Retro Sports Diplomacy: Adidas And The Iron Curtain

Cuba's Fidel Castro used to rock the three stripes
Cuba's Fidel Castro used to rock the three stripes
Uwe Ritzer

MUNICH — The past snuck up on Adidas last spring when it issued a retro jersey for the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia that copied the last Soviet Union national team shirt. It included the USSR lettering and breast emblem with the hammer and sickle. Given the millions of victims of the Soviet dictatorship, some asked whether Adidas would also soon be offering a German jersey with a swastika. Others were outraged because the company was selling the shirt as a "Russia" retro jersey. even though the Soviet Union included other territories.

Adidas corrected the exclusively "Russia" retro jersey mistake immediately, but the shirt itself was not removed from potential selections. It's one thing to have a clash in taste, but a retreat from Adidas would have been tantamount to denying its own history: During the Cold War, Adidas was enormously active in the USSR. In addition, Socialist brother states wore Adidas. Cuba's revolutionary leader Fidel Castro liked to get a lot of his garments from the country's Olympic athletes wardrobe and, especially in his latter years, traded in his olive-green combat uniforms for Adidas tracksuits.

Three stripes of controversy — Photo: Adidas screenshot

The economic historian Rainer Karlsch describes the enormous scope of Adidas' Eastern European activities in detail in a book he wrote with three colleagues about the company's history. In return, the company granted him access to its "Eastern Contracts." Karlsch concluded that Communist Eastern Europe was less relevant a sales market for Adidas as a key hub for outsourced manufacturing of sports shoes, textiles and bags in Yugoslavia, Hungary, Bulgaria and the USSR. But even more important than a base of production was Adidas's influence on sports-driven politics, which the company exercised through officials and politicians in those countries.

It began with seemingly harmless gifts. As early as 1952, seven years after the end of World War II and three years after Adi Dassler founded his company in Western Germany, the Czechoslovak long-distance runner Emil Zatopek won three Olympic gold medals in Adidas shoes in Helsinki. He had received them from the company free of charge, but the rules of amateur sports at the time did not allow for more compensation. That present brought Adidas multiple benefits. On the one hand, the publicity was huge. On the other hand, Zatopek remained gratefully attached to the company throughout his life.

Outrage when Socialist athletes in shoes and clothes of the capitalist class enemy would win.

Puma, the company founded by Adi's brother and rival Rudolf, acted no differently. The two competitors dominated the sporting goods world for a long time and, as far as business in Eastern Europe was concerned, it was no holds barred. When Puma lured the East German runners Jürgen May and Jürgen Haase not only with shoes but also with hard dollars at the 1966 European Athletics Championships, Adi Dassler's daughter Inge threatened the East German officials with a scandal. After all, they had pledged that the country's athletes would wear Adidas exclusively. The officials stepped in and denounced the bribery practices of Western companies, using Puma as an example.

For Adidas, activities in Eastern Europe started to pick up even more speed in the 1970s. The company's emissaries would often find their job easy, as athletes and officials appreciated the superior quality of West German competition products over local products. And the local governments hoped for foreign exchange earnings.

Photo: adifansnet

Romanian tennis star Ilie Nastase was marketed globally in the 1970s, just like his U.S. rival Stan Smith. Adidas also increasingly began to equip not only Eastern European individual athletes, but also to sign contracts with associations and clubs, for instance in 1976 with the Soviet Union's soccer players, handball players, track and field athletes and ice hockey players. In East Berlin, squads loyal to the Party would be outraged when Socialist athletes in shoes and clothes of the capitalist class enemy would win. Even the state security would intervene, albeit in vain, because Adidas had already infiltrated East German sport. And also because the ailing country badly needed the hard Deutsche Marks.

Nevertheless, Rainer Karlsch places Adidas among the "pioneers of East-West trade," which proved to be a great advantage after the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. While competitors first had to develop their presence in those countries, Adidas' was already well established.

To this day, Adidas remains the market leader in Russia and Reebok, its subsidiary since 2005, is number three. For years, the growth rates were double-digits and, in 2012, the then CEO Herbert Hainer proclaimed Russia the company's fastest growing market alongside North America and China.

But the euphoria is now gone. Recently, Hainer's successor Kasper Rorsted said that Russia, with less than three percent of total sales, was "quite irrelevant for our business success." The international embargo in the wake of the Crimean crisis, the ruble's decline and the economic crisis are mainly to blame.

Still, Adidas continues to supply the Russian national soccer team. Even in the midst of the outrage over the retro Soviet shirts, both sides extended their contract until 2022.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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