6 Aug, 2021 @ 17:45
3 mins read

Barcelona’s People’s Olympiad: The story of the 1936 Protest Olympics that were derailed by the Spanish Civil War

Poster for Barcelona’s People’s Olympiad (Source: Flickr
Poster for Barcelona’s People’s Olympiad (Source: Flickr

BY Shannon Chaffers

THE Tokyo Olympic Games will soon come to a close despite an initial rocky start under a shroud of controversy with Japan facing a surging coronavirus threat that forced its capital into a state of emergency.

While much of the Japanese public may have started off opposed to the games, it is nothing compared to the circumstances of another tense Olympic summer, 85 years ago.

In the spring of 1936, Nazi Germany was preparing to host the summer Olympic Games in Berlin. While Adolf Hitler’s regime plotted to use the official games to portray Germany as a peaceful and tolerant world power, a different sort of Olympic competition was brewing in Spain, seeking to expose Germany’s portrayal as the propaganda campaign that it was. 

Olympiastadion in Berlin, Germany (Source: German Federal Archives / Wikimedia Commons)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) had awarded the Summer Olympics to Berlin in 1931, two years before Hitler came to power. But as the tournament drew closer, it became clear it would occur in a country whose government actively persecuted Jews, Roma, political opponents, among others. 

Despite many athletic organizations and political groups protesting this proposition, the IOC refused to relocate the games. As a result, attention shifted to organizing a protest Olympics, which would be called the People’s Olympiad. 

Poster for Barcelona’s People’s Olympiad (Source: Flickr)

Spain’s recently-elected Popular Front government was fiercely anti-facist, and embraced the idea of staging the event. Barcelona, who lost out on the Olympic bid in 1931, was the obvious choice to host.

 “The People’s Olympiad of Barcelona revives the original spirit of the Games and accomplishes this great task under the banner of the brotherhood of men and races,” declared the events’ organizers in a manifesto announcing their intentions.

Indeed, these alternative games brought forth the promise of sport as a means to promote unity and equality during a time when it was being used to do the opposite.

Yet this promise never came to fruition, as the games were derailed by a facist coup that thrust Spain into a Civil Spanish Civil War. Still, the story of these doomed Olympics remains fascinating, demonstrating the key role that sport played in shaping this tumultuous political moment in Europe.

The idea of an alternative olympics was not a wholly new concept at the time. Throughout the interwar period, international workers groups had hosted Workers’ Olympiads meant to emphasize socialist values while rejecting the commercialization and hyper-competitiveness  of modern sport. The Catalan Committee for Popular Sport, which organized the People’s Olympiad, grew out of this movement.

The People’s Olympiad was more inclusive, as all those opposed to facism, not just socialists, were welcomed, but they sought to maintain a similar spirit of internationalism and amateurism.

Organizers received funding from both the Spanish and French government, and the games were scheduled to take place between July 19 and July 26. More than 6,000 athletes from 23 delegations were set to participate, along with around 20,000 visitors who had made the journey to Barcelona. 

Estadio Olimpico Barcelona
Estadio Olimpico de Montjuic, where the People’s Olympiad was set to take place (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Unlike the traditional Olympics, where all athletes represent a country, these Olympics featured delegations from Catalunya, Galicia, and the Basque Country, in addition to Spain.

Exiles from Italy and Germany, as well as a Jewish team, also featured, in addition to athletes from colonized Algeria and Palestine.

The organizers also encouraged women to compete, allowing them to participate more freely than the organizers of the Berlin Olympics. “The picture of the People’s Olympiad would not be complete if woman did not take her place in it,” one bulletin proclaimed. 

The twenty different sports on offer ran the gamut from Olympic main-stays like athletics, rowing, and gymnastics, to unique additions such as roller hockey, chess, and aviation. 

The tournament was not just limited to Olympic-level athletes either, as there were also second and third-tier competitions. Children were even allowed to compete in certain events like swimming. 

While the athletic competition was to be the main event, organizers also arranged other forms of entertainment. Aligning with their mission of promoting “the cultural development of mankind,” they planned celebrations of different cultures. These included performances by Scottish dancers, a Moroccan folk group, and a Swiss folk theater group. 

Unfortunately, none of this came to pass. On the day the games were scheduled to begin, the athletes awoke to the sounds of shooting, rather than festivities. 

Just a day earlier on July 18 1936, a military uprising led by General Francisco Franco staged a coup against Spain’s democratically elected government.

As the fighting broke out, some of the athletes rushed to help barricade the city, joining the locals to repel the Spanish military.

While most everyone who was visiting to attend the games fled the country, some 200 athletes and fans decided to stay in Spain and join the International Brigades, fighting against the fascists.  

Barricades set up in Barcelona during the coup. (Source: Wikimedia Commons

Some athletes who left relocated to Paris to stage a mini-Olympiad there, while others simply returned home. But none could forget what they had experienced in Barcelona that summer. 

American sprinter Frank Payton reflected that “we left as visitors who had been splendidly treated by a people engaged in a life and death struggle for its liberty. We left conscious we had witnessed one of the great events in world history.” 


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