5 authentic sports in which the U.S. will never surpass Russia

Sambo has incorporated the best elements of various martial arts, especially judo and jiu-jitsu. Source: Anton Denisov / RIA Novosti

Sambo has incorporated the best elements of various martial arts, especially judo and jiu-jitsu. Source: Anton Denisov / RIA Novosti

Americans are proud of their football and baseball, games in which they are world leaders. But as the great Russian poet Vladimir Mayakovsky once wrote after visiting New York in 1925, “the Soviets have their own pride.” And in fact, there are a number of sports that originated in Russia or that have become much more popular in Russia than elsewhere.


The history of sambo is a vivid example of how sport in the USSR acquired a political significance. Sambo first came about in the 1920s, when the Soviet government targeted the development of a new line of combat sports, abandoning the “bourgeois” karate, judo, and even boxing.

Actually, the name sambo is an acronym for “samooborona bez oruzhiya” (self-defense without weapons). In fact, sambo has incorporated the best elements of various martial arts, especially judo and jiu-jitsu. For several decades, sambo was actively cultivated in the Soviet Union, as a sport and in the army and special units.

In the 1970s, there was a boom in karate, but in 1984 it was forbidden, and many athletes were even prosecuted for practicing it. Meanwhile, sambo was encouraged. With the beginning of perestroika and the subsequent collapse of the Soviet Union, the situation changed radically. Sambo fell by the wayside and karate became fashionable in the new Russian state, partly through the influence of Hollywood movies, which flooded into the young country.

Today in Russia, these two martial arts are equally popular. A significant contribution to strengthening the image of sambo has been made by ​​its most famous representative, Fedor Emelianenko. It is thanks to the wrestling skills he acquired in the dojo that Fedor, with his unusual technique, remained undefeated for so long in MMA.


Russian beach soccer team won the World Cup last year. Source: Alamy / Legion Media

The incredible rise of this sport in Russia is paradoxical. In a country where beaches are a rarity, in principle, given that snow falls for five months a year, Russia has already twice become world champion in beach soccer.

The nation first struck in 2011, when its World Cup final team defeated the Brazilians, who have beach soccer, as they say, in the blood, by a score of 12:8. In 2013, the Russian team even defeated the Spaniards 5:1 in the final.

If sambo was created largely to be practiced domestically, beach soccer has a following across the planet. However, in the United States this sport has yet to become popular, although it would seem that there are sufficient beaches and a better climate.

“It’s not about beaches, but about interest,” Andrey Bukhlitskiy, the goalie and one of the heroes of the Russian team, told RBTH. “We became champions in six years. If the Americans themselves put their minds to it, they would become a major force in our sport. In the meantime, of course, we will be playing with a clear advantage.”

Curiously, although the Russian team have twice become world champion, their members earn far less in terms of salary than many other less titled athletes. Beach football is a very young sport (the rules were only standardized in 1992), and the level of its commercialization is incomparable with football or hockey.

“It's a really cool sport! There is lots of team spirit, beautiful goals, the players do not wear pads, and there is sand and fresh air. It’s perfect for television,” said Bukhlitskiy. “We need to work on the development of beach soccer at all levels, including organizing camps for children and promoting the sport in the media.

“As for salaries, we are certainly not envied by our colleagues from other sports. However, we are the pioneers of beach soccer, and we love our sport. We will play to win, and the money will come eventually.”


According to the ratings, biathlon TV broadcasts in Russia come in third place after the football and hockey. Every winter, the male population of the country, clinging to the screen, watches the performances of Russian biathletes at the World Cup. One of the main sponsors of this sport is the Russian oligarch, Brooklyn Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov.

Biathlon is also popular in Europe, especially in countries that have traditionally pursued winter sports, such as: Germany, Norway, Sweden, and Austria. However, the United States has been watching from the sidelines in this European sport for many years, despite the fact that the Olympics biathlon in its modern form was first introduced in the United States.

