mind Up,’ ‘Volare,’ ‘Love Is Blue (l’Amour Est Bleu),’ ‘Save All Your Kisses For Me,’ and ‘Euphoria.’
However I won’t deny the drawbacks of the Contest. I will admit there are some idiotic performances that rely too much on getting their gimmick to propel them to the win. In fact I hope I don’t sound bigoted but I strongly believe the wins of Israel’s Dana International in 1998 and Austria’s Conchita Wurst in 2014 were because of the hype of both being transgender. I’ll admit there are some songs and performances too eccentric to be real. I will also admit that often the winners are out of sync with the current trends in music. Even with the inclusion of televoting starting in 1997, the winning songs still don’t sound that current. I can even remember while teenpop ruled the late 90’s, early-2000’s worldwide and even in Europe, 1999’s winner was a schlager song from Sweden , 2000’s was a folksy rock song from Denmark and 2001’s was a calypso number from Estonia. Speaking of televoting, I will admit that even though countries can’t vote for their own performers, that hasn’t stopped them from giving top votes to performers from neighboring countries. Yeah, ‘neighbor voting’ has definitely been an issue with the Contest lately and has even questioned the credibility of televoting. I will admit there have been times I felt the song that came in second place was often better than the winning song. I will admit the Contest can propel the winning song to hit status internationally but not always. I will also admit that sometimes the Contest can end up being the peak of a performer’s career in most cases. I really learned a lot from the 2013 BBC show ‘How To Win Eurovision’ that was a show that showed all the idiocy that happens with the ESC but still showed why it was still important for the UK to get back on top. For the record, the UK’s fifth and last win was in 1997, their 23rd and last Top 3 finish was in 2002 and had all three of their last-place finishes in this 21st century. Yes, their legacy of five wins and 15 second-places is definitely a thing of the past.
I will admit to the negative but I still believe it is an enjoyable show to see. I won’t deny some acts try to gimmick their way to the win. However there have been many times even in the era of televoting that the less-gimmicky songs like 2007’s ‘Molitva’ and 2010’s ‘Satellite’ have gone on to win. Even 2012’s ‘Euphoria,’ which some people compare to David Guetta’s ‘Titanium,’ could not only win but burn up the dance floors worldwide too. I myself welcome gimmicks but only as long as they’re not stupid, not too weird and not too distracting from the song itself or could even boost the song. Hey, 2006’s winner ‘Hard Rock Hallelujah’ had a gimmick that made the song. I still like seeing it on YouTube. Basically the Contest was to focus on the song. More often than not, it is the song that rises to the top. Even last year’s winner ‘Heroes’ was a song with a good message with a stage performance from Zelmerlow with an interactive backdrop that worked with his movements and help make for a stage show that helped him win. Actually the Contest is less eccentric than it was seven years ago. I guess those no-nonsense songs that won are sending a message.
The Eurovision Song Contest was originally created in 1956 to bridge gaps in Europe that was healing after World War II. 60 years later, Europe is more unified and there’s less international animosity than ever. I don’t know if the Contest actually achieved all that in its 60 years but it does make for one entertaining show!
If you like hockey, you may be interested in watching Red Army. It takes you back to a dynasty in sports history hockey fans will remember well.
The film focuses on the glory days of Soviet hockey. It doesn’t focus so much on its first exposure of Soviet hockey prowess back during its early days starting with the 1956 Winter Olympics and continuing in the 1960’s. Its prime focus however was during the 70’s and 80’s when Soviet hockey was at its best and most dominating. This was the era of Vladislav Tretiak who is widely considered to be the best goalie in the history of ice hockey. This was also the era of Vyacheslav ‘Slava’ Fetisov and the magic five that included him, Igor Larionov, Alex Kazatanov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov. As Canadians, we saw them as invincible machines who we all thought we’d lose to big time or have to put in a hell of a fight to win, as we did at the 1972 Summit Series and the 1984 Canada Cup.
