Barcelona 1936: the people’s Olympics


Olimpiada Popular, the People's Olympiad

Olimpiada Popular, the People’s Olympiad

As audiences across the country are watching ‘Super Saturday’ we are pleased to publish this article by Scott Jones from a recent issue of The Socialist newspaper. The article highlights a key event in working class sporting history.

For a brief moment 80 years ago, in a hint of what Spain as a whole would become, Barcelona became the focus of opposition to fascism.

In July 1936, 6,000 athletes arrived in the city, greeted by banners and bunting welcoming them. They were no ordinary athletes; the socialist hurdlers and the anarchist shot putters were there for the Olimpiada Popular, the People’s Olympiad.

The event’s official flag depicted three figures in red, yellow and black clutching a single standard, the figures represented unity and equality of women and men, white and black.

This was the alternative Olympics, designed to upstage the official games taking place 900 miles away in Berlin where, week’s later, athletes would be greeted by ‘sieg heils’ and swastika flags.

Two cities, two Olympic games. One that didn’t take place and one that never should. The ‘people’s games’ and the ‘Nazi games’.

It was in 1931 that the seeds were sown when Berlin beat Barcelona to host the 1936 games. But by the time the games rolled around, the world had changed.

In 1933 a parliamentary coup installed Adolf Hitler as chancellor allowing the Nazis to stamp their jackboot on German society. The Olympics then became an opportunity to flaunt this power and showcase the new Germany to the world.

Meanwhile, in 1936, a left-wing Popular Front government was elected in Spain, which decided to boycott the Berlin Olympics and host its own games in Barcelona. Athletes from 22 countries accepted the invitation with large contingents from the USA, Britain and Scandinavia.

There were also teams made up of exiles from fascist Germany and Italy and another team representing Jewish exiles.

The majority of the athletes knew the reason they were there. Not just for sport but in solidarity against fascism, as most were sent by trade unions, socialist and communist parties and other workers’ organisations.

But the games would never take place. On the eve of the games the fascists and nationalists of Spain, led by Franco and assisted by Nazi Germany and Mussolini’s Italy, launched a coup d’etat to overthrow the country’s left-wing, republican government.

Fighting fascism

Unsurprisingly, the thousands of radical youth in Barcelona for the games supported the government but 200 of them went further and heroically pledged to stay and fight.

They recognised that this was not a domestic issue for the Spanish people but an attack by fascism. They became the first international volunteers in the Spanish civil war, including the famous swimmer Clara Thalmann, later a hero of the French Resistance, who stayed to fight in Spain.

The same conclusion was drawn by others and in the end over 2,500 men and women from Britain and Ireland voluntarily travelled to Spain to defend the elected Popular Front government of the Spanish republic against the forces of Franco, Hitler and Mussolini. The 40,000 volunteers from across the globe were an unprecedented example of international solidarity.

While in Berlin, as troops and planes were being prepared for the coming vicious war in Spain, the official Olympic Games went ahead. As well as the thousands who were to take part in Barcelona, many other individual athletes boycotted Berlin, especially Jews and the games also took place without the Soviet Union.

But many other athletes, deemed “racially inferior” by the Nazis, did compete. Fencers Halet Çambel and Suat Fetgeri Aseni, the first Turkish and Muslim women athletes to participate in the Olympics, refused to meet Adolf Hitler due to his attitude to Jews.

Most famously it was Jessie Owens, a black American, who embarrassed and infuriated Hitler and the Nazis by winning four gold medals.

The Olympic Games, like the football World Cup and other huge sporting events, are always looked forward to by competitors and spectators alike. They are a chance for people to come together and see inspirational acts of skill and prowess. The idea of the People’s Olympiad was a marvellous attempt to protest the distortion of these ideals by the Nazis, who used the games to celebrate instead racist ideas of “racial superioty”.

Modern games

The modern games, while providing awesome moments like Mo Farah’s exploits in London in 2012, have also been hijacked by corporations and capitalism. The 2012 games brought home to people the rampant money making that takes place for big business at these events, leaving little economic or sporting legacy for the working class of London and beyond.

Youth Fight for Jobs ‘Austerity Games 2012’ highlighted the Tory-led coalition’s attacks on young people’s living standards at the same time as the government handed over billions to host the London Olympics.

This summer, in Olympic host city Rio de Janeiro, this is even more starkly illustrated as the only banners welcoming athletes and fans are ones saying: “Welcome to hell”, held by police and firefighters, explaining their poor pay, or no pay at all, and saying “whoever comes to Rio will not be safe”!

