The forgotten history of workers’ Olympics

Terry Bell
Terry Bell
Terry Bell

In this week of Women’s Day, the 30th summer Olympiad is coming to an end. Over the past week and more, women and men from all backgrounds have displayed their sporting abilities, watched on television by more than 1 billion people around the world.

In this week of Women’s Day, the 30th summer Olympiad is coming to an end. Over the past week and more, women and men from all backgrounds have displayed their sporting abilities, watched on television by more than 1 billion people around the world.

But it was not always like that — and not only in terms of television viewing or even the number of participants or spectators. These “modern Olympics” started out as an elitist and exclusively male preserve.

And, once again, as these Games come to an end, they are shrouded in some very modern myths that ignore the real origins of the Olympics — and fail to give credit where credit is due. Much of the credit for the fact that women now compete and that men and women from every background are generally included on the basis of ability alone, goes to the labour movement, mainly in Europe, but also in the United States.

It is a history that has largely been hidden and has no place in the grand commercial circus that is now the Olympics, and has been so since the end of World War II. But, courtesy of historians such as Robert Wheeler of the United States we have access to this history.

More than 30 years ago, Wheeler unearthed and published much of the background to international “worker sports”, a history that remains neglected and largely forgotten.

Unsurprisingly, because these sporting events not only included women, they also often openly rejected the competitive and elitist ethos of the official Olympic movement that got formally underway with the first “modern” Games in Athens in 1896.

Non-competitive hiking, cycling and team sports such as soccer and, in the US, baseball, were the chosen activities in the early years as the labour movement won concessions on working hours and six and seven-days-a-week work. It was only after World War I that individually competitive sport became generally accepted in the worker movement.

And it was a movement that involved millions of women and men. By 1929, for example, the Workers’Cycling Association in Germany had 320 000 members and owned its own bicycle factory. It was affiliated to the main sports federation, ATUS, that boasted more than 1.2 million members.

Throughout, the stress in the worker sports movement was on building unity across national boundaries, to downplay competitiveness and to demand equal rights for all. This was in direct contrast to what is now called the “modern Olympics”.

This concept of a modern Games was based on a romantic notion of ancient Greek competitions dreamed up by a wealthy French nobleman, Baron Pierre de Coubertin. De Coubertin saw such exhibitions of prowess to be by “heroes” and his model for such events was those staged for boys and old boys of elite British private schools such as Rugby and Eton.

His vision of Olympic Games was a way of uniting what he perceived to be the cultured elite of the world across national boundaries, perhaps as a substitute for war, but also as a preparation for conflict. There was also stress on the fact that all competitors should be amateurs. Professionals — those paid to compete — were clearly unsuitable and this effectively excluded working men who could not afford, especially given low pay and long hours, to train to sufficient standard.

The original modern Olympics were, therefore, designed to be exclusive on the basis of class and gender. But to celebrate the common bond of this elite band of competing athletes, an Olympic anthem was composed and was played to celebrate every win by whichever competitor.

This genuflection to internationalism disappeared in 1936 when ultra-nationalist Nazi Germany staged the Olympics in Berlin. One of the legends of those Games is how Adolf Hitler got his comeuppance when an Afro-American, Jesse Owens, won golds against the “Aryan” champions.

Owens did indeed cause Hitler to storm out of the stadium, but the German dictator’s legacy lives on, not only in that national songs replaced the Olympic anthem, but also in the much lauded torch relay and the lighting of the Olympic flame. The Nazis introduced these rituals to symbolise cleansing fire, burning out the filth of the world.

The torch, the flame and the national anthems have survived, as have memories about the 1936 official Olympiad. However, a year later, in August, 1937, there was another Olympiad, this time in Antwerp, Belgium about which few people have heard.

Yet there were more than 50 000 men and women from 15 countries who took part in this, the last of the “Workers’ Olympics”. As fascism swept through Europe, the repression came down especially heavily on trade unionists and socialists of various stripes who were at the centre of the worker sports movement.

This was already evident in Antwerp because, at the previous “Workers’ Olympics” in Vienna, Austria, in 1931, there were an estimated 100 000 participants from 26 countries. They still promoted the slogan of the first such Games, staged in Prague in 1921: No More War!

The Prague Games also included athletes from “enemy states” who were excluded by the official movement. But, by 1939 and the outbreak of World War II, the no war slogan had a hollow ring and the dream of peace and unity was shattered.

However, the egalitarian principles these largely forgotten sportspeople fought for had a global impact, at least in part. After World War II, gender discrimination became unacceptable, as did the insistence on amateurism, so opening the way for talented athletes from other than wealthy backgrounds.

Ironically, the acceptance of professional sportsmen and women in the Olympics was largely the work of a Spanish nobleman and fascist, Juan Antonio Samaranch. A member of General Francisco Franco’s Falange, he headed the International Olympic Committee for 21 years until 2001.

Money is now the main determining factor. Better funding means a better chance on the medals table; the egalitarian ideal is still a long way off. For example, South Africa’s total investment in all Olympic sports over the past four years is equal to what Britain put into the minority sport of badminton.

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TOPICS:  Sport

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