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Source: Biblioteca del Pavelló de la República-CRAI (Universitat de Barcelona)
Poster for the People’s Olympiad
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Photographer: Perez de Rozas. Source: Arxiu Fotogràfic de Barcelona
Montjuïc Stadium inauguration
Inauguration of the Montjuïc stadium for the 1929 Universal Exhibition, in the presence of Alfonso XIII
This July 19th is the 75th anniversary of a remarkable event that never took place. On the same day in 1936, Lluís Companys, the then-President of Catalunya, was set to give a speech inaugurating the Olimpíada Popular (the Popular or People’s Olympiad), Barcelona’s answer to the Nazi Olympics in Berlin. Instead, Companys went on Barcelona Radio to denounce the attempted military coup of the day before—the Spanish Civil War had begun and the sporting fixture was called off.
In 1931, there had been two candidates to host the 1936 Olympic Games: a pre-Nazi Berlin and Barcelona. The former won the nomination by 43 votes to 16 at a meeting held in Los Angeles on May 13th, and Barcelona would have to wait another 60 years before holding the Games. The choice of Berlin was seen as a way of welcoming Germany back to the world community after its defeat in World War One. Barcelona had also lost in part because the Spanish candidature had been backed by aristocrats (such as the city’s mayor at the time, Joan Antoni Güell i López) associated with the reign of Alfonso XIII, who was forced to abdicate in the same year, leading to the declaration of the second Spanish Republic. Barcelona would have been a volatile choice, admittedly, though the German capital was no haven of democratic stability, and in January 1933, Adolf Hitler was sworn in as chancellor. The world would never be the same again.
As the Nazis set about excluding the half million German Jews from all aspects of the country’s life, they jumped on the chance of using the Olympics as a way of legitimising their regime and racist ideas. And although, after official protests from the Olympic movement, they promised to allow all Germans to take part in the Games, in the end evidently no Jewish athletes were selected, often being rejected on spurious grounds. As the nature of the regime became increasingly clear, a movement to boycott the sporting event grew in strength. Opposition in the US was particularly strong, with Jewish organisations at the forefront of protests. Interestingly, most African-American newspapers were in favour of taking part as they believed that black victories would undermine Nazi views of Aryan supremacy and promote pride in the African-American community, which is exactly what Jesse Owens later did in his small but historic way. However, overall, the Nazi Olympics were very much a propaganda coup for the regime.
Back in Barcelona in 1935, as the boycott movement began to grow, Catalan sporting associations thought up the idea of picking up on the failed Olympic bid and re-forming it as a protest event against the Nazi Olympics. Named the Olimpíada Popular, these games were specifically conceived as an anti-racist and anti-fascist event that would promote the ‘true Olympic spirit’ as well as peace and understanding between nations, everything opposed by the Berlin Games with the International Olympic Committee’s complicity.
The idea gained further impetus following the election in February 1936 of the Popular Front government in Spain, which announced it would boycott the Berlin Olympics and offered Barcelona the 400,000 pesetas (about €550,000 in today’s money) it had promised the Spanish Olympic team. In the end, the only Spanish athletes to travel to Germany was a military team of fencers, who were forced to return home at the outbreak of the Civil War, presumably not to fight for the Republic.
The Barcelona event soon received the full backing of the Generalitat, which offered another 100,000 pesetas and the use of the Montjuïc stadium, which had recently been completed for 1929 Universal Exhibition. The Games also received the generous support of 600,000 pesetas from the left-wing French government, though it demonstrated the ambiguity that would help cripple the Republic during the Civil War, by also sending a team to Germany.
Although the Games were only officially announced in March 1936, a total of 6,000 athletes from 22 nations registered. The biggest contingent came from France, which sent 1,500 athletes. As the French participants made their way towards the Spanish border, large groups of workers gathered around many stations singing ‘The Internationale’. The US, UK, Netherlands, Belgium, Czechoslovakia, Denmark, Norway, Sweden and French Algeria also sent sizeable teams. In addition, there were German and Italian teams made up of exiles, the former including many Jewish athletes. In most cases, the athletes were sent by trade unions, workers’ clubs and associations, socialist and communist parties and left-wing groups rather than by countries. In part because it was a Catalan-inspired event, there were also teams from Alsace, and regional-national teams from Spain (Andalucia, Euskadi, Galícia, Catalunya, etc.), the idea being to break the nation-state model of the official Olympics. In addition, some 20,000 visitors made their way to the city, creating considerable problems with accommodation, as their numbers far exceeded the hotel places available at the time. They included thousands of tourists from France who had come to enjoy the first two week’s paid holidays of their lives, thanks to new legalisation by the French government. This was the timid beginnings of mass international tourism.
The games were scheduled to be held from July 19th to 26th and would have ended six days before the start of the Berlin Olympics. In addition to the usual sporting events, they were to feature chess, folk dancing, music and theatre.
Most of the athletes were already in the city by the eve of July 19th. On the 18th, as news reached the city of the military coup in the Canaries and North Africa, there was a test run of the opening ceremony and that night many of the athletes slept in the stadium itself. Thousands of young people of a dozen or more nationalities fraternally intermingled, communicating however they could, as few spoke Castilian. For many it was the first time they had spoken to people from other countries. The atmosphere of enthusiasm and euphoria intermingled with increasing trepidation about a possible military coup. The next morning, at 4.30am, as the athletes slept in the stadium, the soldiers in the barracks around Barcelona were awoken by their officers, given a rum ration and told they were to put down a supposed Anarchist rebellion in the city. The military uprising had begun and the Olympiad had to be cancelled. Some athletes never made it to Barcelona as the borders had been closed, while those already in the city for the beginning of the games had to make a hasty exit. However, at least 200 of the athletes remained and joined workers’ militias to fight the insurgents, becoming some of the first foreign volunteers, months before the first International Brigades were formed (see sidebar).
Lluís Companys, who was to open the Games, and who was President of Catalunya throughout the war, went into exile in France in February 1939, when Catalunya fell to Franco’s army. In 1940, he was arrested by the Gestapo and deported back to Spain, where he was tortured, before being court-martialled and shot in the empty moat of Montjuïc castle. In 2001, nine years after the city finally and successfully held the Olympic Games, the stadium, located a couple of hundred metres from where he was executed, was renamed the Estadi Olímpic Lluís Companys.
FROM ATHLETES TO FIGHTERS
Little is known about many of the athletes who stayed in Spain to fight. One German swimmer who took part in defeating the military in the city would later become the swimming instructor for the Popular Army who trained the first units to cross the Ebro River in the battle that would finally break the back of the Republic. Another swimmer, Clara Thalmann, a Swiss anarchist, hitchhiked her way to Spain to take part in the Olympiad, only be stopped at the border by the outbreak of the war. She soon slipped across and joined the Durruti column. The following year, as anarchists and Stalinists fought for control of Barcelona in the fateful May Days of 1937, famously described in Homage to Catalonia, Thalmann met Orwell himself on a barricade in La Rambla, saying of him, perhaps unfairly, “He did not know what was going on and his eyes expressed amazement, he had a terrified look".
Nick Lloyd leads Civil War tours in Barcelona with the Centre d’Estudis de Montjuïc and runs the website www.iberianature.com