The instructive story of the ‘Workers’ Olympics’ has been neglected, glossed over by many historians of sport. In this blog I draw in particular on the pioneering work of James Riordan (see below).
In some ways it was less the idealism of de Coubertin, founder-in-chief of the ‘reconstructed’ modern Olympiad, than its institutional product that alienated left activists. First, the bourgeois Olympics promoted competition on national lines, while the Workers’ Olympics were founded on internationalism, worker solidarity and peace. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) banned German and Austrian athletes from the 1920 and 1924 Games, while the 1925 Workers’ Olympics were deliberately staged in Germany under the rubric of ‘no more war’ (although, ironically, Soviet athletes were barred). Second, while the IOC Games restricted entry on the basis of proven sporting talent, the Workers’ Olympics were open to all-comers, emphasizing the importance of mass participation. Moreover the events comprising the Workers’ Olympics were less restrictive, including poetry, song, drama, artistic displays, pageantry and political debate. Third, the Olympic Games were scorned as the preserve of the sons of the rich and privileged. The word ‘sons’ is used advisedly since de Coubertin explicitly opposed women’s participation, whilst also asserting the supremacy of white over black athletes. The Workers’ Olympics, by contrast, were far more inclusive, welcoming all working people, regardless of gender, colour, creed or national origin. Finally, there was opposition to the aristocratic-cum-bourgeois composition of the IOC. True amateurism, it was argued, must be sought elsewhere, in an arena for ordinary working people.
How did this rival to the IOC’s offspring emerge? The inaugural ‘unofficial’ Workers’ Olympics was held in Prague on 26-29 June 1921. It attracted worker-athletes from 13 countries and its schedule extended well beyond conventional sporting contests. The first ‘official’ Workers’ Olympics were organized by the 1.3 million-strong Lucerne Sport International (LSI), an offshoot of the Bureau of the Socialist International in Germany. The Games were promoted as a festival for peace (a British representative remarked: ‘if wars are won on the playing fields of Eton, peace can be won on the democratic sports fields of the Workers’ International Olympiads’). These Games in Frankfurt attracted participants from 19 countries and in excess of 150,000 spectators. For all the frowning on the concept of ‘star’ or record performances, there was quiet satisfaction in the breaking of the world record in the women’s 4 x100 metres relay. The opening ceremonies and winning rituals avoided national flags and anthems, substituting ‘red flags’ and hymns like the Internationale. Despite the ‘success’ of the Frankfurt Games, it should be noted that a number of socialist groups and individuals were excluded, including those who had visited the Soviet Union or hosted Soviet sports groups, some of whom staged protests
As a counterpart to the socialist Games at Frankfurt and the aristocratic/bourgeois Olympics at Amsterdam in 1928, the first Workers’ Spartakiad was organized by the Communist sports movement in Moscow during the August of 1928. Despite a ban on member participation on the part of both bourgeois and socialist sporting groups, over 600 participants turned up from 14 countries (including 26 from Britain). A comprehensive programme of 21 sports was on offer, plus many other non-sporting celebrations, including a mock battle between the ‘workers of the world’ and the ‘world bourgeoisie’. Soviet sources claimed that records set at Frankfurt tumbled, although standards were well down on those attained at Amsterdam.
A less than triumphant Workers’ Sports Festival was held by the socialists in Nuremberg in 1928, but what Riordan calls the ‘zenith of the workers’ sports movement’ was reached in Vienna in 1931. The LSI, now with over two million members, including 350,000 women, laid on a festival in Vienna that outshone – ‘in spectators, participants and pageantry’ – the bourgeois Olympic Games in (far-away) Los Angeles in 1932. The detailed programme incorporated a meeting of the Red Falcon youth group, 220 events across all the sporting disciplines, as well as friendly competitions, artistic displays, a combination run-and-swim through Vienna, fireworks, a parade and mass exercises. There was some convergence, however, with the bourgeois Olympics. Riordan writes:
An Olympic flame was borne into the stadium (brought from Mount Olympus); each delegation marched into the stadium as a separate nation (though under a red flag); and the sports events roughly paralleled those of the bourgeois Olympics – though they remained open to all irrespective of ability, thereby demonstrating sport for all.
Around 80,000 worker-athletes from 23 countries took part. On the opening day a quarter of a million spectators watched 100,000 men and women parade through the streets of ‘Red Vienna’ to the stadium; 65,000 later watched the football and 12,000 the cycling finals. As a point of comparison, 1,204 male and 127 female athletes participated in the 10th Olympiad in Los Angeles.
According to Riordan the coincidence of the Vienna Games and the opening of the 4th Congress of the Socialist International was of symbolic importance:
it was pointedly noted that whereas the political international assembled no more than a few hundred delegates, the sports international brought together the masses themselves. Indeed, there was no other element of the labour movement in which popular participation was more manifest: congresses might pass resolutions about proletarian solidarity and revolutionary energy, but workers’ sport provided practical manifestations of these ideas.
The weight of the success of the LSI-sponsored Vienna Games led to a degree of bourgeois political repression. An attempt to put on a second Spartakiad in Berlin in 1932 was initially thwarted – all Soviet and some other athletes were refused visas to enter Germany – and the meeting eventually banned. A third Workers’ Olympics were planned for Barcelona, in republican Spain, from 19-26 July 1936 (in opposition to the Nazi Olympics to be held in Berlin a week later). The Spanish IOC backed Barcelona rather than Berlin. But it never took place: on the morning of scheduled opening ceremony the Spanish fascists staged their military putsch. Some worker-athletes stayed to fight in the International Brigade. Other athletes returned home and were banned by their national federations (unlike those who had given the Nazi salute to Hitler in Berlin).
The third Games were re-scheduled for Antwerp in 1937. Battling against the odds a less ambitious festival was indeed held: 27,000 worker-athletes came from 17 countries, including the USSR; 50,000 filled the stadium on the final day and 200,000 attended the traditional pageant through the city. Antwerp was to prove a proletarian swan song. The outbreak of war put paid to plans for a fourth gathering in Helsinki in 1943.
In many ways, it seems, the mid-1930s represented the peak of organized working-class engagement in sport. Not only was Antwerp the site of the last Workers’ Olympics, but in Germany Hitler had by then ruthlessly curtailed the best supported of the Left sports movements, and in more sedate Britain a not dissimilar if more gradual process was underway. What is remarkable, in retrospect, is that these Left initiatives accomplished as much as they did!
Riordan,J (1984) The Workers’ Olympics’, in Eds Tomlinson,A & Whannel,G: Five Ring Circus: Money, Power and Politics at the Olympic Games. London; Pluto Press.