Then the USSR surprisingly invited Westerners — including Americans — to enter the communist Olympic Village. The Soviets even hosted a swanky dinner for members of the U.S. Olympic delegation replete with vodka and whitefish caught in the Volga River, toasting goodwill under paintings of Joseph Stalin and the Politburo.
“We can't reciprocate,” an unnamed American official told The Associated Press. “We simply don't have the money.”
The Americans did hold onto their edge in the medal standings, but just barely. And over the course of two weeks in a city less than 500 miles from the Arctic Circle, the Soviets sent a very loud message that they were very much ready to challenge the U.S. for global athletic supremacy.
Of course, back in the USSR, it would have been easy to think the country had dominated every event. When three Russian women took gold, silver and bronze in the discus, it was front-page news in Moscow. The stories, by the way, carried no mention of American Walt Davis winning gold in the high jump or that U.S. runner Charlie Moore's world record in the 400-meter hurdles.
The breakout star of the Games wasn't an American or a Soviet. It was a 29-year-old staff captain in the Czech Republic Army who ran as if he was in deep agony and his next step would be his last.
Yet Emil Zatopek cared little about form or even proper running decorum while winning the 5,000 meters, 10,000 meters and the marathon, a race he'd never run before he set an Olympic and World record by covering the 26.2-mile distance in 2:23:03. Early on in the marathon Zatopek asked British runner Jim Peters if his pacing was right. When Peters told Zatopek it was, Zatopek took off and cruised to victory by more than 2 1/2 minutes.
Zatopek — whose wife Dana Zatopkova won gold in the javelin — blew off the media after the race and headed back to the Olympic village for a nap.
American Bob Mathias was just 17 when he won the decathlon at the 1948 London Olympics. He stamped himself as the world's greatest athlete at age 21 when he defended his gold medal by posting a record score of 7,887 points over two days and 10 events in Helsinki. He then promptly retired.
“This is for sure,” Mathias said. “There's nothing left.”
Maybe on the track, but not in life. Mathias went on to dabble in acting before serving four terms as a Republican Congressman representing California's 18th district, just south of the Bay Area.
LIFE IN THE FAST LANE
Long before hi-tech swimsuits and dolphin kicks became a thing, the pool at the 1952 Games showcased just how fast the sport was progressing.
During the modest-sized meet — there were only 11 events compared to 34 at the 2016 Summer Olympics — eight Olympic records were set. The Hungarian women dominated, winning seven out of 15 medals.
AP Corporate Archives contributed to this report
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FILE - In this July 26, 1952, file photo, Bob Mathias, defending Olympic decathlon champion, heaves the discus during the decathlon competition at the Summer Olympic games in Helsinki, Finland. (AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this July 1952, file photo, Nina Romashkova, who won the first gold medal for the Soviets in the women's discus competition, winds up to throw during the Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland(AP Photo/File)
FILE - In this July 24, 1952, file photo, British athlete Christopher "Chris" Chataway falls as Emil Zatopek of Czechoslovakia, followed by Alain Mimoun of France and German bronze medal winner Herbert Schade, leads near the end of the Men's final 5000 meter race at the Summer Olympic Games on in Helsinki, Finland. (AP Photo/File)