In 1913, workers’ sports federations had united for the first time on an international level. However, due to the First World War, the “Association socialiste internationale d’Éducation physique” (ASIEP) hardly appeared. Re-founded in 1920 as the “International Workers’ Association for Sport and Physical Culture” and renamed the “Socialist Workers’ Sport International (SASI)” in 1928, the association wrote the following goals on its red flags:
- Promotion of workers’ health
- International solidarity of workers
- Fight against nationalism and militarism
- Sporting alternatives to record-breaking and commercialism.
In order to achieve these goals, the federation organised three “Workers’ Olympiads” in the 1920s and 1930s. They were intended as an alternative to the Olympic Games — because these only served the competition of nations and were “war by sporting means”.
In 1921, the SASI had competition from within its own camp in the form of the RSI: the “Red Sports International” founded in Moscow was communist in orientation and organised its own major sporting event with the “International Spartakiade”. It was only when the Nazis were on the advance throughout Europe that social democracy and communists found their way back together.
Workers’ Olympiads vs. Olympic Games (1925–1937)
|Worker’s Olympiads||Olympic Games|
|Marching in of the nations||yes||yes|
|Singing of the national anthem||no||yes|
|Popular sports in the programme||yes||no|
|Offers for children||yes||no|
|Participation of women||yes||no|
Why have workers’ associations at all?
There was a reason why workers in many countries set up their own cultural and sporting organisations: they did not want them in the bourgeois associations — and they were kept out of the door by statutes or high contributions. As in the Austrian, the German workers’ parties were initially sceptical and feared that the comrades would no longer have time for the class struggle.
1st International Workers’ Olympiads, Frankfurt a. M., 24–28.07.1925
The first Workers’ Olympics was held under the motto “Never again war”. Frankfurt am Main was chosen as the venue because the city was centrally located in Europe and had good transport and infrastructure facilities. Because none of the relevant associations had their headquarters there, an “organising committee” was set up, which was divided into eight specialist committees. A total of 500 officials and 5,000 assistants were involved in the planning and implementation. A significant contribution was made by the RKB “Solidarität”, the adult federation of the Solijugend, which even then had its headquarters nearby, only ten kilometres from the site of the event.
The Workers’ Olympiads was the first major international event in the newly built “Waldstadion” (now the “Eintracht Frankfurt” football club) — almost 40,000 spectators watched the action as 1,100 athletes from England, Finland, Czechoslovakia and Switzerland, Latvia, Austria, Belgium, Palestine, Poland and Germany marched in. In the following days, they competed in athletics, heavy athletics (wrestling, weightlifting, boxing, tug-of-war), football, swimming, cycling, gymnastics, rowing, shooting, handball, volleyball, fistball, canoeing, water polo and water diving.
The level of performance, especially among the Finnish light and heavy athletes, was on par with that of the bourgeois clubs. But it was not just about performance, the “mass free exercises” with hundreds of participants were popular sport in the best sense: exercise for all, without any competition or pressure to perform. Some national federations, such as the Czechs, rejected combat-oriented disciplines like football and boxing altogether.
“Fight for the Earth”
In addition to sport, politics was explicitly in the foreground: 100,000 workers’ athletes took part in the “Procession of Nations” through the city centre, carrying banners with slogans such as “Never again war” or “Fight for the eight-hour day” — about 400 drummers and pipers marched in front. Last but not least, sport was combined with culture — which in turn was extraordinarily political: the premiere of the votive play “Battle for the Earth” was about the utopia of a better world, the overcoming of capitalism and the victory of socialism.
2nd International Workers’ Olympiad, Vienna, 19–26 July 1931
When Italy was called out at the marching-in of the nations at the opening ceremony of the 2nd International Workers’ Olympiad in the Prater Stadium, all the flags lowered: Italy had not been able to send a delegation, the fascist dictatorship was already firmly in the saddle. In Austria, too, the “Austrofascists” around the “Christian Social Party” and the paramilitary “Heimbund” close to it were on the advance: they had openly declared war on democracy and parliamentarism. More than the first, the second Workers’ Olympics therefore stood under the sign of anti-fascism and class struggle: at the end of the event, around 100,000 participants marched through Vienna with red flags, demonstrating unity and solidarity in a multi-ethnic state in which nationalism and anti-socialism were increasingly gaining strength among the bourgeoisie. “For world disarmament and general peace” was the slogan.
Austrian social democracy reacted to the anti-democratic tendencies with the “Republican Protection League” and increasingly tried to conceptually integrate workers’ sport into it: Instead of proletarian counter-culture — creativity, communication and physical education — it was increasingly about discipline, militancy and obedience.
As in Frankfurt, however, Vienna once again succeeded in implementing a counter-design to bourgeois sport, including a new consecration game: 3,000 athletes staged a story about the development of the working class, which first worshipped a giant “capitalist’s head” placed in the stadium, which was then toppled from its throne at the end, a scaffold several metres high.
3rd International Workers’ Olympiad, Antwerp, 25 July — 1 August 1937
The third and last Workers’ Olympics took place in the summer of 1937 in Antwerp, Belgium, because a socialist administration was at the lever here and the city was easily accessible through its international port.
In addition to the social democratic “Socialist Workers’ Sports International”, the communist “Red Sports International”, which had been founded in Moscow in 1921, also participated for the first time. While the Social Democrats had still excluded communist-organised athletes in 1925 and 1931, this time there was even a Soviet delegation. The 55 female athletes set several new records, so that their amateur status was justifiably doubted and it was feared that the Soviets would exploit the Workers’ Olympics for propaganda purposes.
And yet the third Workers’ Olympiad turned out to be smaller than its two predecessors: in Germany and Austria the fascists were in power and had crushed the powerful workers’ sports organisations in both countries.
The third Workers’ Olympics had a special significance because Spaniards were present while in their homeland republicans and leftists were trying to repel Franco’s coup. Thousands welcomed the Spanish delegation with shouts of “No pasaran!”. “Against war and dictatorship, for work, freedom and democracy” was the slogan of the last Workers’ Olympics. However, the fact that communists and social democrats had also come together in Antwerp as a result of the new policy of the “People’s Front” was no longer of any help: on 1 April the fascists had also won in Spain — not least thanks to German military aid.
Carrying on the fire: CSIT World Sports Games
The International Workers and Amateurs in Sports Confederation (CSIT) is the successor organisation to the Socialist Workers’ Sports International, which collapsed at the beginning of the Second World War. It is an umbrella organisation to which more than 80 organisations from over sixty countries around the world belong. One of them is the RKB “Solidarität” Deutschland 1896 e. V., the adult association of the Solijugend. The Dutch NCS, a long-standing partner of our International Youth Meetings, is also a member.
In 1986, the CSIT was recognised by the International Olympic Committee and has its headquarters in Vienna. In 2008, the CSIT organised the “World Sports Games” in Rimini (Italy) for the first time. The largest mass sports event in the world is in the tradition of the Workers’ Olympics — it is also and above all about cultural exchange and cross-border friendships.
Members of the Solijugend will take part in the World Sports Games for the first time in 2023, as the RKB Solidarität will send a specially formed national team in roller figure skating, which will travel to Emiglia Romagna (Italy) from 5 to 10 September. It consists of about two dozen athletes, a four-member coaching team and a delegation leader.
For the eighth edition of the “World Sports Games”, the CSIT expects about 5000 athletes of all ages, 1000 relatives and friends and more than ten thousand spectators. Tolerance and respect, fair play, integration and inclusion, in short democracy and solidarity are the values that are lived out at the World Sports Games.