‘Democratised’ Olympics? The International Workers’ Olympiads

The Rio Olympics are done and dusted for this leap year as the Games proper gives way to the Carnivale part of the festivities. The Games of the XXXI Olympiad were just as competitive as ever, the media as always focused on the (unofficial but much discussed) medal tallies, vicariously lapped up by the patriotic supporters of national teams. By way of contrast with today’s highly competitive and commercialised IOC Olympics, I thought it might be interesting to take a historical look at a very different kind of Olympiad, one lacking in individual competitiveness, centring largely round the “Second World” in the 1920s and 1930s.

During the interwar period (1919-1939) the newly-communist state of the USSR isolated itself from the capitalist world, this also meant opting out of the western system of sport, including the quadrennial Olympic Games. The USSR’s leaders viewed the Olympics as a capitalist and inherently exploitative and chauvinistic sporting event run by and for the West’s elites+. The Bolsheviks certainly wanted to engage the Soviet citizenry especially its youth in physical activity, but wanted to create a sporting and physical culture that was ‘proletarian’ in nature to match the state’s avowed ideological position. Eschewing the IOC games’ ‘bourgeois’ individualism and record-seeking, the Soviets envisaged a sporting movement that would be class-based, collectivist and mass-oriented. More pragmatically, the government also understood that the proletarian sports meets would provide youth with valuable training for later national military service.

As an alternative to the Olympics the Soviet Union in the early 1920s introduced the Spartakiad*, an ongoing, international multi-sports event sponsored by the USSR Communist Party. The state organisation responsible for organising the event was called Red Sport International (RSI – sometimes known as Sportintern), under the aegis of the powerful Comintern (the Communist International). RSI was established in 1921 in opposition to the developed nations-dominated Olympics, but also in opposition to the rival Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI) which was founded as the Lucerne Sport International and based in that German-speaking Swiss city in 1920^. SASI organised a series of Workers’ Olympiads over the ensuing two decades.

The early (unofficial) Spartakiads were purely Soviet Republic affairs involving formations of the Red Army and Spartak Youth Physical Culture. Later participants included trade unions, the Dynamo Physical Culture Sports Society, the Patriotic Defence Society (DOSAAF) and other labour-based sports clubs and associations. From 1928 to 1937 athletes from working class sports clubs and associations outside of the USSR were invited to take part in the Spartakiads.

Predictably the separate sports tournaments of the USSR-sponsored RSI and the SASI (backed by the German parliamentary socialist Left and a mixture of independent socialists, syndicalists and anarchists) became vehicles to endorse the virtues of each body’s political stance … the Soviets saw the sporting activities of RSI as opportunities for political education of the masses (although they were quite frustrated at the limited success in this objective). There were calls in the 1920s for SASI and RSI to unify their multi-sport movements and some tentative connections made, but these were made against a backdrop of the non-crystallisation of the Left in Europe. Communists and social democrats committed the fatal political mistake: bickering and fighting with each other rather than focussing on the common enemy, the greater threat to them from fascism and the Far Right in Europe (e.g., as happened in Weimar Germany). Ultimately, the two workers’ sporting organisations couldn’t bring themselves to merge as the ideological divide between moderate (democratic) Left and Far Left widened.

Both sports internationals were large-scale organisations, each with over two million members by 1928. Both professed to be anti-bourgeois but crucial differences surfaced rapidly. SASI took a strongly anti-militarist stance (the Olympiad’s slogan was “No More War”), and insisted that members follow its policy of political party neutrality (on both counts antithetical to RSI). SASI’s political non-alignment drew hostility from RSI who attacked it for a failure to espouse revolutionary goals, labelling its members as ‘Mensheviks’ and ‘reformists’. RSI also pursued a strategy of trying to ‘white-ant’ SASI by forming communist factions within it. SASI for its part earnestly resisted attempts by RSI to radicalise its movement and impose a communist dominance over it.

SASI held its first Workers’ Olympiad in Frankfurt-am-Main in 1925. Around 150,000 spectators attended and a world record was broken in the 4 x 100 metres women’s relay race. SASI fostered the ideals of international solidarity and brotherhood among athletes, this was in stark contrast to the IOC which had compromised its own Olympic principles by allowing Belgium and France to ban the defeated (so-called) “aggressor nations”, Germany and Austria, from the 1920 and 1924 Olympics. Both worker sports associations, especially the SASI, railed against the IOC for its practice of social exclusion, racist attitudes and failure to promote policies of gender equality at the Olympic Games. At the Worker Olympiads national flags and anthems were forbidden … all athletes competed under a single red flag and “The Internationale” was sung at ceremonies which comprised displays of free exercises by a mass of gymnasts. The sense of brotherhood engendered by SASI discouraged the quest for records and the idolisation of individual athletes.

