The growth in regular wage earners created the mass
labor movement in the late 19th century; the labor
movement brought improved conditions, such as the
Saturday half-holiday and shorter working hours.
These two conditions—worker solidarity and more
leisure—framed the rise of worker sport.
Germany became the hub and catalyst of the worker
sports movement, with over 350,000 worker athletes in
various worker clubs even before World War I.A worker
sports movement began to take shape there in the
1890s with the foundation of the Worker Gymnastics
Association, in conscious opposition to the nationalistic German Gymnastics Society (Turnen). Its influence
spread to North America with the migration of entire
German communities. This was followed in Germany
by the Solidarity Worker Cycling Club and the Friends
of Nature Rambling Association in 1895, the Worker
Swimming Association in 1897, the Free Sailing Association in 1901, the Worker Track and Field Association
in 1906, the Worker Chess Association in 1912, and the
Free Shooting Association in 1926.
Austrian, British, and French workers set up analogous associations. By 1913 there were enough members internationally for the worker sports federations
of five European nations, Belgium, Britain, France, Germany, and Italy, to come together at Ghent on the initiative of the Belgian socialist Gaston Bridoux to establish the Socialist Physical Culture International.
By the time the various worker federations regrouped after World War I, two new tendencies, both
divisive and controversial, were emerging.
The first was the growing movement away from
noncompetitive recreation (physical culture) to competitive organized sport. This shift toward team sports
and competitions was a response to popular pressure
within the working class.
Also generating controversy was the growing division between social democrats or socialists, on the one
hand, and communists, on the other, over leadership
and aims of the worker sports movement. A number of
worker sports organizations broke away from the
Lucerne Sports International (LSI), a branch of the Bureau of the Socialist International, after the formation
of the International Association of Red Sports and
Gymnastics Associations, better known as Red Sport
International (RSI), in Moscow in 1921 as a branch of
the Communist International or Comintern.
Relations between the two worker sports internationals were hostile right from the start, the RSI accusing its “reformist” rival of diverting workers from the
class struggle through its policy of political neutrality
in sport. True, the socialists were not trying to make the
sports movement into an active revolutionary force; instead, it was to be a strong, independent movement
within capitalist society that would be ready, after the
revolution, to implement a fully developed system of
physical culture. The RSI, on the other hand, wished to
build a sports international that would be a political
vehicle of the class struggle; it did not want merely to
produce a better sports system for workers in a capitalist world.
By the time they eventually came together, in 1936,
it was too late to save the worker sports movement
from fascist repression.
The Worker Olympics
While the worker sports movement did not take issue
with much of the Coubertin idealism concerning the
modern Olympic Games, it did oppose the Games
themselves and developed its own Olympiads on the
First, the bourgeois Olympics encouraged competition along national lines, whereas the Worker Olympics
stressed internationalism, worker solidarity, and peace.
Second, while the Olympics restricted entry on
the grounds of sporting ability, the worker games invited all.
Third, the IOC Games were criticized for being confined chiefly to the sons of the rich and privileged
(through the amateur code and the domination of national Olympic committees by the upper classes). By
contrast, the Worker Olympics were explicitly against
all chauvinism, racism, sexism, and social exclusivity;
they were truly amateur, organized for the edification
and enjoyment of working women and men, and illustrated the fundamental unity of all working people irrespective of color, creed, sex, or national origin.
Finally, the labor movement did not believe that the
Olympic spirit of true amateurism and international
understanding could be attained in a movement dominated by an aristocratic-bourgeois leadership.
The first of such international Olympic festivals was
hosted by the Czechoslovak Worker Gymnastics Association in Prague, 26–29 June 1921, and advertised as the
first unofficial Worker Olympics. It attracted worker
athletes from 13 countries: Austria, Belgium, Britain,
Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, Finland, France, Germany,
Poland, Switzerland, the USA, USSR, and Yugoslavia.
The first official Worker Olympics were arranged by
the 1.3-million-member Lucerne Sport International
in Germany, seven years after the end of World War I.
They were billed by the organizers as a festival of peace.
As a British representative put it, if wars are won on the
playing fields of Eton, peace can be won on the democratic sports fields of the Workers International
The Winter Games, held in Schreiberhau (now
Riesengebirge), attracted contestants from 12 countries, while the summer Frankfurt Games had representatives from 19 countries and over 150,000 spectators. Although wins were recorded, the accent was on
mass participation and socialist fellowship.