The film also focuses on the team being instrumental during the Cold War. As many may remember, there was the ‘free world’ led by the United States and the Communist world led by the U. S. S. R. or Soviet Union as we commonly called it. Both countries were bitter enemies and both sought to defeat the other. The people were left paralyzed with fear feeling a war between the two might strike any day especially as each country increased its nuclear warheads. As far as sport went, it was in that arena where the Cold War was a common scene of rivalry. The Soviet Union as well as the other Soviet-allied nations of the Eastern Bloc wanted to use sport as a showcase of Communism’s superiority. The USA/USSR rivalry was always the biggest rivalry at any Olympics. The US had their winning sprinters, decathletes, boxers, wrestlers, swimmers and figure skaters. The Soviets had their gymnasts, throwers, weightlifters, cross country skiers, pairs figure skaters and especially its hockey team. The USSR saw their athletes as soldiers in the sports arena.
However the film does more than remind us of the times and the USSR’s dominance. It also showed life in the USSR. Life under the rationing system may have been fine before World War II but it was hard after the war especially with the country being devastated at a massive level. It didn’t rebuild well but rationing among its citizen’s still existed. It made for a hard life for most as people lived in crowded houses which might not have included running water. Even Slava Fetisov remembers receiving fish on Thursday. It also showed how the athletes were the privileged ones in the Soviet system while regular citizens had to stand in line-ups for their daily rations. It even showed the weakening of this system to the citizens in the 1980’s which paved the way to the reforms known as Glasnost and Perestroika and the eventual collapse of the USSR in 1991.
Of all the hockey players, the film focuses mostly on Slava Fetisov. Fetisov was discovered by sporting scouts of the government who were hired to search out talent at a young age to train up to Olympic level. That was sport in the Soviet Union: children were scouted out, analyzed physically for future athletic potential, and taken to central training facilities to train eleven months a year up to Olympic level. As cruel and inhumane it was for the USSR to do that, it worked and the USSR often had the biggest Olympic medal haul during that time. However the USSR cherished winning in ice hockey the most. In fact there was one propaganda song sung by boys about hockey where they sang lyrics like: “Real men play hockey. Substandard men don’t play hockey.” It was in the hockey stage where they could best show the world Communism’s prowess. It succeeded with winning a massive number of World Championships and eight Olympic golds out of the team’s ten Olympic appearances.
The documentary shows another side of the Soviet hockey team. We all saw the Soviets to play hockey like machines. What we would learn in that documentary is that the Soviets were not only prepared to have the brawn for the game but they were also prepared to have the smarts for the game as they were taught strategies by chess players. They were even taught ballet by some of the top ballet instructors. It wasn’t just tough training they went through but smart training too. What came of it was a play that was not only powerful and effective for winning but a play of style and finesse. Hard to believe none of us Canadians noticed that. Maybe if we weren’t so charmed by all this hockey fighting in the NHL, we would’ve noticed.
The documentary showed another aspect of the Soviet players that we missed all along. Sure, we saw the team as machines but the team was like a family. Slava Fetisov, Tretiak, Larionov, Makarov, Krutov, Kazatonov, they all saw each other as brothers. Of course when your taken from your own home and trained at a location thousands of miles away eleven months of the year, it should be natural to do so. It not only helped in making them better players but it helped with the players knowing their playing style inside out and make them a winning combination on the ice. A reminder that team chemistry was as essential to the success to the Soviet team as it is in practically any team sport. That was one of the qualities coach Anatoliy Tarasov— USSR hockey coach from the 1964 to 1972 Olympics– invested into the Soviet hockey team.
However the film also shows some darker sides of the Soviet team. It begins however on a positive note with Fetisov’s first experiences being coached by Tarasov in the 70’s. Tarasov wasn’t just simply a strict coach but he also played the role as a father figure to the team. Tarasov also helped develop key qualities in the team–speed, grace, teamwork, and patriotism– that became the blueprint of Soviet hockey and helped create their dynasty. However after Tarasov was fired, Viktor Tikhonov was brought in as coach. The Miracle On Ice game of 1980 really hit the Soviets hard not only as a loss of a gold medal but also what appears to be a turning point for Tikhonov. Tikhonov became a lot more ruthless to the players and trained them harder. You can understand why the Soviet players have a disgusted look on their face whenever you mention the Miracle On Ice game and don’t want to talk about it. It was not only a defeat for them but that also marked the time when Tikhonov became more ruthless. He dominated control over the players’ lives. He even cut players from the Soviet team if he sensed they might defect. One example of Tikhonov’s control was when one player’s father was dying. Tikhonov wouldn’t allow him to see his dying father. Things even got so frustrating for Slava at one point, he ran away from the national team to spend time with Tarasov. Here in the documentary none of the players have a positive thing to say about Tikhonov.