Another feature distinguishing the Workers’ Olympiad from the IOC Olympics was that the best performed athletes were awarded diplomas instead of medals. As well, there was no exclusive accommodation for competitors such as Olympic villages, worker-athletes were billeted with local, working class families.

The 1931 SASI Olympiad in Vienna was probably the most successful tournament, introducing innovative sports such as fitness biathlon (run-and-swim) and “military sport”. It attracted 250,000 spectators (more than attended the 1932 Los Angeles Games), with competitors from 26 countries numbering in excess of 75,000 (cf. a mere 1,410 competing at the LA Games). Workers’ Olympiads were not restricted to elite performers, they were in fact overtly non-elitist in character … open to participants regardless of ability. SASI’s games had a more socially progressive approach … where the IOC had only 107 women competitors in LA in 1932 (about 7% of the total), Vienna had 25,000 female athletes attend in 1931.

The next Workers’ Olympiad was set to take place in Barcelona in 1936, the same year as the Berlin Olympics, and was intended to be a protest against the IOC’s awarding of the Games to Hitler’s Germany. It was however called off at the 11th hour owing to the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War (see separate post). Hastily rescheduled for 1937 in Antwerp, this Olympiad was considerably reduced in scale (15 participating countries), there were no German athletes because the Workers’ Gymnastics and Sports Federation of Germany (ATSB) had been outlawed by the Nazi regime upon coming to power. As a partial reconciliation SASI did permit RSI sporting clubs and bodies to take part. Exotic or novel sports at Antwerp included Basque pelota, Czech handball, table tennis, motor cycling and chess.

The 1937 Workers’ Olympiad was the last of SASI’s sexennial multi-sports labour-centred events, as the outbreak of World War II put paid to plans to hold the 1943 Workers’ Olympiad scheduled to take place in Helsinki. The global war also called a halt to the Moscow-controlled Spartakiads (Red Star International itself was dissolved in the late 1930s).

Emerging from the war as allies of Britain, France and the US, the USSR moved towards a position of greater engagement with the world. Embracing the West, to the extent it did this, was partly a recognition of the need to modernise the Soviet Union, and this was essential if the USSR was going to compete with and overtake the capitalist world in industry, technology and agriculture. A key part of engaging internationally was to integrate into the Western international sports system, starting with the major sports in the USSR, football and weightlifting. The Soviets got themselves onto the world governing federations in these sports and then extended the process to other highly participatory sports.

As the muscle-flexing of the Cold War was starting up, the USSR recognised the value of using sport to project and enhance great-power status, so the clear goal was admission to the Olympic Games fraternity (Russia had last been at the Games in 1912 in the Tsarist era). The Soviets did not try to gain entry to the 1948 London Games but timed their return for the 1952 Games in Helsinki where they were successful in winning 22 gold medals. At Melbourne in the 1956 Olympics the USSR finished first (above even the mighty USA) in the medal tally. Such a demonstration of communist sporting supremacy over capitalist nations in this world arena brought the Soviet Union a real measure of international recognition (in the same way as Soviet technological breakthroughs in the “Space Race” did).

In the post-war period the Soviet Union continued holding Spartakiads, but they now had new purposes. The Spartikiads and other such massive-scale, multi-sport extravaganzas (kompleksnye sorevnovania) were still PR vehicles to propagate positive values of youth, optimism and world peace. The Spartakiad continued right up to the breakup of the USSR, and its sporting activities bolstered national defence by providing paramilitary training for Soviet youth. But the event was now held one year prior to the Olympics, the Spartakiad became an internal Olympics trial, a mechanism to find and develop new talent for the upcoming Olympic Games.

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+ a sense of elitism in no way diminished by a succession of aristocratic heads of the IOC – de Coubertin, de Baillet-Latour, Brundage, etc.

