If you thought Rocky Balboa and Ivan Drago’s fight was Philadelphia’s main contribution to the Cold War, think again. That feat belongs to a different Philadelphia icon — Franklin Field.
On July 18, 1959, male and female athletes of the United States and Soviet Union gathered at the home of the Penn Relays to engage in a good-spirited, yet highly politicized, track and field competition. It was the second such competition; it debuted in Moscow in 1958. The paid attendance to the two-day Philadelphia event was listed at 54,380 — considered a disappointment by some and blamed on bad weather — but a significantly larger total than the annual Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) national championship meet.
The USA-USSR Track and Field Dual Meet Series was born from a tense and changing relationship. The Soviet Union and United States emerged from World War II as two superpowers competing for world hegemony. Yet, after Nikita Khrushchev became premier of the USSR, he ushered in a policy of de-Stalinization, which eventually led to a “peaceful coexistence” with the United States that focused on improved diplomatic relations and cultural exchanges between countries.
According to the Journal of Sport History, the meet in Philadelphia included two athletes from each country in all men’s and women’s Olympic events. Scoring was on a scale of “5-3-2-1 basis for the individual events and 5-3 for the relay events.” Scoring was actually a controversial metric for the dual meet. The U.S. and Soviet Union agreed on separate men’s and women’s scores and two distinct competitions. The Soviet men won all the distance races, but the U.S. men won overall 127-108. The Soviet women soundly beat the American women, 67-40. Combining the scores gave the Soviet Union a narrow 175-167 victory.
As a result, the meet helped bring awareness to American neglect of women’s track and field sports. Given the dominance by the Soviet women over their American counterparts, a sense of urgency to eliminate this gap resulted in a gradual increase in funding to improve training facilities for women, before Title IX was passed.
The USA-USSR meets mirrored the cooperative competitiveness of the peaceful coexistence stage of the Cold War. This competition inspired an Olympic-like patriotism and excitement among the athletes, especially given the Cold War tensions. Eddie Southern, a silver medalist in the 1956 Olympics and one of the U.S. team captains, realized the magnitude of the meet pitting the two superpowers against each other. “It made it all bigger, somehow,” Southern said.
“I wasn’t running to get a point or two, I was running to beat the Russians,” he said. “You would nearly rather die than lose.”
Sixty years after this historic track meet in Philadelphia, many are not familiar with this event. Yet, in July 1959, Franklin Field was the epicenter of the world as these two rival nations competed. Much like the Kitchen Debate — which happened that same month between then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Khrushchev — it represented attempts to thaw relations between the two countries while simultaneously continuing a metaphorical battlefield of competing national ideologies about which was superior.
The USA-USSR Track and Field Dual Meet Series represents a long history of two nations balancing the appearance of friendship with nationalistic competition. Sixty years ago, the U.S. and the Soviet Union were two competing superpowers, ideological foes with vast nuclear arsenals that brought the planet to the brink of nuclear war. Today, the Russian Federation is not nearly the superpower the Soviet Union was, but is still a geopolitical rival. Tensions simmer between the two countries stemming from, most notably, Russian attempts to disrupt the 2016 presidential election. More recent incidents such as involvement in Syria’s ongoing civil war, the crisis in Venezuela, and growing concerns in the Arctic region have contributed to the current breakdown of relations.
Perhaps a renewed track series — or some other outlet for competition that is less destructive than, say, looming cyber war — could pave the way to improved relations between the countries, as it did in Philadelphia 60 years ago.