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The Olympics: Playing Political Games

Opinions on international sporting events such as the Olympics range from the idealistic vision that sport can help to foster brotherhood amongst nations to George Orwell's rather more pessimistic view that it is merely "war minus the shooting".

The archives shown here highlight some previous Olympic Games (both official and unofficial) and look at what can happen when political considerations enter international sport - from the fascism of 1936 Berlin to the Cold War controversies of Moscow in 1980.

Click on the thumbnails to see larger versions of the images.

The Berlin Games, 1936

The Olympic Games were awarded to Berlin by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 1931. Once the National Socialist (Nazi) Party, under Adolf Hitler, came into power in 1933, this proved to be a controversial choice and the run up to the games saw a concerted effort by anti-fascist campaigners to get the games moved or countries to boycott the event. The Berlin Olympics went ahead and, as expected, were used by the regime as a platform for pro-Nazi propaganda. Protests against the awarding of the 1940 games to Tokyo were more successful - in 1938 the planned games were transferred by the IOC to Helsinki, before being cancelled on the outbreak of war a year later.

Programme for the Berlin Games, 1936Events programme for the Berlin games

This schedule for the games is included in an English language programme for the cycling events, issued by the Organising Committee for the XIth Olympiad in 1936.

The programme also includes general rules applicable to the celebration of the Olympic Games (including a definition of an amateur - the only type of athlete then allowed to participate), details of the cycling events, a plan showing the gradient for the road races, and lists of members of the International and German Olympic Committees. The patron of the games is listed as "The Fuhrer and Reich Chancellor Adolf Hitler".

[Included in the papers of Alexander A. Josey, part of the National Cycle Archive; document reference: MSS.328/N10/G/E/1/6]

Olympic Games in Berlin!

'Olympic Games in Berlin!'

Poster issued by the British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council in response to the planned games in Germany.

The artist John Henry Amshewitz (1882-1942) was born in Ramsgate, the son of a Rabbi, and worked in both England and South Africa as a painter and cartoonist. This cartoon shows unprepossessing examples of Nazi manhood goosestepping over the fallen Olympic spirit, past a concentration camp filled with the persecuted in Nazi Germany.

The British Non-Sectarian Anti-Nazi Council campaigned for an economic boycott on German businesses in protest against Nazi persecution.

[Included in Sir Walter Citrine's working file for the preparation of the pamphlet 'Under the heel of Hitler, The dictatorship over sport in Nazi Germany', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.91/3]

Berlin decorated for the Olympic Games, 25 July 1936

Berlin decorated for the Olympic Games, 25 July 1936

Press photograph showing Adolf-Hitler-Platz in Berlin decorated in banners showing the Nazi swastika and (rather smaller in scale) the Olympic rings. The square is now known as Theodor-Heuss-Platz, named after the first President of the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) in 1963.

More photographs of Berlin immediately before the Olympic Games are included in our online gallery.

[From the archives of Lady Allen of Hurtwood; document reference: MSS.121/GEN/12/1]

'Fair Play... To all Friends and Supporters of the Olympic Movement'

'Fair Play... To all Friends and Supporters of the Olympic Movement'

Circular issued by the International Committee for Preserving the Olympic Idea in April 1936. It appeals for sportsmen, artists, scientists and others prominent in public life to take part in an international conference in Paris on 6-7 June 1936 "to find ways and means of strengthening the opposition to the holding of the Games in Berlin and of protecting the Olympic ideal". One of the signatories is Sir Walter Citrine, the General Secretary of the British Trades Union Congress.

The 1936 Winter Olympics were also held in Germany - at Garmisch-Partenkirchen (in Bavaria) - and the Committee argue that these were not "moved by a spirit of respect for the Olympic ideals" but used as a showcase for Nazi propaganda, something that would "be repeated in a large scale at the Summer Games in Berlin".

[Included in a file on 'Sports - German Boycott, 1936', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.91/1]


Alternative Olympics

In the 1920s and 1930s several Workers' or Peoples' Olympiads were held as a left-wing alternative to the official Olympic Games.

Poster for the Barcelona Peoples Poster for the Barcelona Peoples' Olympiad, 1936

In 1931 two cities were vying to host the 1936 Summer Olympics - Barcelona and Berlin. Berlin won by 43 votes to 16. After the election of a socialist 'Popular Front' government in Spain in February 1936, the Spanish administration chose to boycott the Berlin games in protest against the Nazi regime in Germany, and an alternative event was planned for 22-26 July in Barcelona - the Peoples' Olympiad. The outbreak of civil war in Spain on 17-18 July led to the hasty cancellation of the games, and some of the visiting athletes chose to join with the government forces against the fascist-backed military rebellion, rather than return to their own countries.

