These Stunning Photos Show How Workers Held Their Own Olympics

Gabriel Kuhn
Georg Spitaler
Loren Balhorn

The 1931 Workers’ Olympiad in Vienna was an inspiring example of mass-scale sports, free of corporate influence. These photos from the games show how the workers’ movement promoted collective joy and class pride, even outside the factory gates.

Weight lifters demonstrate their muscular prowess at the second Workers’ Olympiad in “Red” Vienna, Austria, 1931. (ASKÖ)

As the Summer Olympics kicks off in Tokyo, it’s worth thinking back ninety years, to when the alternative sports culture promoted by the international workers’ movement reached one of its historic high points. From July 19 to 26, 1931, the Socialist Workers’ Sports International (SASI) held the second Workers’ Olympiad in “Red” Vienna — a city which then stood as one of the socialist movement’s biggest strongholds.

Thousands of athletes from eighteen countries met in the Austrian capital to take part in competitions and demonstrations in disciplines such as track and field, football, military sports, and even chess. The mass gymnastics exercises, parades, and other events brought together a total of around eighty thousand participants. Together with the fourth congress of the Labour and Socialist International held in the city from July 25 to August 1, the second Workers’ Olympiad constituted a high point of Red Vienna’s self-representation as an international capital of the workers’ movement.

The Vienna Workers’ Olympiad was the largest of the three Olympiads organized by the SASI. The first was held in Frankfurt, Germany in 1925, and the third in Antwerp, Belgium in 1937. This last event was overshadowed by the terrible events looming on the horizon: the workers’ sports federations in Germany and Austria, once major centers of the movement, had already been banned by these countries’ respective fascist regimes. Soon thereafter, World War II broke out and the SASI disbanded.

The Workers’ Olympiad combined elements of collective sport and public celebration. The events in Vienna included, among other things, a mass festival with four thousand athletes in the city’s renowned Prater Stadium recounting the heroic history of the international proletariat. Completed shortly before the games, the modernist venue became a pioneering model for other stadiums being built around the continent. Since renamed Ernst Happel Stadium, it continues to serve as Austria’s national stadium to this day.

The workers’ sports movement stood for a pedagogical counter-model to bourgeois and capitalist organized sports — both the games organized by the International Olympic Committee as well as professional sports leagues like in soccer. In this vision, the harms and limits imposed on working-class life by poor living and working conditions were to be countered by individual physical development and the collective formation of a self-confident class identity. Today, these images serve as a testament to the world early socialists built — both for themselves and for proletarian generations to come.

A small crowd gathers in front of the Olympiad’s main office. (VGA, Vienna)
Temporary structure erected for the festival by designer Victor Slama, emblazoned with the greeting “Friendship” used by the Austrian Social Democrats. (ASKÖ)
The Honorary President of the SASI, Gaston Bridoux, speaks at the Parade of Nations in the Prater Stadium. (ASKÖ)
Mass festival in the stadium. The head, representing capital, was destroyed at the end of the performance. The picture, like most of the others in this series, was taken by Viennese worker-photographers. (VGA, Vienna)
In addition to mass camps in public buildings, tent camps were also used to accommodate the tens of thousands of participants. (ASKÖ)
Younger participants were also accommodated by working-class families in publicly owned housing. (ASKÖ)
Gymnasts march down Vienna’s Praterstraße. The SASI had maintained a women’s program since 1929, propagating a combination of feminism, physical fitness, and socialism. (ASKÖ)
Mass flag exercises at the Vienna racetrack. (VGA, Vienna)
Women’s synchronized swimming. (VGA, Vienna)
Weight lifters demonstrate their muscular prowess at the racetrack. (ASKÖ)
Track and field competitions were also an obligatory feature at the Workers’ Olympiad. (VGA, Vienna)
“Red” water polo in the pools of the Prater Stadium complex. (VGA, Vienna)
Crowds gather to watch high diving: here, the exercise culture propagated by the workers’ sports movement meets with the bathing culture of Red Vienna. (ASKÖ)
Before the start of one of the bicycle races. Three British workers’ athletes can be seen in the front row. (ASKÖ)
Onlookers at the paddle race on Vienna’s Danube Canal. With its marches and competitions, the Olympiad involved many parts of the city. (ASKÖ)
In Vienna, the city of coffee houses, the Workers’ Olympiad also included chess competitions. (ASKÖ)
Workers’ cyclists at the closing procession on the Ringstraße in front of the Austrian parliament. (ASKÖ)