Tuesday, 31 July 2012

Sport for all?

Those who haven't been engaged counting of band members on stage at Indietracks in order to try and make a clumsy point, might well have been rapt by the Olympics. "Team GB" (yack!) is currently the centre of the universe in these parts, and the Olympics are being pushed by the state as a way of trying to unify the country.

The rapture on Saturday morning was reaching Diana levels, but time will tell whether a two and a half week corporate jamboree is really the thing to suddenly define a nation's mood, never mind catapult those out of work back into it, or stop the terrifying rise of homelessness, or suddenly stop successive governments' consistent attacks on public services. Call me cynical, but I'm not sure even the best discus final can manage that.

Along with what seemed like the rest of the everyone else I know I watched the opening ceremony to the Olympics on Friday evening - a big party with lights and people dressed up as nurses and pretend Tories attacking children in their hospital beds.

Elizabeth Windsor jumped out of an aeroplane. Unfortunately it wasn't the real Queen, and, alas, she had a parachute.

Remarkably, at a cost of £27m, and in the teeth of a fierce attack on the working class, this whole thing was declared as some kind of triumph for the left. At best, it was mildly surreal (and at times funny) and a kind of fairytale eulogy to the British working class and the welfare state it worked so hard to establish. At worst it was a bloody huge waste of money, and something of a piss-take.

The Olympics, now more than ever, is held up as the pinnacle of sport; each Games is better and more spectacular than the last one; each athlete bigger, faster stronger... more covered in advertisements than ever before. These facts might be true, but they have little to do with sport.

As Harley Filbin says in this week's Weekly Worker:

"Sport is art, quite as much as dance, or theatre, with which it shares the aestheticisation of the physical spontaneity of life. As such, it is quite as capable of producing something beautiful. It does so today in spite of its corruption by bourgeois society’s ideological decay, which turns athletic achievement into a celebration of pointless sacrifice."

Beautifully put, I think, and something which applies to every man and woman competing in this year's Olympics in London. There is no so-called  "pride" in this kind of ordeal where so much is sacrificed in the name of imaginary borders.

The drive towards Olympic glory at the expense of just about everything else create a self-serving elite that has access to the best facilities. Sport and recreation just isn't for all, it seems, unless you're willing to give up your life for Team GB and the nation.

All this led me to another article in the same paper, which told the tale of the Workers Olympics, which fascinate me. I'll hope you pardon me if I simply cut and paste straight from the original article here:

With the rise of national trade union federations, cooperatives and mass socialist parties during the period of the Second International (1889-1916), worker sport started to assume organisational form. As with so many other aspects of working class culture, the German working class movement served as a model - its enormously popular gymnastics, cycling and hiking associations were replicated all across Europe. Worker sport encompassed a wide-range of activities ranging from chess to jiu-jitsu.

The emphasis was always on participation - another way of patiently building the organisational capacity of our side, opposing the dominance of capital and breaking through the fetters it imposes on the self-expression of the worker. These clubs and associations often produced and distributed their own agitational materials and even specialist publications.

Reflecting the post-World War I division in the workers’ movement, two worker sport internationals came into existence in the early 1920s. The Lucerne Sport International (LSI), founded in 1920, built on the remnants of official social democracy. Nevertheless, its membership totalled nearly two million people, with more than half of these coming from Germany. The German movement had the honour of running the largest cycling club in the world, served by a cooperatively-run bicycle factory. While much smaller, the Austrian and French sections were also influential.

The Communist International helped found the International Union of Red Sports and Gymnastics Associations - more commonly known as the Red Sport International - in 1921. Its explicit aim was “the creation and amalgamation of revolutionary proletarian sports and gymnastics organisations in all countries of the world and their transformation into support centres for the proletariat in its class struggle”.

The fate of both organisations was bound up with the twists and turns of the relationship between the two wings of the international workers’ movement. At a grassroots level, however, the relationship between the two organisations was often close and led to some interesting outcomes. 

Worker Olympics

Following a series of large regional and local events, the first Worker Olympics took place in Frankfurt am Main in July 1925, organised by the LSI. Despite the fact that the festival banned communist sporting organisations from taking part, these games were a big success. Over 100,000 athletes competed, making them the biggest Olympic event ever. Frankfurt 1925 highlighted the schism between the (class-prejudiced) ‘amateurism’ of the official Olympic Games and the working class response to them. A line had been drawn - there were no common events or competitions between the two Olympics. (In other sports, however, there were examples of competition - on one occasion the Austrian worker football team actually beat the official Austrian national side. Forget Liverpool v Everton: that’s a real derby!)