[Included in a file on the 1936 People's Olympiad, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.91/4/1 - this file has been digitised in full and is available online as part of Trabajadores: The Spanish Civil War through the eyes of organised labour ]

Invitation to the PeoplesInvitation to the Peoples' Olympiad, 1936

This letter invited Sir Walter Citrine, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, to attend the Barcelona Games and asked him to help to promote the event in Britain.

The organisers argue that the games will "give a practical demonstration of international anti-fascist sport" and "promote the true spirit of the Olympiad - the fraternity of peoples and races - which cannot exist in the atmosphere of Berlin".

[Included in a file on the 1936 People's Olympiad, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.91/4/12 - this file has been digitised in full and is available online as part of Trabajadores: The Spanish Civil War through the eyes of organised labour ]

Official programme of the Third International Workers Official programme of the Third International Workers' Olympiad, 1937

The International Workers' Olympiads were organised by the Socialist Workers' Sports International and were intended as "a demonstration of the international solidarity of the working class" through physical education and sport. Three Workers' Olympiads took place - in Frankfurt in 1925, Vienna in 1931, and Antwerp in 1937.

The games were a significant sporting event - the 1931 Workers' Olympiad in Vienna had more competitors and spectators than the official 1932 Olympics in depression-hit Los Angeles. This programme states that 25,000 participants from 15 countries were lined up to compete in the 1937 Olympiad.

[Included in a file on 'International Sporting Events', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.4/6]

'For the meeting of the IFTU Executive...', 1937 'For the meeting of the IFTU Executive...', 1937

This circular reproduces two letters from the Socialist Workers' Sports International (SWSI) to the Executive of the International Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), relating to negotiations over the Third Workers' Olympiad in Antwerp.

Rather than acting as an example of the workers of the world uniting through sport, the Workers' Olympiad was beset by the same divisions as the rest of the labour and socialist movement during the 1930s. The Communist International had formed their own sporting organisation in 1921 (often referred to as the Red Sport International or the Sportintern), as an official Communist alternative to the SWSI. This correspondence reports the breakdown in negotiations between the two organisations over which Communist sports organisations should be allowed to attend the Third Workers' Olympiad.

[Included in a file on 'International Sporting Events', from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292/808.4/6]


The 'Austerity' Games, 1948

The 1944 Games had been awarded to London but, like the 1940 Tokyo Games, were unable to take place due to the Second World War. Once the conflict was over London applied for and was awarded the first Summer Olympiad to take place since 1936. Britain in 1948 was still in the process of reconstruction after the devastation of war. No new venues were built and food rationing was in place for the athletes, as well as for the rest of the population. The hostilities of the recent world war and the tensions of the growing Cold War were reflected in the Games - Germany and Japan were not invited to compete and the Soviet Union refused to send a team.

'News for Citizens''News for Citizens', June 1948

This bulletin was issued with the 'Blue Triangle', the monthly journal of the Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), and profiles the coming XIVth Olympiad.

The photograph on the front page shows relay runners practising carrying the Olympic flame, using what appears to be a combination of official torches and less official sticks. The 1948 Games was the second to feature an Olympic torch relay from Greece to the host city.

The accompanying article looks at the Greek origins of the games and argues that, despite the "over-competitive spirit and a perverted sense of nationalism" that can sometimes occur, international sport "can do much to create understanding among all who are interested in sport, in whatever country they live".

[Included in the archives of the Young Women's Christian Association; document reference: MSS.243/1/14/6/2]

Official report of the London Olympic Games Official report of the London Olympic Games

The British Olympic Association official account of the games contained reports on and the results of every event in the 1948 Olympiad - from the athletics to the Olympic medals for art. The glossy publication also contained full page colour photographs of some of the stars of the games - including the "Flying Czech" Emil Zatopek (10,000m champion) and Arthur Wint, the first Jamaican gold medalist (400m).

The report also sheds a light on commercial sponsorship of the Games in 1948. In contrast to today's event, where companies such as Coca Cola and Nike sign exclusive multi-million pound deals with the IOC and competing athletes, rather more low-key sponsorship can be seen in adverts for Horlicks (suppliers of hot beverages in the Olympic Village) and Cooper's Y-Front Underwear ("as supplied to every member of the 1948 British Olympic team").