The documentary showed that even though the Soviet team was highly acclaimed by the government for their prowess, they were also under heavy scrutiny by the government. Tikhonov wasn’t the only one nervous about possible defections because of the temptation of the NHL. We should remember it was commonly expected that athletes from communist countries were expected to be proud to compete for national glory and reject temptations of money. The team as well as other elite Soviet athletes were allowed to hold Soviet passports: something most Soviet citizens were denied. They were however only allowed to hold them for when they were to attend a competition. Once they arrived back in the USSR, they had to hand them back. Members of the KGB traveled with them in case one member planned to defect. There was a fear that one defection could set off a wave. It reminds us for all their glory and special treatment from the government, they were puppets under a system with a huge eagle eye over them. In fact Tretiak may have been the greatest goalie ever but he was never once allowed to play for the NHL in his whole career.
The documentary also shows when the bubble eventually did burst and Soviets eventually did find their way into the NHL. It all started when a junior player by the name of Alexander Mogilny decided to defect in May of 1989. Eight players including Fetisov soon followed. The arrival of such players was met with excitement for some NHL fans while others were more forbidding like Don Cherry who didn’t want any at all. However things weren’t easy. Even though Glasnost and Perestroika were starting to happen, Soviet athletes were still under scrutiny. Fetisov’s professional career in the NHL was monitored. As for play, Fetisov did not adjust too well to new life in the NHL. He learned right in his first game how the NHL was a different kind of play, especially when it came to fighting. His wife Ladlena had some challenges fitting in with the other wives of her husband’s NHL teammates. The struggle was common for a lot of Soviet players trying to adjust to NHL play. Nevertheless things eventually did pay off for Fetisov as he was with the Red Wings in 1997 the same time as Larionov and three other younger Russians. The team was able to get a chemistry of their own and they won the Stanley Cup. The team was able to bring the Stanley Cup to Moscow’s Red Square that year but not without challenges such as clearing things up after a post-victory limousine incident and negotiating with the Russian government.
The documentary ends with what has happened since. Fetisov has become a member of the Russian political party, a Minister of Sport in Russia and even part of Russia’s bidding team in 2007 for the Sochi Olympics in 2014. Tretiak is simultaneously the current President of the Russian Ice Hockey Federation and runs his own goalie school in Toronto which is considered physically punishing by most and very restrictive to whom is admitted. Tikhonov was given countless honors like the Orders of Honor and Merit in Russia and was even a nominee for the Olympic Order. The lives of all the hockey players living and deceased are also focused on at the end.
However the most notable end is the focus on the end of Soviet hockey. As you know the USSR collapsed in 1991. Surprisingly Tikhonov mellowed down in his coaching style afterward but it was still successful enough to bring the team of former Soviets under the name The Unified Team their last gold medal in 1992. The Soviet dynasty ended with as much of a bangs as it began with at the 1956 Olympics. Team Russia has been a different story. Russia continues to churn out top talents and top players. However Russia has never won Olympic gold. Silver in 1998 and bronze in 2002 but that’s it. They didn’t even have it together during Sochi when they lost their quarterfinal to Finland. Leaves you wondering when you remember that talk of the Soviet’s team chemistry if that’s what’s missing with the Russian team. The film ends showing Alexander Ovechkin, the current Russian phenomenon, playing a shootout game for a Washington TV station. A bit of trivia: Ovie was just two weeks short of his sixth birthday when the USSR collapsed. As he plays his game for the TV crew, we hear Slava saying something’s missing in Russian hockey. You’re left feeling that same way too.
One of the funny things of the documentary is that it will remind a lot of Canadians of the inferiority complex Canadians had to endure with in the 1980’s and maybe even the late 1970’s. Already Canadians were going through an inferiority complex of being made to feel second-fiddle to the Americans ever since the inclusion of cable TV bringing American entertainment into our living rooms. Adding to the feelings of inferiority to Canadians was seeing the Soviets excel in hockey. It was often a case of Olympic rules as the best Canadian players were professionals who were ineligible to compete in the Olympics. The best Soviet players however fit within the Olympic rules and were thus eligible to compete at the Olympics Games while the Canadian team at every Olympics during that era always fielded a diluted version of our very best. The Soviets almost always came on top while the Canadian team always fell short. Even when Canada got out its best pros for the Canada Cup, Canada would still face tough challenges from the Soviets as they were total machines and would almost always dominate over the Canadians. You can understand why Canadians cherish the memory of the victory at the 1972 Summit. You can also understand why the Americans hold the 1980 Miracle On Ice close to their hearts. Being second to the Soviets in what is ‘our game’ bit hard and left us down for a long time.