In 1960, at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, California, only one set of medals was won – for the 20-kilometer race. RBTH was able to speak with a member of those distant events, 80-year-old Alexander Privalov, who won the bronze in Squaw Valley.

“The competition was held away from the main stadium, the Olympic Village, and all of civilization,” said Privalov. “Nevertheless, there were many spectators, a friendly atmosphere, and we all were talking to each other. The track was very good, as the local military units had prepped it. I’d say my memories are most pleasant.”

“Periodically, American biathletes perform well, but they still don’t have a huge following. Plus, winter doesn’t last so long in America, making it difficult for biathlon to compete with other sports,” said Privalov, who added that he believed biathlon had bright prospects in the United States.

“It's a sport that combines, on the one hand, racing, and on the other – shooting. And the shooting is given very little time. So it’s a combination of speed, excitement, and even shooting. In my opinion, Americans should love such a sport,” he said.


Bandy is quite popular in Russia and Sweden. Source: AFP / East News

Bandy, or “hockey with a ball”, is perhaps the most underrated sport in history. Both technically and tactically, it can compete with ice hockey, basketball, and soccer. However, the sport, which supposedly originated in ancient Russia as a monastic game in the 10th century, has been the victim of a cruel trick. Matches are held in the open air, on ice fields the size of a football pitch, making bandy very hard to show on TV.

For this very reason, bandy was dealt a huge blow in terms of popularity when TV entered the sport. In the 1950s, bandy was ultimately supplanted by Canadian ice hockey. The fact that hockey was in the Olympic program carried enormous weight, and the social and economic impact in North America of the NHL was extensive.

Today, bandy is quite popular in Russia and Sweden. The two countries’ national teams meet on an incredibly regular basis in the finals of the World Cup. The International Federation is attempting to promote bandy, but thus far it has led to more anecdotal developments, such as the creation of a team in Somalia.

For Americans, bandy remains virtually unknown, even although in 1995 the world championship was held there, in Roseville, Minnesota – the state where the sport is cultivated most actively and where the U.S. national championships are held.

“Only about 500 people play bandy in the U.S., and only a couple of them are doing it professionally,” admitted national team striker Jon Kesely. “Frankly speaking, we will never be able to compete with Russia or Sweden, but we will do our best to get better every year.”

Men’s volleyball

Russian Olympic team got first volleyball gold in 2012. Source: ITAR-TASS

Despite the fact that the Americans have even become Olympic volleyball champions, the level of volleyball in Russia and in the United States has no comparison. This is not just about the quality of play either (although, in this respect, the Russian team is now strongest in the world, de facto and de jure). It is more about the broad popularity the sport enjoys in the country, as well as the attention that it is given by business and the government.

The Russian league is the highest paid in the world. Stars from around the world come there to play, the arenas are packed with spectators, and there is even support for the national team at governmental level – one of Russia’s top volleyball fans is the former head of the Federal Security Service, Nikolai Patrushev. As for the U.S., veteran national team member and former Zenit Kazan and Ural Ufa player Lloy Ball described the country’s attitude to the sport:

“In the States, volleyball is a second-tier sport. First, it does not fit into the American mentality – for most Americans volleyball is too complicated a sport,” said Ball. “They do not have a base starting point to help understand the game. Secondly, in the United States volleyball is considered a female sport. Moreover, the main sports television audience is made up of men, so women's volleyball must be played on the beach and the women must be wearing bikinis.”

“When I was in Russia, everyone knew me. When [Brazilian professional volleyball legend ] Giba played in Italy, everyone knew him and was fanatic about him, so he continued his career there. When [Italian volleyball coach Lorenzo] Bernardi coached in Poland, everyone knew how cool he was and that he was a star coach – he was loved and appreciated there,” said Ball.

“In the U.S., no one knows and will never know who Giba and Bernardi are. Damn, they do not even know who I am! So, why do they need volleyball then, when there aren’t any familiar faces in the sport?”

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