In welcome distinction to the usual capitalist crap, the official motto of Frankfurt 1925 was “no more war” - sticking two fingers up to the official Paris games of 1924: the warped and jingoistic values informing the latter ensured that athletes from the ‘loser’ countries in World War I were banned from taking part, not to mention athletes from the young USSR. The LSI charged Paris 1924 with “using sport to promote war”. While the Second International’s record in fighting World War I was anything but exemplary, the message of the LSI games was clear: “For sure, competition easily awakens animal instincts. But only if the spirit of humanity is absent. Nationalists know no humanity. We all have the same enemy: capitalism.” 

Over 150,000 spectators attended the worker games, which eschewed national flags and anthems. Memorable events included a “living chess game” and an anti-war demonstration on the “day of the masses.” The games finished with the (hugely popular) football final and an aquatic exhibition in the Main river! Later on that year the first worker winter games took place - also in Germany.

Calisthenics were an important part - all competing athletes were expected to participate in these mass exercises. In this way the worker Olympics strove to break down the artificial division between the athlete and the spectator - and to counter national chauvinism by bringing together so many athletes from around the world in a conscious display of international solidarity. The aim was to proclaim the “new great power” on the global scene: the international working class.

Social democratic ‘Red Vienna’, renowned for its daring, avant-garde experiments in architecture and the design of working class accommodation, was the venue for the second LSI worker Olympics. The Prater Stadium had been built especially for the occasion. Over 250,000 people watched the “festive march”. All this was a bit of a coup for the Second International too, with its 1931 Vienna congress taking place at the same time. The event’s official programme even contained “welcome greetings” from such Second International luminaries as the Austro-Marxist, Victor Adler, and the execrable Belgian social chauvinist, Emile Vandervelde.

Once again, the festival’s opening ceremony was remarkable, featuring a live depiction of the history of the workers’ movement from the Middle Ages. At its close, a large model of a capitalist’s head placed in the middle of the Prater stadium collapsed into itself (imagine that, Seb Coe!).

All the while, the communist RSI and its affiliates, such as the wonderfully titled Combat Association for Red Sport Unity (Germany), were organising their own events as an alternative to both the official games and those of the LSI. The first Worker Spartakiad took place in Moscow in 1928, followed by a Winter Games in Oslo. Moscow 1928 could not compete with the LSI event in terms of numbers (600 athletes representing 14 countries), but it was nonetheless a crucial event for communist worker sport and its attraction internationally.

In 1932 the RSI attempted to take the second Spartakiad to Germany, but in the heightened political atmosphere of the time the games were banned. Then came fascist reaction in Germany and Austria. It is worth noting that Hitler crushed the worker sport organisations in Germany in 1934.

Fascism struck another blow against the worker Olympics in 1936. With Comintern’s embrace of popular frontism, there were successful attempts to organise a joint RSI-LSI Olympics in Spain. However, these games had to be cancelled immediately after the opening ceremony following Franco’s uprising. With much of Europe now coming under the influence of fascist reaction, brave attempts were made at organising another event in the following year, this time in Antwerp, but in spite of the unity of the two organisations the numbers were markedly down. The repression in the core country of worker sport had taken its toll.

Nevertheless 50,000 spectators at the opening ceremony was no mean achievement. And once again the games had tremendous symbolic value, especially for the many courageous working class militants engaged in the struggle against fascism. There was even a Spanish delegation present despite the civil war. Their armoured car and ‘No pasaran’ banners were met with cheers from the crowd.

This was the last time that a worker Olympics was organised on an international scale. In line with post-war ‘peaceful co-existence’, ‘official’ communism soon fell in behind the mainstream games - as did official social democracy, by then fully integrated into the US-led global order. The split between the bourgeois Olympics and worker Olympics was resolved in favour of the former. And this situation looks set to continue until we see a revival of mass working class organisation.
Fascinating stuff, and, for me, something more courageous than hiving yourself away in a five star resort "at altitude" for half the year. Of course I'll gasp with the rest of you when Usain Bolt breaks another world record, or Mo Farah either spectacularly wins or fails (oh, we British love a plucky loser - we're constantly told this), but I'll also gasp at how grotesque it all is.

And finally, really, how can you love an event that is headed up by Sebastian Coe?

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