The film also brought back a lot of memories not just of the Soviet team but also how many of us remember the changes of Glasnost and Perestroika that were happening of the late-80’s and early 90’s. It even reminded us of the sports personalities at the time such as Brian Williams, Ron MacLean, Don Cherry, Don Wittman and Al Michaels. It also reminds us of many memorable moments in hockey. In fact it brought back the memories when I remember first hearing of Mogilny’s defection. Who would have thought that would be the beginning of the end?
Another unique thing is that it does something that was never done with the North American television stations before. It humanized the Soviet team. It reminded us behind the strong stoic Soviet team, they were human beings that went through a lot of difficulties. They had human heartbreak of their own. One example when Slava was in a car crash in 1985 that killed his 18 year-old brother. He went through a period of his live when e just didn’t want to live. Even Slava’s talk about his frustration with Tikhonov to the point he runs away to Tarasov showed that even these tough, stoic players had a breaking point of their own. To think all us North Americans saw in the Soviets were machines.
If there was one glitch in this documentary, it’s that Gabe Polsky sometimes does a bit of playing around with the interviews. In fact I remember seeing at the beginning him trying to ask Slava some questions while he’s on a phone call. It’s no wonder Slava flipped him the tweeter after the second question. We see Polsky do a few other stunts too. It’s a question if it was really worth it.
Another glitch is that the film was first released in the middle of 2014 and there was some information either missing or failed to update since. One missing piece of information is Tikhonov’s death in November of 2014. Another piece is of the Sochi Olympics where Fetisov was one of the Olympic flagbearers during the opening ceremony and Tretiak was the final torchbearer along with pairs figure skater Irina Rodnina whom herself is also a three-time Olympic champion and considered the best ever in an event known for Soviet dominance.
Red Army is an intriguing documentary that hockey fans will find worth watching. It takes you back to a stellar dynasty and a unique time. It will also show you a side of them you may have missed during their heyday.
I know there was a lot of talk about whether the Olympic Games should have been held in Russia despite the political problems at the time. I too have my concerns about having them in Russia, especially with the amount of money Vladimir Putin spent on them. However back when I was younger I used to have the belief that if a nation demonstrates their sporting prowess in the Olympic arena, then they’ve earned the right to host an Olympics. Yes that was a naive rationale I had those decades ago but that rationale would sure work for Russia.
THE FIRST SIGNS
Before the current Russian Federation and before the legendary USSR, Russia first competed as the Russian Empire. It only competed in three Olympic Games–1900, 1908 and 1912– and won a total of eight medals: only one of them gold. Nevertheless that gold was unique because it was in the sport of figure skating. Remember how I mentioned that the London Games of 1908 was one of two Summer Olympics to host figure skating until the first Winter Olympics took place in 1924? Well Russian Nikolai Panin won the gold medal in the men’s special figures event.
Then in 1917, the Russian Empire was no longer and became the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Athletes in the USSR were paid the same wages as all Russians who worked. That made them ineligible to compete in all Olympic Games between the two World Wars. Despite Soviet athletes being denied Olympic glory, an athletic revolution was happening inside the USSR at the time that would take the world by storm, provided the Olympic door would open one day.
THE RUSSIANS ARE COMING
In 1952 thanks to some IOC tweeking by President Avery Brundage who ironically was staunchly pro-amateur and slapped Olympic athletes who accepted money with big punishments including a ban from all Olympic competition, the USSR was allowed to compete at the Summer Olympics in Helsinki. They received the second-highest total of medals and would serve notice to the United States that they’d be their most legendary Olympic rival of all-time. They would have to wait until 1956 to compete at the Winter Olympics for the first time but their prowess at the Summer Games of 1952 would send a message to the sporting world.