* the Spartakiad took its name from Spartacus, the 1st century Thracian gladiator who led a slave rebellion against Rome. The Soviets’ association of its sporting carnival with an ancient, ‘barbarian’ proletarian leader was in sharp relief to the Modern Olympics movement which took its inspiration from the Ancient Olympics with its aristocratic nod to the mythology of Greek Gods

^ the origins of worker gymnastic and sporting associations and clubs lie in Central Europe in late I9th century and arose out of an increase in workers’ leisure time, e.g. Germany led the way with the formation of the Worker-Gymnasts Association (ATB) in 1893. Swimming, sailing, athletics and other sports swiftly followed suit. By soon after the turn-of-the century these types of organisations had spread to other European states. In 1913 worker sport associations representing Germany, England, Belgium, France and Austria, met at a congress in Ghent and formed the first International Workers’ Sports Association. The advent of world war the following year however put the IWSA’s activities on hold for the rest of the decade.


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About Pagan Maven

Outside left for Gorky Park Cadres U12s; Kremlin Gremlins U14s - Stalinovskiy Vodka Juvenile League. Ricky Lenin B & F medal winner 1966-67. Mascot for Felchester Rovers senior side in the Q-League. Bolshevikskaya Primary School cadet sports journalist covering the USSR V Australia international amateur boxing tournament "From Russia With Glove" (Melbourne 1963). Emeritus Left Winger, Trotskiy Collectivisation Colts.


  1. Dear Pagan Maven,i ‘ve not noticed mention of Nikolai Podvoisny ? To my memory, fading though it is, he was a commissar following the October uprising. He played a role in the early period of the Comintern pushing for concepts like the Spartikiad. I think he was the initial head of the Red Sports International.

    to my knowledge no australian ever participated in the Spartakiad, but i don’t know about their contemporary counterpart, the ‘reformist’ SASI.


  2. You’re correct Glen … Nikolai Podvoisky was the prime mover for getting the ball rolling with the first Spartikiads. He raised & promoted the idea at the 1920 Congress of the Comintern & being the official in charge of military training for Soviet youth, he became head of RSI when it was established in 1921.

    As to Australian participation in the Spartakiad, its a fascinating question but I very much doubt it … the first Spartikiads were (internal) all-Soviet affairs, there were some US leftist athletes that went to the event in 1937, but I’ve no information on Australians ever going. The Workers’ Olympiads run by the Socialist Workers Sport International on the other hand, it is distinctly possible that some individual Australian athletes may have taken part (esp in 1936 & 1937) … they would have had connections with the organising committee in Lucerne through the Australian trade union movement, but I can’t say definitively that any Australians participated in the Olympiads.

    Thanks for your interest!


  3. Ta Pagan.

    There were large groups of Australians going to Spain in 1936-37, fighting with the international brigade(s). I wonder if any digressed to to attend/participate in the Workers Olympiad. Sadly all our veterans of the Spanish Civil War, are long gone. I remember meeting Lloyd Edmonds back in the 1980’s , but this question would never have crossed my mind.


  4. Pagan

    This is a very interesting part of modern sports history. Just wondering if you can recommend any books, definitive shorter pieces, articles etc. I’m very interested in following this up.

  5. Glen – don’t know for sure but it seems compellingly likely that some of the Australians who fought in the Spanish Civil War on the Republic side were athletes who went to Barcelona & when the war erupted, volunteered.

    What I did find was references to anti-fascist Britons or left-liberal American athletes who did just that! So it follows that there were Aussies too … I reckon the answer might lie, perhaps untapped, in the archives of Aust trade unions from the 1930s.


  6. No problems JTH …. I have a fuller, footnoted version of the “Workers’ Olympiads” Footy Almanac piece on my blog.
    It has references at the bottom of it to articles & books (on the web) which I found useful & illuminating – visit the following URL
    for these sources.

    In addition you could also consult this article “Sport or Political Organization? Red Sport International (author: A Gounot), Journal of Sport History (Spring 2001) – http://www.library.la84.org
    Two further sites to check out offer a great series of posters & photos from various Spartakiads
    http://www.ciml.250x.com or google “RSI – Sportintern”
    Google “Charnel House Spartakiade a Bolshevik Alternative to the Olympics”

    An academic called James Riordan seems to be one of the leading authorities on sport & politics, there’s a reference to one of his books on my blog article.

    These would all be helpful to follow up on the topic.


  7. Also John, I have another piece specifically on the 1936 Peoples’ Olympiad in Barcelona which was intended as a left-wing counter-Olympiad to the official “Nazi Olympics” in Berlin … I will upload that one to the site on the weekend too – you might want to check this out as well for more background information.


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