People’s Olympiad: Athlete Soldiers

I’m finally reading a history of the International Brigades; the motley crew of fighters from all over the world who made their way to Spain in the late 1930s to join in the first great fight against fascism. I’m on the first chapter and they are already talking about cyclists!

In 1936 Berlin held the Olympic Games, which was supposed to be Hitler’s chance to prove that the Aryan race was naturally superior (foiled single-handedly by African-American Jesse Owens, who won 4 gold medals in the Games). Back then, socialism and communism were not the dirty words they are today in some countries, and there was a vibrant left movement all over the world, mainly supported by the Soviet Union, at least ideologically.

Well, these folks decided to hold an anti-fascism Olympics of their own! It was to be held in July 1936 in Barcelona, using the Estadi Stadium on the top of Montjuic (still there today – well worth the hike up the hill) that was built both for the 1929 World Expo and Barca’s bid for the 1936 Olympics that Hitler snapped up.

Note the multicultural look of this poster

6000 athletes from all over the world showed up for the Games, including some cyclists from the Clarion Cycling Club in the UK. I had heard of this crew before but never knew that it was a ‘socialist cycling club’. There are still branches all over the country and they have produced some great riders, including the Yates twins.

Right before this alternative olympiad was about to begin an attempted military coup took place in Barcelona. The athletes – often trade unionists, committed socialists, communists or anarchists, either hid out in their accommodations till the coup was subdued, or joined the fight! Amazingly, after a boat for the athletes was secured to bring them to safety across the border in France, hundreds stayed in Barcelona to fight the good fight. This was the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.

The famous International Brigades were formed a couple of months later, but I guess that these athletes were the vanguard of the movement. Members of the Clarion Cycling Club joined the Brigades and at least two died in Spain.

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