Between the First and Second World Wars, hundreds of thousands of workers took part in mass left wing sports movements.
These movements, mostly ignored by today’s history, were set up in conscious opposition to the growing sports industry—and were highly political.
German Communist leader Ernst Grube 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.”
That sounded a bit less bombastic in those days—because this was a global movement. A Socialist Gymnastics Union had existed in the US as early as 1850. But it was in response to sport organised by the bosses in the 1880s and 1890s that workers’ sporting events started to take off.
Workers’ gymnastics and cycling societies were formed across Germany in 1893. In 1895, a British workers’ cycling club was organised around the Clarion newspaper. Hiking groups grew up around Europe.
Germany was the centre of the movement. There were over 350,000 worker sportsmen and women organised there before the First World War.
Workers’ sports were consciously different from “bourgeois” sports, in that they were open to all. A good example was the setting up of a “Workers’ Wimbledon” tennis championship.
The idea was that workers’ sports would remove class barriers from participation in sport, but also substitute socialist values for capitalist ones.
That’s why, prior to 1914, there was an emphasis on activities that could be less competitive, such as gymnastics, cycling, hiking and swimming.
The German newspaper Volksstimme (The People’s Voice) deplored “our youth’s interest in sport which is solely concerned with contest and victory”.
However after the First World War competitive sport became ever more dominant. So left wing sports groups embraced more competitive activities—partially to keep members.
Political divisions also shaped the form of labour sports’ organisation. The International Union of Red Sports and Gymnastics Associations, better known as the Red Sport International (RSI), was founded in Moscow on 23 June 1921.
It hoped to run sports with the values of the Russian Revolution. It wanted “revolutionary proletarian sports and gymnastics organisations in all countries of the world” as “support centers for the proletariat in its class struggle”.
The RSI aimed to act as a counter-balance to the Lucerne Sport International (LSI). Established in 1920 by representatives of European worker sports federations, the LSI was allied to the Socialist (meaning Labour-type social democratic) parties.
This reflected the key division in the labour movement after the First World War. The Communists believed that capitalism could only be beaten by revolution, while the Socialists looked to reforms from above.
Membership of the Communist RSI groups in most countries was significantly smaller than the LSI ones. But the RSI was still substantial.
So in Germany, the mainstream workers’ sports organisation ATUS had some 1.2 million members in 1929. But there were also 250,000 workers in Communist sport groups. They were expelled from the ATUS in 1928 for insisting that sport groups should commit themselves to revolution.
This reflected Communist policy at the time—and it didn’t always fail. In both France and Germany, the majority of workers football clubs joined the Communist group after the split.
But the Socialist groups were on a different scale. In 1926 the ATUS opened the most modern sports facility in Germany, the Bundesschule in Leipzig.
One affiliate, the Workers’ Cycling Association, was the largest cycling organisation in the world with 320,000 members. It even ran its own bicycle factory.
In Austria and Czechoslovakia the movement was also impressive. The Czech groups for instance taught over 10,000 people a year how to swim.
A further measure of the flourishing movement was the labour sports press. The German groups published 60 newspapers with a combined circulation of 800,000—and that’s excluding local editions.
On top of this the Communist sports groups were printing eleven regional and four national sports papers of their own by 1932.
The most imposing part of the labour sports movement was the Workers’ Olympiads. These were organised as a counter to the national chauvinism of the recently revived mainstream Olympics.
The first was held in Prague in 1921. At the time the losers of the First World War were banned from competing in the Olympics. In sharp contrast, the Prague games featured competition between worker athletes from “enemy” nations.
This theme was also prevalent at the first official labour Olympiad in 1925. Held in Germany under the motto “no more war”, more than 150,000 people attended.
The 1931 Second Olympiad in the Austrian capital Vienna was in many ways the high point of the workers’ sports movement.
The social democrats who governed “Red Vienna” built a brand new stadium and even offered their guests reduced fares on public transport. Tens of thousands of athletes stayed in workers’ houses in the city.
On the last day of the Olympiad some 250,000 people came to watch the “festive march” through Vienna of an estimated 100,000 people from 26 nations. They toppled a symbolic figure that represented capitalism.
But sports groups associated with the Communist RSI were excluded. Besides the Russians, these included some 250,000 Germans and 100,000 Czechs plus smaller contingents from Europe and the US.
The RSI organised its own competitions, the international “spartakiada” (named after the rebel slave gladiator Spartacus). They were held in Moscow in 1928 and in Berlin in 1931. This division wasn’t fully bridged until the third and final workers’ Olympiad, held in 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium.
In response to the rise of fascism, the Communists—under the influence of Stalin—declared the popular front. Political differences were to be ignored in the name of unity.
Antwerp offered a huge display of labour solidarity. Some 50,000 filled the stadium on the final day, and 200,000 marched.
But the movement suffered heavily as fascism swept through Europe. A workers’ Olympiad scheduled for Barcelona in 1936 had to be aborted after Franco’s attempted military coup led to civil war.
The German ATUS had been one of the Nazis’ first targets in 1933. And Hitler’s armies suppressed others as they marched across the continent.
But it wasn’t just repression that hurt the labour sports organisations. The growth of corporate sport, combined with the Cold War, meant that they never recovered. But nonetheless their attempts to organise workers’ sport are worth remembering.
How sport became a class battleground
People have been playing games for centuries—but organised sport as we know it is a more modern phenomenon.
It developed first in elitist British public schools such as Eton and Rugby. Then it spread around the world in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries as a by-product of imperialism.
In imperialist countries, sport helped to bolster nationalism. That’s why the author George Orwell wrote that sport “is war minus the shooting”. So the Tour de France helped create the idea of a French nation state, as did football in Italy.
Organised sport moved into the working class as a result of industrialisation. Industrial capitalism drew a sharp distinction between work and leisure. The regulation of the working day brought with it periods of rest.
The working class takeover of English football only occurred after the reduction of the working week, specifically the introduction of the Saturday “half-holiday” in the 1860s and 1870s.
As more workers took up football, many public schools dropped it rather than be contaminated by the masses. Increased leisure time also encouraged workers’ involvement with different sports in the same period in France, Germany and the US.
The increase in leisure time was due in no small part to workers’ organisation. The spread of the eight hour day after the First World War came on the back of struggle.
The need for healthy soldiers and nationalism made states keen on sport too. And employers had an additional motive.
They wanted a healthy workforce to boost productivity, and sport came to be seen as a way of ensuring physically fit workers. It was also viewed as a way of combating militancy and ensuring “industrial peace”.
For example, West Ham Football Club began in 1895 as the Thames Ironworks Football Club. The boss set it up after a major strike, as part of a concerted programme to improve “cooperation between workers and management”.
This was also true of a number of US baseball clubs. Writing in the 1920s one US industrial management guide argued that sports “saved the worker from agitators”. It was moves like these by the bosses that led the labour movement to start organising its own sports.