This is driven home by the repeated warnings of the violence and crime that blights the city. Even World Cup winning Brazilian footballer Rivaldo has told people to stay away. Some competitors have withdrawn because of the Brazilian authorities’ failure to tackle the mosquito-borne Zika virus.

Brazil is currently suffering a brutal recession and widespread corruption with Brazilian workers and poor recognising, like they did during the 2014 World Cup, that they will be paying the price of no investment in public services for a tournament they will be priced out of attending.

They will however witness, not sporting achievement, but the sick spectacle of already enormously wealthy corporations making even more out of the Rio Olympics in a city where vast inequality fuels the violence, crime and failing public services that could ruin the games for anyone fortunate enough to attend.

This is a reflection of sport under capitalism, a society as unequal as the contrasting games were 80 years ago. But the People’s Olympiad is a flavour, a small glimpse of what sport and its events could be like in a society organised by the working class, a society of solidarity and equality and not one run for profit.

Save Foleshill Leisure Centre campaign defiant until the end

Save Foleshill Baths campaign defiant until the end

RIP Livingstone Baths

RIP Livingstone Baths

Sunday 24th August saw the doors of Foleshill Leisure Centre close for the last time after Coventry City Council decided to close this vital and popular community facility.

Two days prior to this on Friday 22nd August, the campaign to save the Baths held a final protest to show that they remained united and would not go quietly. The event was well supported by service users and featured by the local press.

The centre had been open for 77 years before the Labour group on the council decided to take this away from the area in favour of a multi-million pound development at the AT7 centre, on the other side of the A444.

However it did not close without a fight and the campaign to Save Foleshill Leisure Centre remained defiant to the end. Although the battle was lost, members of the community involved in the campaign should hold their heads high for giving the Council one hell of a fight.

The campaign was launched by users of the Leisure Centre who took the fight to the Local Authority by getting out around the Foleshill area and to the city in general, launching a mass petition, leafleting, posters in shops and local businesses, holding numerous protests, lobbies and a march from Edgwick Park in Foleshill to the city centre.

Campaign makes electoral challenge

Faced with the fact that it was a Labour council carrying out this closure, Will Bromwich an organiser of the campaign took the significant step of standing in the 2012 local elections in the Foleshill ward. A leaflet went out across the ward which explained why they were standing in the election and raising the profile of the campaign. Will came 3rd in the election gaining a very respectable 213 votes. The Socialist Party believes this points the way forward. When the three establishment parties all represent cuts and austerity, it is vital that trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners and community activists develop a political alternative, including standing in elections. This is why we are working to build the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC).

Don’t Deprive – Keep Foleshill alive

On one of the protests outside the Council House with Dave Nellist

On one of the protests outside the Council House with Dave Nellist

Don’t Deprive Keep Foleshill alive was one of the slogans on one of the banners of the campaign. It made perfect sense as Foleshill is one of the most deprived areas of the city. Facilities like the Leisure Centre should be defended anywhere they are threatened, but doubly more so in areas where there is a general lack of facilities in the first place. The Council claim the new centre is just 1 mile away. But as the campaign made clear, you have to cross the busy A444 and users of Livvies came from areas such as Radford, which makes the AT7 more than 1 mile away.

Coventry’s Olympic Legacy in tatters?

Outside Foleshill Leisure Centre

Outside Foleshill Leisure Centre

As Foleshill Baths closed its doors, the city’s 50m Olympic Pool also faces closure. This is despite over 11,000 people signing a people against what the Labour council are doing. Fairfax St is closing to make way for a 25m pool that will be part of an ‘entertainment’ facility along New Union Street after Spire and Christchurch House Council buildings are knocked down. Socialists support as many leisure / sporting / entertainment centres as possible which enable the widest possible number of people to take part. However we also believe in facilities that can help develop sporting talent. They are not mutually exclusive and it a complete fallacy being developed by leading Councillors that Fairfax Street is only used by ‘elite’ swimmers.

Although the Council did not reverse its decision, the campaign can be extremely proud of everything it achieved. A wide range of people used the Baths, and that was seen in the campaign which united campaigners from a diverse number of backgrounds who were committed to keep it open. It reached out across the city and won widespread public support and sympathy, as there is much affinity with Livvies as thousands of people used it over the years and learnt to swim there.

The whole process exposed the Labour Party councillors for being the local agents of the Tories in closing the Leisure Centre down and ignoring people in Foleshill and across the area.

The Socialist Party were very proud to do what we could to support the campaign and to stand with some outstanding campaigners. There will clearly be more battles to come, as Labour continue to inflict Tory misery on our city – battles that communities and importantly the trade unions need to prepare for.