Soviets Invade Champaign County!
Russian Olympic Gymnasts Perform in Front of 5,000 at Huff Gym
This collection of photographs and ephemera were recently accepted by the Champaign County History Museum from Darrell Blue. Darrell was an early pioneer at WILL and WCIA television stations and produced and directed much of their early programming. Now retired in Yakima, Washington, Darrell offered pieces of his private collection tracing the early history of television in Champaign County to our museum. We thank him for this terrific donation.
In 1958, the United States and the Soviet Union agreed to a series of cultural exchanges. The Lacy-Zaroubin Agreement was signed on January 27, 1958, with both parties agreeing to a series of principles by which exchange programs would freely operate. President Dwight Eisenhower was a strong believer in these exchange programs, and the Soviet Union was anxious to match the United States on the world stage. Perhaps the most notable of these exchanges resulted in the famed "Kitchen Sink Debates" at the American National Exhibition in Moscow on July 24, 1959. Vice President Richard Nixon and Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev launched a tense debate over American technology while touring the exhibition and standing in a model American kitchen.
As the Cold War blossomed, the two sides took their battle to the Olympic Games. In 1960, the Soviet Union racked up an incredible 103 medals at the Rome Olympics, besting the second-place United States by 32 overall medals and nine gold medals. In addition, the Soviet men took 11 of the 24 medals in gymnastics, and the Soviet women took an amazing 15 of 18 total medals!
Four months after the games of the XXVII Olympiad, the Soviet gymnasts began a seven-city U.S. tour as part of this exchange program. Their itinerary included:
January 12, 1961 - West Chester (P.A.) State Teachers College
January 16, 1961 - Coe College, Ceder Rapids, Iowa (Video)
January 17, 1961 - University of Iowa, Iowa City, Iowa
January 18, 1961 - University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana, Illinois
January 19, 1961 - Wharton Fieldhouse, Moline, Illinois
January 23-24, 1961 - Madison Square Garden, New York, New York
On the heels of such a dominant Olympic showing, there was great anticipation around the tour. In Champaign, the venue was set for Huff Gymnasium, and Darrell Blue was selected as producer and director of the televised simulcast. The exhibition was to be broadcast on WILL-TV, which first aired television programming on August 1, 1955.
Included in the collection are planning documents such as this floorplan for the event. Accommodations were made for ten stations for men's and women's competitions.
University of Illinois Police Chief Joe Blaze and former Illinois Gymnastics standout Gil Brinckmeyer were selected to announce the broadcast.
Managing a broadcast like this was a technological feat for the small WILL station that had only been broadcasting for six years. Below, camera operator Dick Davis readies camera #3.
The elevated platform included WILL producer Bill Dale (headset with hand over the mic) and WILL production manager David Lange behind him.
Charlie Pond and the University of Illinois Gymnastics Team
The Soviets weren't the only stars taking to the mats that day. The University of Illinois gymnastics team was also on display. Charlie Pond had built a reputation as one of the best gymnastic coaches in the country. Between 1949 and 1960, his teams recorded 88-16 in dual meets. That included four NCAA championships and eleven straight Big Ten Titles. He also served as Associate Coach for the United States Gymnastics team in the 1956 Olympics and was a member of the U.S. Olympic Committee for the 1960 games.
The program for the event, now in the museum collection, features articles about the exchange programs and biographies for the competing athletes. (scroll through the pages below)
The Daily Illini proclaimed the following day, "Gymnastics at its very best!" The article written by Jim Tognacci read:
"The exhibition, given before more than 5,200 fans in Huff Gym, clearly showed why the Soviet team drew worldwide recognition in the Olympics in Rome last summer. The ease with which the Russians executed their routines gave an appearance of their being almost completely mechanical. Although unnoticeable to the crowd, many Soviets were beginning to feel the effects of a heavy schedule. They arrived in Champaign only two hours before their exhibition and had little time to rest."
The event was a terrific event for the Illini gymnasts as well. Tognacci went on to write, "Many of Illinois' gymnasts gave sparking displays. High among them was the performance of Ray Hadley, who appeared in three events - horizontal bar, free exercise, and parallel bars - and made impressive showings in each.
Following the event's competition, Charlie Pond wrote this letter to Darrell Blue, thanking him for his work on the exhibition and crediting WILL's efforts that "helped in the stimulation of the growth of gymnastics to a new high in this area."
Unfortunately, these exchange programs began to fade away as rhetoric between Khrushchev and Kennedy escalated in the months following JFK's inauguration. Nevertheless, 1961 proved to be a pivotal year in the conflict, for, on August 13, 1961, East and West Berliners awoke that Sunday to barbed wire dividing their city. Four days later, the first concrete elements of the Berlin Wall were erected. Still, a year later, in October of 1962, the Cold War hit its most critical stage during the four days of the Cuban Missle Crisis. However, Champaign County opened its arms to the invading Soviets for at least one day and walked away with a new understanding of the Russian people.
Story by T.J. Blakeman, President of the Champaign County History Museum.