As the Summer Olympics kicks off in Tokyo, it’s worth thinking back ninety years, to when the alternative sports culture promoted by the international workers’ movement reached one of its historic high points. From July 19 to 26, 1931, the Socialist Workers’ Sports International (SASI) held the second Workers’ Olympiad in “Red” Vienna — a city which then stood as one of the socialist movement’s biggest strongholds.
Thousands of athletes from eighteen countries met in the Austrian capital to take part in competitions and demonstrations in disciplines such as track and field, football, military sports, and even chess. The mass gymnastics exercises, parades, and other events brought together a total of around eighty thousand participants. Together with the fourth congress of the Labour and Socialist International held in the city from July 25 to August 1, the second Workers’ Olympiad constituted a high point of Red Vienna’s self-representation as an international capital of the workers’ movement.
The Vienna Workers’ Olympiad was the largest of the three Olympiads organized by the SASI. The first was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 1925, and the third in Antwerp, Belgium in 1937. This last event was overshadowed by the terrible events looming on the horizon: the workers’ sports federations in Germany and Austria, once major centers of the movement, had already been banned by these countries’ respective fascist regimes. Soon thereafter, World War II broke out and the SASI disbanded.
The Workers’ Olympiad combined elements of collective sport and public celebration. The events in Vienna included, among other things, a mass festival with four thousand athletes in the city’s renowned Prater Stadium recounting the heroic history of the international proletariat. Completed shortly before the games, the modernist venue became a pioneering model for other stadiums being built around the continent. Since renamed Ernst Happel Stadium, it continues to serve as Austria’s national stadium to this day.
The workers’ sports movement stood for a pedagogical counter-model to bourgeois and capitalist organized sports — both the games organized by the International Olympic Committee as well as professional sports leagues like in soccer. In this vision, the harms and limits imposed on working-class life by poor living and working conditions were to be countered by individual physical development and the collective formation of a self-confident class identity. Today, these images serve as a testament to the world early socialists built — both for themselves and for proletarian generations to come.