Most people on the left have greeted the London 2012 games with healthy cynicism or hostility. This is understandable, given the profiteering, the property development, and the exploitation that comes to town with the Olympics.
In all the debates going on about the political nature and social effects of the games, are there any models for socialists to look to when it comes to staging big sporting events? Is there such a thing as “workers’ sport” or “socialist sport”?
For a brief period in the 1920s and 1930s, the international workers’ movement was strong enough to organise and stage its own alternative games.
The existence of workers’ sports clubs stretches back into the 19th century (of which, more later), but after the Russian Revolution, the great split between the reformist and revolutionary wings of the socialist movement was mirrored in these organisations.
There was a Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI), supported by the social democratic parties and the “Amsterdam” trade union international, and a Red Sport International (RSI), or Sportintern, founded by revolutionary Communists. Calls to unify the two throughout the 1920s came to nothing, as the political divide between social democrats and Communists became more entrenched.
SASI held three summer Workers’ Olympiads, and one in winter. In 1931, both the summer and winter Workers’ Olympiads were larger than their “official” counterparts. There were no national flags, only the Red Flag of the workers’ movement. One poster for the 1925 Workers’ Olympiad, held in Frankfurt-am-Main, shows a socialist worker with a huge red flag standing over broken rifles and a battered swastika flag. It is obvious from this image what the political message of the event was; peace and internationalism. The motto of the Frankfurt games was “No More War.” Worker-athletes from different countries stayed with working-class families. There was no closeted Olympic Village built over cleansed working-class neighbourhoods.
The IOC will always bang on about the “spirit of the Olympics” being about peace and international unity, but in the 1920 and 1924 games, athletes from the losing countries in the First World War were barred.
The RSI similarly held one winter and three summer sports events, which they named Spartakiads, between 1928 and 1937.
In 1931, the high point of this Labour Olympics movement, the SASI was much larger than the RSI. It had over one million affiliated members in Germany, or about ten times the number affiliated to the Communist organisation. The RSI did, however, apparently win to it a majority of workers’ sports clubs in certain countries, notably France, Sweden, and Canada.
The RSI was founded in 1921 with little fanfare and little interference or assistance from the Communist International, but throughout the 1920s it became organisationally depended on the International’s structures. As early as 1923, the Executive Committee of the Communist International agreed that, although formally independent and involved in the organisation of non-Party workers, the RSI “carries out its work in accordance with the political directives of the Communist International.”
By the mid-1930s, Stalinist policy changed to one of rapprochement with social democracy through the “Popular Front.” In 1936, Barcelona planned to host a “People’s Olympiad,” as Republican Spain had declared that it was boycotting the Berlin Olympics, held under Nazi rule.
The competition was never held because the military uprising that triggered the Spanish Civil War occurred just days before it was scheduled to start. However, some of the athletes, mostly representative of trade unions and political groups rather than nations, had already arrived in Spain, and proceeded to join the military struggle against Franco. One such athlete was Clara Thalmann, a German swimmer and Communist Party oppositionist who joined the anarchist Durruti Column.
Organised sport with a mass audience is a relatively modern phenomenon, dating back only to the mid-19th century.
Fairly rapidly, sports programmes were set up in many European countries by organisations as diverse as religious groups, military academies, and trade unions. The latter developed into the concept of “workers’ sport.”
Self-organised, independent working-class sports clubs were different from the idea of “works teams,” set up by employers (from which many modern football clubs, such as West Ham United and Arsenal, originate). In Britain in the 1890s, clubs set up by supporters of the socialist Clarion newspaper were largely focused around non-competitive cycling and hiking. In Germany, workers’ gymnastics clubs were most popular.
Are such activities “more socialist” than competitive team sports? The self-proclaimed mission of the RSI was “the creation and amalgamation of revolutionary proletarian sports and gymnastics organisations in all countries of the world and their transformation into support centres for the proletariat in its class struggle.”
But the RSI did not exclude its clubs from participating in competitive sports. On the contrary, it welcomed any sport which “aroused the interest of the masses.” Ostensibly, competition in and between Communist clubs was about preparing members physically and mentally for class struggle.
Ernst Grube of the Communist Party of Germany declared: “Worker sport has nothing in common with the petty bourgeoisie’s craving for freedom; it is Marxist class war on all fronts of sport and physical exercise.” But, with only about 10% of RSI-affiliated athletes Party members, to what extent was this just hot air from a Stalinist functionary?
Perhaps the “socialist” nature of the inter-war organisations can be judged from their social role, rather than the types of sports they were promoting. Social democrats ran free swimming lessons in Austria, and a bicycle-making co-operative was run by the German social democratic cycling club. Such pursuits were more worthwhile than the increasingly dogmatic partyist pronouncements of the Communist organisations.
Although the various national sections of the RSI succeeded in attracting workers from non-Communist leftwing traditions, including anarchists, the real decision-making processes of the group were Stalinised during the 1920s. The lack of “correct” political awareness from members of local clubs, who had perhaps only affiliated to the RSI through accidents of geography, was a constant source of frustration to the RSI leadership, who saw sporting competitions as opportunities for political education.
The idea that some sports are inherently “un-socialist” comes from a type of Stalinised cod-Marxism; nor is it “unsocialist” to enjoy or be inspired by Olympic sports. If “workers’ sport” is a concept worth reviving, it should examine the basis on which sporting events are being held.
There are certain elements of internationalism to the current Olympics, but they are mostly buried by the nationalist and corporate landslide. This was a state of affairs that the workers’ movement in the 1920s was confident and powerful enough to at least try to oppose, without turning its back on the sports in the process.