Philip Barker

The test events for Tokyo 2020 are set to begin next month under the banner of "Ready, Steady, Tokyo" and feature some 56 competitions.

The schedule has specially-created events but also established ones including modern pentathlon’s World Cup Final, the World Judo Championships, diving's World Cup and the World Junior Rowing Championships.

It is a programme which will last for much of the next year.

"It aims to express the excitement that continues to build as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games edge closer," said organisers.

Four decades ago, officials preparing for the 1980 Moscow Olympics had precisely the same intentions but a very ambitious way of putting their sports machinery through its paces.

The Soviets threw open their domestic sports competition, known as "Spartakiade" or "People’s Games" to competitors from overseas including the United States, Japan and other western nations. 

What no one predicted was that after Soviet military action in Afghanistan in December 1979, the Moscow Olympics would be hit by a boycott and many who travelled to compete in 1979 were unable to do so in 1980.

The Spartakiade was introduced in 1928 and named in honour of the Spartans of Ancient Greece. After the Second World War, the Soviets relaunched the event in 1956 with 1979 proving the seventh in the new cycle.

IOC President Lord Killanin had witnessed the previous Spartakiade first hand: "It left unforgettable memories," he said.

Earlier in 1979, Ignati Novikov, President of the Moscow 1980 Olympic Organising Committee reported to the IOC Session in Montevideo that "this event will be a serious test of our preparedness for the Summer Olympic Games of 1980".

"Mir", the Russian word for "peace" was prominent throughout.

The goodwill did not extend to New Zealand, a nation deemed unfriendly because of continued contact with South Africa in rugby union. Nor were there Israeli athletes as they had no diplomatic relations with the Soviet Union.

Although many of the sporting facilities in Moscow existed already, there was a flurry of last-minute activity to get everything ready. 

A postcard from 1979 ©Philip Barker
A postcard from 1979 ©Philip Barker

In a Russian tradition known as ‘’shturmovschina’’ or storming, gangs of workers laid fresh Tarmac and concrete and planted flowers at venues. They also installed soft drinks kiosks, said to be a first in the Soviet Union. There had apparently been a bidding war between Pepsi and Coca-Cola for the rights. The latter prevailed.

The Spartakiade was run by a different agency to the Moscow 1980 Organising Committee, but it was inevitable that visitors would regard it as a gauge of Soviet efficiency or otherwise.

"It is better to search out the weak points before the Olympics," said USSR Sports Committee chairman Sergei Pavlov.

American television network NBC sent their team to Moscow.

"The Soviets are using many American techniques and learning quickly," wrote executive producer Don Ohlmeyer for NBC’s in-house magazine.

"What pleased me most was the Soviets’ desire to improve their technique and operations. I have every reason to believe the Olympic telecasts will not only be the biggest ever but the best."

He did not mention problems completing a satellite transmission test because of malfunctions at a switching station.

"The finals of the four-yearly People’s Games are fully on the scale of the Olympics," claimed Soviet newspapers. The 12,000 participants included 2,500 from 87 other nations.

The Soviet figures estimated an initial domestic entry of 50 million "at competitions in schools, factories and all kinds of institutions and organisations". The qualification process took three years.

The travelling costs of competitors from some 39 developing nations were paid by Soviet authorities – 370 competitors from African nations joined those from Asia and Latin America.

Olympic rings decorated the hotels where the officials stayed. Journalists were promised "the latest in communications methods" but many found that the Cyrillic alphabet made exploring the city difficult, although students from the Foreign language Institute were on hand to translate at the official sites.

"This is not a fun city," said John Anderson, a doctor with the United States team. "I hope they have a disco at the Olympic Village," he told the Washington Post. He did admit that ‘’the Russians seem to be enthusiastic about having us here and they want to do a good job".

The whole thing began at Lenin Stadium with a spectacular display.

"The Opening Ceremony gave a foretaste of things to come in 1980," wrote British Olympic Association general secretary Dick Palmer. "Ít was a brilliantly-conceived occasion, extravagant in colour and movement."

Soviet athletes paraded with a giant national hammer and sickle emblem, others marched with red flags.

A life-size Mischa the Bear, mascot for the 1980 Olympic Games, walked proudly around the stadium accompanied by a tiny gymnast, one of 600 schoolchildren aged under 10 who took part. The girls did physical exercises with coloured umbrellas and the boys demonstrated football skills.

American former hurdler Edwin Moses ©Getty Images
American former hurdler Edwin Moses ©Getty Images

Soldiers held up flash cards to form pictures of Mischa and the Olympic rings. Others depicted the face of Lenin and spelled out the message "Glory to the Communist Party of the Soviet Union".

There was also an image of an atom bomb explosion. At this point in the performance, the gymnasts in the stadium, froze as if statues. "Not this but peace" was displayed.

An Olympic-style Flame was lit and officials were offered a gift of bread and salt, according to tradition.

