The Rungs of Prowess:
An Introduction to the Unified Sports Classification System of the USSR

By Nina Shkolnikova

Olympic Panorama, No. 7 (1978)   The Soviet Union's classification system - a system of ratings based on performance - helps athletes in their difficult climb to the pinnacles.  As they advance up the rungs of the ladder, from one rating to the next, athletes gradually prepare themselves for an assault on the records.  Let us take a look at the history and substance of our classification system.

Few people probably know that the idea of sports ratings was put forward at the end of the last century by Alexei Lebedev, an outstanding Russian figure skater who in 1890 won first prize in an international tournament in which leading European and American skaters competed.  At the dawn of the present century another famous Russian figure skater, Nikolai Panin-Kolomenkin, put Lebedev's idea into practice in the St. Petersburg Ice Skating Society.  The first to win a rating, on December 31, 1903, was Fyodor Datlin, one of Panin's pupils.  Panin himself and also Karl Ollo, another of his pupils, qualified for ratings somewhat later.  In 1907 Panin was the first to attain the highest, first rating.  At the Olympic Games of 1908 he won a gold medal.  That gives us an idea of the high standards Russia's athletes were then setting themselves.

Systems of ratings were also applied in several other sports but they did not, or could not, become really widespread before the Great October Socialist Revolution of 1917.  That was because sport was still at a very low stage of development and had few followers.

From the very outset Soviet sport drew enormous masses of the population into its orbit, and it soon adopted sports ratings.  At first, different systems of ratings arose in the various regions.  As time passed they were unified on a countrywide scale by the efforts of many specialists and enthusiasts.  Classification systems in separate sports were developed.  They included nearly all the ratings that are in force today, namely, first, second, and third categories, and Master of Sport.  The year 1934 saw the introduction of Merited Master of Sport.  Among the first outstanding athletes and other personalities to be named Merited Masters of Sport were the footballers Mikhail Butusov, Nikolai Starostin and Nikolai Sokolov, weightlifter Alexander Bukharov, swimmer Alexander Shumin and track star Alexander Malyaev.

Between 1935 and 1937 a uniform classification system for ten sports came into force in the Soviet Union.  In the decades since then the system has steadily been improved and expanded as new sports have become widespread.

Since 1949 our classification system has been a well-planned, scientific program for the training of athletes from the novice stage to the highest levels.  Under this uniform, countrywide system all sports cultivated in the Soviet Union are classified along two lines. First, according to "affiliation": some are promoted by the Soviet Sports Committee, some by the Central Council for Tourism and Excursions, some by the Central Committee of the Voluntary Society of Assistance to the Army, Air Force and Navy, and so on.

Second, according to the events within each sport (for example, running, jumping and throwing in track and field).  Besides, the standards are differentiated according to the sex and age of the athletes: men, women, boys, girls.

There was a time when the system did not include standards for juniors.  This undoubtedly made it somewhat one-sided, which became especially noticeable when Soviet sport began to grow "younger" with increasing speed from year to year.  In the 1950s the classification frameworks were greatly enlarged by the addition of standards for first, second and third category junior ratings.

A decade later the whole classification system had to be revised again to keep up with the big strides sport had made. Beginning with 1949 the classification system has not only reflected the existing level of sport but also attempted to keep ahead of the advance in sport.  As a result, although the standards for the initial ratings were made somewhat stiffer they could not be raised sharply because that would have discouraged the mass of novices.  Meanwhile, the highest standards, Master rating, for example, had risen considerably to keep up with the best performances in the world.  This led to too large a gap between the ratings.  It was not uncommon for an athlete who had reached first category rating never to be able to become a Master.  And so, in 1965 two more ratings were added: Master of Sport, International Class, and Candidate for Master of Sport.

The Candidate for Master rating made it easier for athletes to make the step up to Master level, while the Master of Sport, International Class, stimulated a striving for the highest results.  All standards of the latter rating in each sport are on the level of the top ten best performances in the world: in team sports they are on the level of second of third place in a world championship.

But these standards could not keep up with the rapid growth of sporting prowess in the world, and for this reason the last two classification systems, covering the years 1973 to 1976 and 1977 to 1980, do not lay down specific standards for Master of Sport, International Class, in swimming, speed skating and some other sports.  To win this main title an athlete has to achieve high results at European or world championships, Olympic Games, etc. 

The classification system, steadily improving, now covers several dozen sports (47 of which come under the jurisdiction of the Soviet Sports Committee) and is subject to revision and approval once every four years.  A four-year cycle was chosen to fit in with the quadrennial USSR Games, in which millions of sportsmen from novices to Masters compete, and also with the Olympic Games.  After the last Olympic Games the Soviet Union has introduced a new classification system in which all standards and requirements have been revised in accordance with the higher levels of domestic and world sport.

The classification system is rightly called a foundation of Soviet sport.  Each club and each trainer uses the classification system as a compass.  When athletes advance from one rating to another it means the work is going along well.  The standards and requirements are rungs of the ladder to the pinnacles of sport, a system of specific targets at higher and higher levels.  A lowering or a raising of standards is equally disastrous for any sport.  The level of prowess required for first category rating in any sport, for example, track and field, should correspond approximately to the level of the same rating in other sports.  If this is not the case there may be a shift of young athletes from difficult sports to easier ones, as in the early sixties when a heightened interest arose in archery at the expense of weightlifting, a sport in which it was harder to win ratings.

It is interesting to trace and compare the changing standards.  Take the men's high jump.  Between 1965 and 1968 a jumper had to clear 2m 15 cm to become a Master of Sport, International Class.  From 1969 to 1972 the requirement was 2m 20cm.  From 1973 to 1976 it was 2m 21cm.  From 1977 to 1980 it is 2m 23cm.  An athlete who now jumps 2m 15cm will only get the Master of Sport rating.  The latest high jump records will undoubtedly lead to a further rise in the standard for the title of Master of Sport, International Class.

In each four-year period the people who draw up the new classification system do a titanic amount of organizational and scientific work and public activity.  They take painstaking account of all the many factors involved, among them performance levels, the growth of international standards, improvements in the infrastructure of sport, the rising professional qualifications of teachers and coaches, advances in the science of physical education and in training methods.

They observe continuity by making the previous classification system the basis of each succeeding one.  Actually, you could say that in principle the same classification system remains in force in the Soviet Union, but it takes into account the changes which time inevitably brings into sport.

The sports community at large takes part in drafting each new classification system.  For nearly a decade now the work has been done scientifically under the guidance of a team headed by Eduard Gromadsky, holder of a Candidate of Science degree in education, at the Research Institute of Physical Education of the USSR.  The scientists who make up the team begin by working out the principles of the new classification system.  These are examined and approved by the Soviet Sports Committee.  Then, classification standards are discussed in the various federations, at numerous conferences of coaches and at scientific conferences.  The draft that is drawn up is usually published and widely discussed by the sports community.  Only after everything has been tested and all comments have been taken into consideration does the Soviet Sports Committee approve the new classification system for the next four years.

"The classification system exerts an enormous influence on the development of sport in our country," says Eduard Gromadsky.  "It is an aid in organizing training in the numerous sports clubs and teams.  The diversified, all-round planning of the development of sport in our country would be impossible without it."

The present classification system, covering the years from 1977 to 1980, has been made part of the overall program to train Soviet athletes for the 1980 Olympic Games.  The Soviet Sports Committee closely supervises observance of the classification system.


This page was created on January 08, 2005.
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