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Workers united: the International Workers' Olympiads

Sport competitions in the 1920s and 1930s for members of labour and workers associations

Adrian Murphy (opens in new window) (Europeana Foundation)

We now associate the Olympic Games with the sporting feats of professional athletes, but there was once a time that an alternative Olympics celebrated the athletic achievements of workers.

The International Workers’ Olympiads were sporting competitions in the 1920s and 1930s in which mostly European members of labour and workers sports associations took part.

Supported by social democratic parties and International Federation of Trade Unions, these games were created as an alternative to the Olympic Games. 

In the Olympic Games at the time, many of the participants were from upper social classes, and women’s participation in gymnastics and athletics did not come about until 1928. The Workers Olympiads welcomed athletes of all genders, races, religions and national origins - as well as talent and skill: participation from all levels was encouraged.

In addition, the Workers' Olympiads stressed internationalism, solidarity, peace and friendship between nations: instead of flying national flags, the red flag of international workers' movement was flown.

A first unofficial games were held in 1921 in Prague, with the first official Worker's Olympiads were held in 1925 - a winter games competition in the German town of Schreiberhau (now it is in Poland).

The first Summer Olympiads were held in Frankfurt am Main later in 1925.

Eight years after the end of World War I, Frankfurt was chosen as the host to underline the message of international cooperation in avoiding war. Frankfurt welcomed 3,000 athletes from twelve countries and 450,000 spectators.

The Workers Summer Olympiads continued through the 1920s and 1930s. The 1931 Workers' Summer Olympiad held in Vienna was the largest event - 100,000 athletes from 26 countries participated.

EXPLORE MORE: 1931 Vienna Worker's Olympiad commemorative publication & In words and pictures

The last Workers' Olympiad were held in 1937 - in Janské Lázně in Czechoslovakia in winter, and in Antwerp in summer. Plans were in place for an event to be held in Helsinki in 1943, but this was cancelled due to World War II.

Explore more: Objects relating to the International Workers' Olympiad

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