At their launch, there was even a letter from Soviet leader Leonid Breshnev, sent from his holiday dacha.

"Sport brings people together and helps nations know and understand each other better. Let us hope that the ideals of the brotherhood, friendship and mutual understanding that guide the Olympic Movement will always prevail in the atmosphere of the meetings of athletes of different countries."

When the sport began, the first foreign medallist was Norway’s world champion canoeist Einar Rasmussen who won 500m kayak silver. He did not get the chance to repeat his success at the Olympics because Norway stayed away.

The Soviet runner Maria Makeyeva broke the 400m hurdles world record but did not have the chance to race for Olympic gold. At the time, the women's 400m hurdles was not on the Games programme.

Ukraine’s relay squad set a world record for the 4x200m relay. From that squad, Nina Zyuskova and Tatayana Prorochenko both won Olympic 4x400m relay gold 12 months later.

Ludmilla Kondratyeva achieved the sprint double at the Spartakiade and followed it up with Olympic 100m gold for the USSR on the same track a year later.

Silvio Leonard of Cuba won the men’s 100m beating Houston McTear of the United States. It was also reported that Ernest Obeng of Ghana ( now a senior IAAF official), had recorded a respectable time. Unfortunately, Obeng was nowhere near the Soviet capital.

Start lists for the men's 400m hurdles included Olympic champion Ed Moses. He was not in Moscow. In his absence, Vasil Arkypenko of the USSR won and went on to claim Olympic silver in 1980 when Moses was unable to race because of the boycott.

The Americans did enjoy some successes at the Spartakiade. Their men won three relays. In additional to the norm, there were 4x200m and 4x800 events, only the latter eluded them. Henry Marsh won the 3000m steeplechase.

1976 discus bronze medallist John Powell also celebrated victory.

"I enjoyed my stay in Moscow very much," he told eager Soviet reporters. "We sportsmen are like actors. We like rehearsing on the stage we shall actually be performing on."

Ethiopia’s ageless Miruts Yifter gave a precise foretaste of what to expect in 1980 with victory over 5,000m and 10,000m.

"I greatly liked the scope and festive atmosphere of the Games, which I see as fresh evidence of the attention the USSR pays to healthy mass sport. Our new socialist Ethiopia can learn a lot from that," said Yifter.

Latvia won the women’s basketball, helped no doubt by Ulyana Semenova who stood 2.11m tall.

Anatoly Karpov competed in the Spartakiade ©Getty Images
Anatoly Karpov competed in the Spartakiade ©Getty Images

"No other team in the world has yet solved the problem of Ulyana," said the Soviet state news agency TASS. It surprised no one that with Ulyana’s help, Olympic gold was retained by the USSR.

Only a few came from Great Britain. 1976 team gold medallist Danny Nightingale was one who did and won the modern pentathon against a strong field.

"I find it inconceivable that anyone who has the slightest chance of winning an Olympic medal didn’t take the opportunity to come out," he said.

"I have learned a tremendous amount about the conditions at the competition sites and the general atmosphere of being in the Olympic city. It is the kind of experience we cannot buy."

Gymnastics was held in a giant arena known as "The Tortoise", proudly hailed as part of Moscow’s Olympic legacy.

"When adopting the decision to build it, Moscow City Soviet made it clear they wanted something not only for the Olympics but also to be useful for Muscovites afterwards".

Gymnast Eduard Azarian, son of triple Olympic gold medallist Albert admitted "it won’t be easy because our Japanese and American opponents have their ambitions, too". Sadly, that rivalry was not seen at the Olympics themselves.

Bulgaria’s Nonka Matova won gold in small bore rifle shooting. She eventually competed in six Olympic Games.

Although Chess is not on the Olympic programme, it was part of the Spartakiade.

World champion Anatoly Karpov and former champion Boris Spassky both took part and women’s world champion Maia Chiburdanidze of Georgia went through the competition unbeaten.

There were performances from the Beryozka dance company and the Stanslavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko company presented the ballet Stepan Razin in an expansive cultural festival..

In an article for the IOC’s Olympic review, 1964 Greco-Roman wrestling gold medallist Anatoli Kolessov insisted: "The Spartiakiade was permeated by the spirit of the forthcoming Games of the XXnd OIympiad. These competitions were proof that we are ready and that we have forces in reserve."

At the closing ceremony, some 1,200 female gymnasts formed the 1980 Olympic symbol.

"As participants and guests of the Spartakiade left, they were all saying 'Till we meet again in Olympic Moscow'", wrote journalist Alexei Petrov.

It was not to be for everyone. Twelve months later, Radio Moscow praised the "festive atmosphere" of the Olympics, but for so many the progress made by the Spartakiade was washed away by the boycott. 

So many countries were absent that even IOC President Lord Killanin described the 1980 Olympics as "joyless".