Ideals of 'Worker Olympics' live on

BOOK OF THE WEEK; The Story of Worker Sport Editors: Arnd Kruger and James Riordan (Human Kinetics, 1996, pounds 28.50)
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The Independent Online
In 1931, one year before the Los Angeles Olympics at which 1,408 athletes participated, a sporting event on a far greater human scale took place. The Worker Olympics, held in Vienna, attracted 100,000 participants and more than a quarter of a million spectators.

That event marked the high point of a movement which became an integral part of life for millions between the world wars, a movement which established itself in 26 countries including most of Europe and the United States.

But while the Olympics envisioned by Baron De Coubertin have been celebrated in book and film over the years, their proletarian alternative has been largely ignored.

This book asks the question: what about the workers? A selection of photographs and accounts from 10 countries presents the story of a movement which had its roots in the socialist movement and which attempted to combine sporting activity with socialist solidarity. By the by, the book also reveals the Germans' propensity for taking their clothes off in the open air, a characteristic which has proved to be enduring.

The worker movement was composed in varying measure of idealism and ideology, emphasising less competitive activities such as gymnastics, cycling, pyramid- forming and hiking in counterpoint to the perceived capitalist obsession with competitition, commercialism and chauvinism.

But the idealism often foundered. The British Workers' Federation for Sport, for example, was established in 1923 with the aim of promoting labour sport internationally and established strong links with communist Russia.

Perhaps the best-remembered political expression of the British worker sport movement occurred in 1932, when hundreds of northern ramblers took part in a Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout to highlight demands ranging from open access to the removal of restrictions on open-air singing.

If this was revolution, it was on a modest scale. Even so, five participants were jailed for between two and six months.

The British worker sport movement eventually collapsed due to lack of finance and dissension over its aims. In Germany, the end of the movement was more abrupt - when the Nazis took over in 1936, they banned all communist organisations.

The greater access to international competition for those outside bourgeois circles has diminished the need for such workers' movements - the Olympics are no longer confined to the upper classes.

But the ideals live on in countries such as Finland and Israel, and if the movement - in its pyramid-forming, mass-singing manifestations - appears a little ridiculous from a modern perspective, this book also reminds us of some of the ideals which are now conspicuously absent in so many sports and without which sport will ultimately shrivel away.