The Italian resort town of Cortina d’Ampezzo would serve as the host for the 1956 Winter Olympics. The Soviet Union sent 53 athletes to those Olympics and walked away with the most medals. They had won six of the 24 events–including one speed skating event where two Soviets tied for the gold–and a total medal haul of sixteen. The Soviets reigned supreme in speed skating winning three of the four events. Before 1956, the medals of cross country skiing were divided by the Norwegians, Swedes and Finns. The Soviets gave them all a new rival as they came out on top winning seven of the eighteen medals including two golds. However it was hockey where the Soviets would give its biggest signs of the revolution. Before 1956, Team Canada had won hockey gold in all but one previous Olympics. Now Canada finally had a major hockey rival as the USSR won the gold beating Canada 2-0.
THE USSR’S HUGE LEGACY
Soviet dominance at the Winter Olympics would continue for decades. There would only be two Winter Olympics where the USSR wouldn’t be the top medal winner. That would be 1968 when Norway came out on top and 1984 when East Germany ruled those Games. The Soviets would also set a Winter Olympic record in golds in 1976 when the team won a total of 13. Out of the 38 events in 1976 that’s roughly one gold for every three events. Those 13 would remain untouched until the Norwegian team of 2002 equaled it and unbroken until the Canadian team of 2010 broke it with 14.
From 1960 to 1988, Soviet athletes shined like no other country winning a total of 194 medals, 78 of them gold. Cross country skiing was where they experienced their biggest success with three skiers winning three golds in a single Olympics: Klaudia Boyarskikh in 1964, Galina Kulakova in 1972 and Nikolai Zimyatov in 1980. Speed skating was the second biggest medal-winning sport. The biggest feat by a Soviet was Lidia Skoblikova who won a total of six gold medals including winning all four event in 1964. Biathlon was also a sport the USSR exceled in as they won every men’s relay since it was introduced in 1968 and would include many individual champions.
Figure skating was good for the USSR but its biggest accomplishment was in the pairs event where they churned out gold medal-winning pair after pair starting with the Protopopovs in 1964 and ended with Gordeyeva and Grinkov in 1988. Irina Rodnina would win three golds with two male partners between 1972 and 1980. Ice dancing was its second most dominant as it would win gold three of the four times it was contested until 1988. Only a superpair like Britain’s Torvill and Dean could break their dominance.
However if there was one sport where the USSR defined ‘dominance,’ it was ice hockey. From its first Olympics in 1956 to 1988, the Soviet hockey team showed its dominance like no other. The dominance was helped in terms of Olympic rules. The best Soviet players were allowed to be eligible for Olympic competition. The best Canadian and American players weren’t because playing in the NHL made one professional and in those days, an athlete couldn’t make a single penny off their sport if they wanted to compete in the Olympics. That allowed for them to win seven of the nine Olympic competitions during that time. They only times they lost the gold was in Olympic Games which the US hosted and won the gold: Squaw Valley in 1960 and the famous ‘Miracle On Ice’ in Lake Placid in 1980. Their most powerful was during the 70’s whose players at the time were believed to be even better than the best NHL pros. Their dominance through the 70’s and early 80’s came greatly from goalie Vladislav Tretiak whom many considered to be the greatest hockey goalie ever.
1992: THE USSR’S LAST HURRAH
Funny thing is whenever I return to Olympic Square whenever I visit Calgary. They have plaques listing all of the medal winners during those Games. Funny thing is they also list the three-letter Olympic nation codes that go with them. Some of which are codes of nations during the ‘Cold War,’ like the GDR (East Germany), YUG (Yugoslavia), TCH (Czechoslovakia), and the URS (Soviet Union).Unknown at the time of the Calgary Olympics of 1988, countries of the Eastern Bloc would undergo a revolution where Comunism would be overthrown either diplomatically as in Poland and Hungary or aggressively as in Romania. The USSR was showing signs of kinder gentler Communism under Gorbachev’s Glasnost and Perestroika but that didn’t come without its problems, like republics wanting their own independence. In August 1991 while Gorbachev was outside hte USSR, a group of Communists staged a mutiny in the Kremlin returning the Union to the hard-line Communist rule. Gorbachev returned declaring the death of Communism and the end to the USSR.
When the 1992 Albertville Winter Games opened, the Parade Of Nations showed the signs of the New World Order: Germany was reunified, Yugoslavia was still together but Croatia and Slovenia sent their own teams, Czechoslovakia competed in their last Olympics together and the Baltic countries of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania that was part of the USSR sent their own teams. The most notable change was the republics of the USSR competing as the Unified Team. They competed under the Olympic flag and if ever one of their athletes won a gold medal, the Olympic hymn was played.
