The Workers Olympics of the 1920s and 1930s; not subordinating Play to Sport

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As we near the Olympics, and (more to the point) the various events in London which have been planned to satirise the Olympics’ supposed fixation on the body beautiful, this is as good a moment as any to look at the content of the anti-Olympics events of the 1920s and 1930s, which embodied a different balance of play and sport.

Kruger and Riordan’s The Story of Worker Sport opens with a brief resume of the scale of the Worker Olympics, the most prestigious events emerging from the Worker Sports tradition: “In 1925, a year after the Paris Olympic Games, 150,000 workers attended the first Worker Olympics at Frankfurt am Main. In 1931, one year before the Los Angeles “official” Olympic Games at which 1,408 athletes competed, over 100,000 workers from 26 countries took part in the second Worker Olympics at Vienna. More than a quarter million spectators attended the Vienna games. Five years later, in opposition to the 1936 Nazi Olympics at Berlin, a more grand Worker Olympics was planned for Barcelona; however, it never took place. The Worker Olympics easily surpassed their rival, the bourgeois Olympics Games, in the number of competitors and spectators and in pageant, culture, and new sports records.

In a chapter on the German Workers Sports movement Kruger describes the Frankfurt Workers Olympics of 1925 as follows: “The first Worker Olympics took place in the newly built Frankfurt stadium in front of 150,000 spectators. At the opening ceremony, a choir of 1200 people sang, giving the sports festival a cultural content. In a festive drama presentation, 60,000 ‘actors’ took part in the ‘Worker Struggle for the Earth’. The winning German women’s sprint relay actually beat the world record (the achievement was unratified because it was not sanctioned by the IAAF). All participants were required to take part in the cultural festivals, and all were permitted to compete in individual events to stress the performance of the general athlete rather than the specialist…”

Athletes from 19 countries took part in the games. The message of the games was “No More War”, with the red flag and Internationale replacing national flags and national anthems. Alongside sporting events there were performances of poetry and song, chess contests, lectures and art.

The games were a complex fusion of the collective and the competitive. As the example of the sprint relay shows, at the top end, athletes were serious about competing to the best of their physical ability. But even at this competitive end, there were subtle difference between the Worker and the bourgeois Olympics: a greater emphasis on plebeian sports (such as weightlifting) and non-sports (chess, hiking) and on activities which while sporting were really there for show and could only awkwardly be fixed into a competitive sports model (gymnastics).

Women were of course welcome (in contrast to the bourgeois Olympics, at which they were barely tolerated).

The priorities were co-operation in alliance with competition, and participation rather than spectating.

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