Barcelona’s forgotten Olympics – 6000 athletes from 22 countries went to compete in an alternative 1936 Olympics to Hitler’s fascist games. The day before the opening ceremony the Spanish military coup was set in motion, triggering the beginning of the Civil War, and the Peoples Olympiad was cancelled. Many of the athletes took to the streets in Barcelona and joined the pitch battles against the attempted right wing take over. The first brigadists were actually athletes there for the games and first columns to go to the Aragon front were made up of competing athletes. It was an impressive display of political solidarity from the sporting world yet remains an almost forgotten footnote of history.
The 1936 Berlin Olympics were remembered at the time as a propaganda triumph for Hitler’s ruling Nazi party, despite the best efforts of black American athlete Jesse Owens. Germany topped the medals table and the observing world powers were given a convincing enough display to warrant Germany’s reintegration back into global politics.
For anarchists and radicals and especially the militant labour movement of the time, the 1936 Summer Olympics would be an opportunity to express direct opposition to the racist policies of the nascent fascist state, and set about organising an alternative Olympics in Barcelona. Calling itself the People’s Olympiad it brought together thousands of athletes from around the world in a show of international solidarity against the rise of European fascism.
In Spring of 36 Spain elected a republican Popular Front government which immediately pulled out of the summer games in protest at the IOC continued support of Hitler’s regime and set about preparing an anti-fascist festival of sport. As Antonio Agullo, who helped organise the track events, remembered “the idea started from the small sports clubs in the barrios”. It was embraced by the Communists who used it as a propaganda tool although the Soviet Union pulled back from sending any athletes.
Barcelona and the Catalonian region in general was an anarchist stronghold with a militant working class tradition and as such would become the ideal setting for the games. In addition to the usual sporting events, there would be chess, folkdancing, music and theatre.
Thousands of sports men and women from around the world were registered to compete including athletes from US, UK, Holland, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, the Scandinavian countries as well as Palestinian, Polish and Canadian athletes. There were also teams from Germany and Italy made up of political exiles from those countries. Many were sponsored by trade unions, workers’ clubs and associations, socialist and communist parties and left-wing groups as opposed to state-sponsored committees and represented their regions or localities rather than their country.
The Barcelona Games was to begin on July 19th but with the outbreak of the civil war immediately followed by a general strike it was swept aside as workers and radicals mobilised to defeat the nationalists and fascists. At least 300 of the athletes joined the initial columns to the Aragon front and many more stayed in Barcelona joining the incoming international brigades. In fact Felicia Browne, the artist and first British volunteer to be killed in the Civil war, was there specifically for the Games.