129 athletes from five of the twelve republics competed for the Unified Team. The women in cross country skiing were dominant with Lyubov Egorova winning two individual events and anchoring the relay. Figure skating showed continued dominance with a win in pairs and ice dance. Also for the first time came a gold medal in men’s figure skating by Ukrainian Viktor Petrenko. Until then, the highest a Soviet male skater won was a silver. There some signs of Soviet dominance wearing off with the political changes. There were gold medalists in biathlon but the men’s relay team didn’t win gold for the first time ever. There were no medals won by Unified athletes in men’s cross country skiing or long track speed skating. Even the hockey team suffered a loss to Czechoslovakia in the preliminaries. However the team came back to win gold.
RUSSIA: A NEW CHAPTER OF WINTER PROWESS
It was at the 1994 Lillehammer Games that all the republics of the former USSR first competed for their own national teams. National flags were flown at victory ceremonies as well as their national anthem played. Russia fielded a team of 113 athletes and they showed a continuation of the prowess. While host country Norway won the most total medals, Russia won the most golds with 11. Russia won three of the four figure skating events. Lyubov Egorova was back winning two events and anchoring the relay to gold. Biathlon prowess was still alive as the men won the two individual events and the women won the relay. Speed skating strength returned as they won five medals including two gold. Russia also showed skill in sports either new on the Olympic program like two medals in freestyle skiing or even in traditional Olympic sports the USSR never fared well in like alpine skiing where a female skier won a silver. Hockey however would mark its biggest changing of the guard as the Russian team would fail to win a medal.
Success for Russia’s winter athletes would continue long after the end of the USSR. However Russia would often have cases where they’d have a strong team one Winter Olympics and a so-so team the next. Nagano in 1998 would show excellent success as the Russians would win 18 medals including nine gold. The Russian women completely swept all five cross country skiing events with Larisa Lazutina winning two individual event golds, two other medals in the other two individual events and was part of the gold medal-winning relay. Russia again won three of the four figure skating events and their men’s hockey team returned to prowess albeit losing the gold to the Czechs 1-0 in the final.
The Russian team would first show signs of struggle in Salt Lake City in 2002. Sure they won two figure skating events and two cross country skiing events but their overall medal total was 13 medals including five golds. The medal total was so disappointing to Russia, the president of the Russian Olympic Committee refused to have the athletes march or dance around on field during the closing ceremony. Turin in 2006 showed a return to the winter muscle as they finished fourth in the medal tally with 22 medals including eight golds. They won two golds in biathlon and cross country skiing each and won three of the four figure skating events. They also won their first ever sledding medals with silvers in men’s four man bobsled and men’s luge. However Vancouver 2010 was a return to the down side as the team won fifteen medals including only three gold in biathlon and cross country skiing. They failed to win a medal in men’s hockey and failed to win pairs figure skating for the first time since 1960. You could understand why Putin wanted a grand team for Sochi.
THE SOCHI GAMES SUCCESS
I will only give a brief rundown of Russia’s success here in Sochi because I’m planning more of a discussion in a full blog specifically about the Sochi Games. The opening of the Sochi Olympics showed a salute to athletes of the past with speed skater Lidia Skoblikova and hockey player Vyacheslav Fetisov carrying the Olympic flag. The Olympic torch was lit by pairs figure skater Irina Rodnina and goalie Vladislav Tretiak: former Soviet athletes that not only won three Olympic golds but also are considered the best ever in their sport. Sochi definitely showed a return to Russia’s prowess in winter sport. They were back in pairs figure skating, won their first ever ladies figure skating title, showed prowess in speed skating for the first time and even won their first-ever bobsledding gold. More to come on this in my final Sochi blog.
Russia has always had a legacy in Winter sport whether it be as the USSR or as the Russian Federation. The Sochi Games further proved that legacy and also provided a future for that legacy in the years to come.
WIKIPEDIA: Soviet Union at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Soviet _Union_at_the_Winter_Olympics>
WIKIPEDIA: Unified Team at the Winter Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified _Team_at_the_Winter_Olympics>
WIKIPEDIA: Russia at the Olympics. Wikipedia.com. 2014. Wikimedia Foundation Inc. <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Russia_at_the_Olympics>