Vitaly Smirnov: “Pavlov was the first Soviet sports leader who held a degree in PE”

On January 19, Sergei Pavlov, the former head of the Committee for Physical Education and Sports at the USSR Council of Ministers and President of the USSR Olympic Committee, would have turned 90. Pavlov had a great friendship with honorary ROC President, Vitaly Smirnov, who had a chance to work with all the leaders of Soviet sport of the postwar period. He has very fond memories of Sergei Pavlov.

″Pavlov has a very interesting, rich biography,″ began Vitaly Smirnov. ″During the war he worked in the hospital and I can say that now very few people remember this. Later he entered Moscow Institute of Physical Education. There he studied the Skiing specialization and he became secretary of the Komsomol Committee.

– It seems Pavlov was not destined to graduate from university?

– Yes. In 1956, Sergei left the university and a year later took part in organizing and holding the World Festival of Youth and Students in Moscow. Of course, Pavlov was evicted from the university’s dormitory, and at one time he and his wife spent the night in his office. He was the first secretary of the Krasnogvardeisky district Komsomol committee. And the first secretary of the CPSU city committee at that time was Ekaterina Furtseva, who highly appreciated Sergei’s professional qualities. With blond hair and large blue eyes he had incredible charisma and could manage any team.

– Afterwards his career started to move up..

– Yes, already in 1959 he was elected first secretary of the Komsomol Central Committee. At the age of 32 he became a member of the CPSU Central Committee. Pavlov was Khrushchev’s favorite, but even after Nikita Khrushchev’s resignation, he managed to keep his position. In 1968 he was sent to the Sports Committee, which was then a public organization. The idea of transferring government bodies to the public sphere belonged to a member of the Presidium of the CPSU Central Committee Alexander Shelepin. They decided to start the experiment with sports.

– That was not the best decision, right?

– Yes, funding was stopped on the spot. However, Pavlov soon managed to turn the ″Union of Sports Societies″ into the Committee on Physical Education and Sports. Back then, I worked as a deputy for Sergei and oversaw international affairs, propaganda and water sports. Pavlov was a very strong leader. Being the First Secretary of the Komsomol Central Committee, he had dozens of newspapers and magazines at his command, headed by famous and talented people. To communicate with them on equal terms, Pavlov had to wade through an overload of information, studying not only reports and briefings, but also their fundamental works. Naturally, it was not difficult for him to assemble a professional team at the new place.

– However, Pavlov lost his first Olympic Games as head of the USSR Committee for Physical Education and Sports …

– Formally, this is true. At the 1968 Games in Mexico City, the Soviet national team was not able to take first place largely due to the fact that experts incorrectly calculated the acclimatization period. This happened only for the second time in the entire Soviet history. But Pavlov had no time to fix anything here, because he took this high post right before the Games.

When he became the head of the Sports Committee, Sergei Pavlov brought something new into the life of our athletes at the Olympic Games. For example, in Mexico City, where supervisors and athletes lived together in the Olympic Village, before each ceremony honouring our champions, the poet Nikolai Dobronravov would compose a real ode in honour of the hero. It was from that time that the tradition of inviting creative members to the Games began. We brought artists, poets, and writers to the Olympic Village and organized original, creative evenings, and all the Olympians were very grateful to Pavlov for this.

– Then there were the triumphant Games for Soviet sport in Munich.

– That year marked the 50th anniversary of Soviet power, and we won 50 gold medals! Even Pavlov’s ill-wishers considered this figure to be his personal achievement, although in reality it was a simple coincidence.

– Like many others, Pavlov probably dreamed of the Olympic Games taking place in the USSR?

– Of course. In 1970, we lost the competitive bid to host the 1976 Games. Voting took place at the IOC Session in Amsterdam. In the first round, Los Angeles was eliminated and all the votes went to Montreal. The reaction in the USSR was not good. A new headline appeared in Soviet sports coverage “IOC comes under fire and severe criticism.” Everybody condemned the terrible capitalists, and at the same time a new task was immediately set – to get the 1980 Games at any cost. Pavlov, thanks to his highest authority at the international level, paved the way for future success.

– Before the momentous voting took place in Vienna in 1974, were there any curious episodes?

– We decided to present each member of IOC with gifts – a set of Khokhloma items. The interesting thing was that we did not have any wrapping paper – we only bought it in Vienna. As a result, the gifts were urgently wrapped the night before, we were quite literally on our knees. This time the voting ended in our favour, but, as you understand, Khokhloma had nothing to do with it.

– Was Sergei Pavlov as demanding to himself as he was to others?

– You can judge for yourself. While working at the Committee for Physical Education and Sports, Sergei Pavlov resumed his studies and graduated from the State Central Order of Lenin Institute of Physical Education. And with honours! That is why he is the first of the Soviet sports leaders who held a degree in Physical Education.

– It is common knowledge that you had a great friendship with Pavlov.

– We had a very trusting relationship. I can tell you a little secret: it was I who persuaded Sergei Pavlov in the mid-seventies to head the USSR Olympic Committee.

– Did he have any interests?

– For about fifteen years we played tennis together. My tennis partner on court was Semyon Belits-Geiman, and Pavlov’s tennis partner was the well-known tennis coach Vladimir Golenko.

In addition to tennis, Pavlov was keen on water skiing, and with his body constitution (short height, strong, muscular legs) this sport suited him perfectly. Afterwards we would go to a traditional Russian steam bath, where we would often be joined by Pavlov’s good friends Nikolai Dobronravov and Robert Rozhdestvensky.

– Was he a fan of hockey?

–  Quite a big fan! I remember one episode at the Olympic Games in Munich. Simultaneously Canada was hosting the famous hockey Super Series. In order to watch the first, historical match of the Soviet national team and Canadian professionals, Pavlov led me through the Olympic Village to the local television and radio center. There Nikolay Ozerov was already waiting for us. There were many people present, all crammed in the small studio. We sat right on the floor and in the next room there was the Canadian control booth. After we won with a score of 7:3, the Canadian hockey players did not shake hands with the Soviet players, NHL players didn’t have such a tradition. I remember that the Canadians from the neighbouring room vigorously discussed this moment as they left the studio.

– Was Pavlov a patron of the arts?

– Sergei Pavlov could not imagine his life without the theatre, he also loved music and he read a lot. Under his leadership, the Manezh hosted the exhibition “Sports in the Visual Arts”, dedicated to the 7th Summer Spartakiad of the Peoples of the USSR. The Tretyakov Gallery gave the paintings of Alexander Dayneko and other artists. Many visitors attended the exhibition, sobbing and weeping with delight.

– How did your friend spend his last years?

– In 1983, Pavlov was transferred to diplomatic work in Mongolia. Before that, he divorced his wife, married again, and went on a business trip to Burma. After retirement he lived quite modestly – in a small two-room flat with his second wife and her adult daughter. He never asked for any favours. Many friends of Sergei Pavlov and even people whom he helped turned away from him. But, unfortunately, those were the realities of the early 90s…