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Last updated:27 May 2015

Workers' Sports Movement pamphlet

As a result of the successful struggle for the eight-hour working day, workers had time for sport. The labour sports movement set out, from the early 1920s onwards, with the aim of using sport to further the cause of peace and international understanding - in contrast to what it saw as the mainstream Olympic Games encouragement of links between sport, nationalism and big business.

the workers' sports movement pamphlet

This 1928 pamphlet describes some early international sporting events, and gives an account of the experiences of a British Workers' Sports Federation football team tour of the Soviet Union.

The team played seven matches in Moscow, Leningrad, Kharkov, the Don Basin and Kiev in front of large crowds (30,000 in Moscow), and lost all but one match. A Modern Records Centre description of the pamphlet says that it ‘variously identifies the reasons for the losses as the different Russian rules, the hot weather, the smaller than usual ball, poor refereeing, dubious interpretations of the offside rule, the amount of travelling, and, on occasions, superior playing by the opposition'.

The team was captained by George Sinfield, who became Sports Writer and later Industrial Correspondent for the Daily Worker.

The most prominent events associated with the labour sports movement were the Workers' Olympiads.

The first was held in Prague in 1921 and athletes from "enemy" nations were invited - in contrast to the 1920 Olympics in Antwerp where the losers of the First World War had been banned from competing.

The motto "No more war" was the theme of the first official Olympiad, held in Frankfurt in 1925. More than 150,000 people attended. The winning German women's sprint relay team actually beat the then world record, though the achievement did not reach the record books as the event was not sanctioned by the International Association of Athletics Federations. Red flags and The Internationale took the place of national flags and anthems. Participation was more important than winning. Alongside sport there were performances of poetry and song, chess games, lectures and art.

The 1931 Second Olympiad in Vienna could be seen as the high point of the workers' sports movement. The Social Democrat government of "Red Vienna" built a brand new stadium and thousands of athletes stayed in workers' houses in the city. 80,000 workers from 26 countries took part, and more than a quarter of a million spectators are said to have attended.

Subsequently however the movement suffered heavily as fascism took root in parts of Europe. A Workers' Olympiad scheduled for Barcelona in 1936, in opposition to the now-infamous Berlin Olympics, had to be abandoned at the last minute after Franco's attempted military coup led to civil war in Spain. Instead the third Workers' Olympiad was held in Antwerp in 1937. The delegation from Spain who had fought Franco's troops were welcomed with great acclaim.

The proposed fourth Olympiad in Helsinki in 1943 never got beyond the planning stage due to the outbreak of World War 2, and no others have ever been staged.

August 2012

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Resources about workers' sport in the library collection

GW Sinfield, The workers' sports movement. In: Labour monthly (March 1930) - Shelfmark: H61

British Workers Sports Federation, The worker sportsman: official organ of the British Workers Sports Federation (May-Aug 1932) - AG Communism Periodicals A-Z

TM Condon, The fight for the workers' playing fields (ca. 1931) - Shelfmark: AG Communism Box 3

Stephen G Jones, Sport, politics and the working class: organised labour and sport in inter-war Britain (1988) - Shelfmark: FR03

Arnd Kruger, James Riordan, The story of worker sport (1996) - Shelfmark: S28

Dennis Brailsford, Sport, time, and society: the British at play (1991) - Shelfmark: H55