[Included in papers of Charles Messenger relating to the British League of Racing Cyclists, part of the National Cycle Archive; MSS.328/N17/3/1/12]

Programme for the opening ceremonyOfficial programme for the opening ceremony of the XIVth Olympiad

The opening ceremony took place at the Empire Stadium (later known as Wembley Stadium) on 29 July, and featured a march past of the competing athletes, an opening declaration by King George VI, the planned release of 7,000 racing pigeons (more than half of whom had died before the ceremony), a 21 gun salute, and the lighting of the Olympic flame.

The Empire Stadium would also host the athletics, some of the football and hockey matches, equestrian events and gymnastics.

[Included in the papers of Percy Collick MP; document reference: MSS.379/PC/7/14]

The Olympic road raceThe Olympic road race

This photograph shows the British cyclist Ian Scott in the 1948 Olympic road race. Scott won a silver medal in the team road race and came 16th in the individual event.

The gold medalist in the individual road race was José Beyaert of France (and subsequent resident in Columbia), described by his biographer as "Olympic Gangster... Cycling Champion, Fortune Hunter and Outlaw". The 120 ½ mile race was started by the Duke of Edinburgh in Windsor Great Park.

[Included in papers of Charles Messenger relating to the British League of Racing Cyclists, part of the National Cycle Archive; MSS.328/N17/3/1/12]


The Moscow Games, 1980

The 1980 Summer Olympics were the first to be held in Eastern Europe and took place at the height of the Cold War. A boycott of the Moscow Games was led by the USA after Soviet troops invaded Afghanistan in late 1979. The US action was supported by the UK government, but British athletes were allowed to travel to the Games if they wished to compete. The Soviet Union retaliated in 1984 by leading a boycott of the Los Angeles Olympics.

Protest against Moscow as an Olympic city, 1974Protest against Moscow as an Olympic city, 1974

This inter-departmental memorandum was sent to Len Murray, the General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress, by J.A. Hargreaves, a member of the TUC International Department. Hargreaves reports on the concerns of the Electrical, Electronic, Telecommunication and Plumbing Union (EETPU) on the likely declaration of Moscow as the host city for the 1980 Olympic Games.

The concerns arose from alleged verbal and physical abuse by members of the Soviet military towards the Israeli team and Jewish spectators during the 1973 World Student Games in Moscow. The union argues that, particularly following the massacre of Israeli athletes during the 1972 Munich Games, this would make the Soviet city an unsuitable venue for an event where "there should be no discrimination... on grounds of race, religion, or politics".

[Included in a file on International Sports Activities, 1974-1980, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292D/808.9/1]

'Olympic Oscar says "Give us a sporting chance"' 'Olympic Oscar says "Give us a sporting chance"'

'Olympic Oscar' was the mascot of the British Olympic Association's national appeal to raise £1 million to equip and cover the costs of many of the British Olympic team - the British bulldog was used in a range of publicity material, including this sticker. Government opposition to the Moscow Olympics made it harder for the BOA to obtain commercial sponsorship.

[Included in a file on International Sports Activities, 1974-1980, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292D/808.9/1]

Public comments on the proposed boycottThe British public on the proposed boycott

This is the first of twelve pages of comments by members of the public on the proposed British boycott of the 1980 Olympic Games, circulated by the British Olympic Appeal (the fundraising section of the British Olympic Association). Perhaps unsurprisingly, given the source, all the comments are in favour of a British team competing in Moscow in spite of "political pressure" and "interference" from the government.

[Included in a file on International Sports Activities, 1974-1980, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292D/808.9/1]

'That this Council is opposed to a boycott...' 'That this Council is opposed to a boycott...'

Letter from Geoffrey Drain, General Secretary of the National and Local Government Officers' Association (NALGO), to Len Murray, General Secretary of the Trades Union Congress.

Mr Drain forwarded a resolution of his National Executive Council opposing "the Prime Minister's call for a boycott of the Olympic Games". He argued that whilst the invasion of Afghanistan should be deplored, a sporting boycott of the Soviet Union would be inconsistent (and unfair to the athletes), whilst the United Kingdom continued to keep an Ambassador in Moscow and allowed British businesses to trade with the USSR without restriction.

[Included in a file on International Sports Activities, 1974-1980, from the archives of the Trades Union Congress; document reference: MSS.292D/808.9/1]