As a counter to both the socialist games of Frankfurt and the “bourgeois” Olympics of Amsterdam in
1928, the communist sports movement put on the First
Workers Spartakiad in Moscow. Despite the boycott by
both socialist and bourgeois sport groups, some 600
worker athletes from 14 countries (15 percent of the total entry of 4,000) were said to have taken part. The
winter counterpart to the Spartakiad took place in late
1928 in Moscow with 636 participants in skiing, speed
skating (women and men), biathlon, and a special skiing contest for postal workers, rural dwellers, and border guards.
The LSI, as sponsor, now had over 2 million members, including 350,000 women (over one-sixth of the
total), and arranged a festival in winter at Mürzzuschalg and in summer at Vienna that far outdid in
spectators, participants, and pageantry the 1932 “bourgeois” Olympics at Lake Placid and Los Angeles.
By design the Vienna Olympiad coincided with the
opening of the Fourth Congress of the Socialist International and it was pointedly noted that, whereas the
political International assembled no more than a few
hundred delegates, the sports International brought together the masses themselves.
Alarmed at the popularity and growing strength of
the worker sports movement, governments stepped up
their repressive actions. When communist workers
tried to organize a Second Spartakiad in Berlin in 1932,
they first ran into visa problems and then, when several
hundred worker athletes had managed to reach Berlin,
the games were banned.
Under attack from fascism, the socialists and communists at last came together in a popular front and
jointly organized a third Worker Olympics, scheduled
for Barcelona in Republican Spain from 19 to 26 July
1936. They were to be in opposition to the “Nazi
Olympics” held in Berlin a week later. But the third
Worker Olympics never took place. On the morning of
the scheduled opening ceremony, the Spanish fascists
staged their military putsch. Some worker athletes remained in Spain to fight in the International Brigade
during the Spanish Civil War, and many who returned
home (like the Canadians, who included the national
high jump champion Eva Dawes) were banned from
sport by their national federations—while those athletes who had given the Nazi salute to Hitler in the Berlin
Olympic opening ceremony returned as national heroes.
After the abortive Barcelona Games, the communist
and socialist coalition rescheduled the third Worker
Olympics for Antwerp in 1937. Although more modest,
the Antwerp Games did present an imposing display of
worker solidarity. Following this success, a fourth
Worker Olympics was planned for Helsinki in 1943, but
war brought down the curtain on the period of worker
The Post–World War II Era
The worker sports movement survived World War II
bowed but undefeated; the radically changed circumstance of the postwar world inevitably brought a transformation of the movement. Basically, the new role was
one of selective cooperation and amalgamation with
the national sports federations and clubs, by contrast
with the prewar separate development.
The new situation was brought about by several factors. First, the Soviet Union had broken its isolation: it
emerged from World War II a victor, its military and political power having penetrated into Central and Eastern Europe. In the conditions of international friction,
or Cold War, that ensued, with two rival blocs facing
each other in a divided Europe, sport became a relatively harmless arena for international competition, for
“defeating”one’s ideological opponent. Second, with the
process of decolonialization and mounting democratization of both the Olympic movement and bourgeois
sport generally, the belief grew that international sport,
particularly the Olympic Games, could be opened up to
working people, women, and ethnic groups and used
for peace, democracy, and the isolation of racist systems. Third, the emphasis within worker sport
switched to campaigning inside “bourgeois” organizations for funds, playgrounds, open spaces, and facilities
for working people, and for women’s sport, against
commercialism and chauvinism.
All the same, a separate worker sports movement
did manage to survive. Immediately after the war, the
socialists in Western Europe set up the International
Worker Sports Committee (IWSC) in London in 1946.
Despite a peak of 2.2 million members in 14 countries
in the late 1940s, however, the IWSC never attained the
importance that the prewar movement had. The most
influential worker sports organization today is that in
Israel: Hapoel (The Worker) is Israel’s largest and
strongest sports organization; it is the only instance
(outside remaining communist states) where a worker
sports organization controls its country’s sport.
The worker sports movement did try to provide an
alternative experience based on workers’ own culture
and inspired by visions of a new socialist culture. To
this end it organized the best sporting program it
could, regardless of the level, whether a Sunday bike
ride or a Worker Olympic festival, founded on genuinely socialist values. Its story is as much a part of the
history of sport and of the labor movement as is Coubertin’s Olympics or trade unionism.
Bibliography: Hoberman, John. (1984) Sport and Political
Ideology. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul. Krüger,
Arnd, and James Riordan, eds. (1996) The Story of Worker
Sport. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. Riordan, James.
(1991) Sport, Politics and Communism. Manchester: Manchester University Press.
The growth in regular wage earners created the mass