The forgotten part of sports history

The 2012 Olympics have drawn much criticism from not only the left but also some of MPs for a range of issues from corporate sponsorship to potential worker exploitation and the effect on working-class communities in London.

But now a day no body want remember that, what of the largely forgotten history of working-class organizations and sport?

Perhaps the only moment of dissent now recalled is the powerful black power salutes at the 1968 Olympics, a symbol that echoed around the world.

But the history of working-class sport goes much deeper and broader. It was not just a question of protest at officially organized events but a whole alternative sporting structure.

In 1914 as the First World War broke out there were 350,000 workers in sports organizations in Germany. By 1928 this had risen to two million.

There were 60 sports papers with a readership of 800,000.

These structures were organized by the socialist party the SPD.

However by 1931 the German Communist Party KPD also had a separate sports organization of 100,000 members.

The extent of these organizations was considerable. For example the German workers’ cycling association had a co-operative cycle production factory.

In Austriain 1930 the workers’ swimming association gave 100,000 free swimming lessons.

By contrast in Britain there was more space to operate inside the system.

The origins of team sports often lay with works or factory sides sponsored by employers.

There was no systematic attempt to exclude socialists or trade unionists.

The highest-profile aspect of workers’ sport were the alternative Workers Olympiad.

The first unofficial workers’ Olympics were in Prague in 1921 but the first official event was in Germanyin 1925. Some 150,000 were said to have attended.

Vienna followed in 1931, with 100,000 competing from 26 countries. Antwerp held the event in 1937, replacing the famously ill-fated Barcelona Workers’ Olympiad of 1936, which had to be cancelled at the last moment as Franco’s forces advanced.

All these events were organized by the social democratic Socialist Workers Sports International which by 1931 had 1.3 million members.

The communist-influenced Red Sports International held festivals in Moscowin 1928 and Berlin1931. After that, as fascism became a serious threat and political positions changed, the impetus for separate events was less.

It is the story of the failed Barcelona Olympics of 1936 that is perhaps best known.

They were termed the People’s Olympic Games and scheduled for July 19-26 1936 in opposition to the Nazi-dominated Olympics in Berlin.

The idea was to hold a “popular sports festival which does not hope for record feats but intends to preserve the true Olympic spirit of peace and co-operation between nations.”

Despite the most difficult of circumstances 10,000 athletes from 20 countries including Britain,Canada,France and the Netherlands arrived.

Shamefully, International Olympic Committee president Avery Brundage declared them the “communist games.”

The British Workers Sports Association sent 40 athletes including some quite well-known ones such as the Welsh 100-yards champion EG Cupid and the tennis player Bernard Bamber as well as the chess player AR Northcott from Acton Labour Sports Section.

There was a delay in getting agreement from the UK Amateur Athletics Association but it was agreed the games were an officially organized event, permits were issued and the British team left Victoriastation on July 17 1936.

Their arrival coincided with the final and successful assault by Franco’s forces on the Republican government and the British team were evacuated by the royal navy.

Some who had gone to Barcelonastayed on to become part of the International Brigades.


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