The ‘Protest’ Olympics That Never Came to Be

A leftist response to the 1936 Games being held in Nazi Germany, the proposed competition was canceled by the Spanish Civil War

Close-up of poster advertising the People's Olympiad
Pure athletic prowess wasn’t really the point—the People’s Olympiad was about cultivating a spirit of equality, in direct contrast to Nazi ideals. Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick

In the very hot summer of 1936, a team of American Olympians crossed the Atlantic by ship, reaching Scotland on July 13. From there, they traveled to Paris, where they boarded another train, finally arriving at their destination a few days before the games were scheduled to start. They explored the city and visited the Olympic stadium. “Never felt so good in all my life. Having a swell time,” Bernard Danchik, a gymnast, wrote to his parents on July 16. But Danchik wasn’t writing from Berlin, the host city of that year’s official Olympic games: Instead he, along with nine other American athletes, had just landed in the sunny streets of Barcelona for the People’s Olympiad, a counter-event organized to protest what they called the “Hitler Nazi Olympics.”

Five years prior, Berlin had won the bid to host the Olympic Games, beating out other finalist cities, including Barcelona. At the time, Germany was governed by the Weimar Republic. After Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933, Jewish groups, unions and trade organizations in the United States and across Europe criticized allowing the Nazis to host the Olympics, especially after the 1935 Nuremberg Laws stripped German Jews of most of their rights. According to research by historian Peter Carroll, author of the 1994 book The Odyssey of the Abraham Lincoln Brigades, by 1935 “half a million Americans had signed petitions demanding an alternate site" and several newspapers, including the New York Times, had registered objections to U.S. participation.

That same year, a mixed group of church leaders, college presidents and trade unionists created the Committee on Fair Play in Sports with the explicit aim to stop the United States from sending its elite athletes to Berlin. “All right-thinking Americans and lovers of good sportsmanship must oppose our participation,” one of their pamphlets read, “because the Nazi government is deliberately planning to use the Olympic games to promote its political prestige and to glorify its policies.” The opposition was grounded in anti-fascist sentiment, an objection to Hitler’s treatment of “non-Aryans.”

Boycott supporters included Jeremiah Mahoney, the president of the Amateur Athletic Union (AAU), which worked closely with the Olympic committee to send athletes to the games. Mahoney, an active opponent of religious and racial discrimination, believed that participating in the Berlin Olympics would be a tacit endorsement of the Nazi regime.

View of Berlin street during the 1936 Summer Olympics
The United States almost boycotted the 1936 Summer Olympics, which were held in Nazi-controlled Berlin. N.N. via Wikimedia Commons under CC BY-SA 4.0

The American Olympic Committee, however, strongly opposed this boycott; its leader, Avery Brundage, an anti-Semite who later served as president of the International Olympic Committee, called the boycott movement a “Jewish-Communist conspiracy.”

Finally, on December 8, 1935, less than nine months before the Games, the AAU voted by a very slim margin to send a team to the Berlin Olympics—if only three more delegates had voted in favor of the boycott, the United States would not have participated in the Berlin Olympics. The boycott movement had failed.

Across the Atlantic in Spain, the political and cultural landscape looked very different. In 1931, after both the military dictator Primo de Rivera and Spanish king Alfonso XIII were forced into exile, Spain became a republic. Several parties governed briefly in the following years: the Left Republicans and Socialists were in power from 1931 to 1933, followed by a conservative coalition. Finally, a left-wing coalition of center-left Republicanos, socialists, and communists called the Popular Front won the Spanish elections of February 1936.

According to sports historian Xavier Pujadas i Martí, the movement for a counter-event to the Olympics, borne out of a left-wing hatred of fascism, coalesced in Catalonia, a northern region of Spain of which Barcelona is the capital. “Barcelona was a city with a strong left-wing, grassroots, and workers’ tradition,” Pujadas i Martí explains. The Olympics, set to occur later that year, made for a perfect opportunity for leftists across Europe to express their political beliefs. While protests were planned in Paris and other cities, Barcelona became a logical focal point, as its failed bid for these same Games meant they already had a lot of infrastructure in place—including an Olympic stadium. Like the Americans, many on the European left understood the threat that Hitler posed.

Historians aren’t sure the specifics of when or where the Barcelona People’s Olympiad, or Olimpíada Popular, became official, but word began to spread within a few months of the Popular Front’s election. For more than a decade Barcelona, like other cities across Europe, had cultivated a strong “workers sports'' culture: Both the socialists and communists organized “workers’ games” for members of their parties. But from the start, the People’s Olympiad was different. It explicitly aimed to be inclusive and unaffiliated with a political party. They had support from center-left parties, as well as socialists and communists.

The People’s Olympiad’s organizing committee sent invitations to athletes around the world in hopes of creating an event on a scale that would rival the Berlin games taking place later that summer. Nearly 6,000 athletes were scheduled to compete for 20,000 spectators, according to official figures from that time. Many were sent by trade unions and workers’ organizations. Some athletes were attending to protest the Berlin Games; others had plans to go to both.

People’s Olympiad program in scrapbook, 1936
People’s Olympiad program in scrapbook, 1936 Bernard N. Danchik Papers; ALBA 033; Box 2; Tamiment Library / Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University.

Unlike in the Berlin games, non-national groups were also invited to participate. In addition to squads sent by trade unions representing sovereign nations like France, the United Kingdom and the U.S., other teams self-identified as being from Alsace, Basque Country and Catalonia. Jews who had already left Nazi persecution formed another team, as did Italians in exile from the fascist regime of Benito Mussolini.

Dated May 21, 1936, the invitation sent by organizers to the Americans on the Committee on Fair Play reads: “The PEOPLE’s OLYMPIAD will unite in friendly competition genuine amateur sportsmen of all countries.” In the letter, the committee requested the presence of a “small but highly qualified team” of sportsmen from the United States, and offered to cover part of their travel expenses. “We are particularly anxious that your team should include Negro sportsmen, for ... we are defending the real Olympic spirit, which stands for brotherhood between races and peoples,” it continues. Ten American athletes, three of them Black, took the organizers up on their offer, setting sail for the Barcelona games on July 3, on the S.S. Transylvania.

Peter Carroll spoke to several of the athletes for his book. He describes a team of politically aware, leftist, but not radical, young people who came of age in a period of high unemployment and lots of labor activity. “The [athletes] I spoke with were not party people,” he says. “They were outsiders, and they had reason to … object to Hitler.” To them, participating in the People’s Olympiad was a chance to go to Europe, compete in their sports, and take a stand against Nazism. “They wanted to show that the Berlin Olympics weren’t necessarily the most important thing going on in sports.”

Their coach, Alfred “Chick” Chakin, was probably the most political of the group as a member of the Communist party. Older than his charges, Chakin was a wrestling coach at New York’s City College.

The team included Irvin Jenkins and Charles Burley, both boxers; track runners Eddie Kraus, Myron Dickes, Harry Engel and Frank Payton; Dorothy “Dot” Tucker, a runner and swimmer, and the team’s only woman; cyclist Julian Raoul; and gymnast Bernard “Bernie” Danchik. Several were Jewish, and all but two—Jenkins and Burley—were selected by the trade unions or labor organizations that helped sponsor their travels. Burley, a Black boxer and a Golden Gloves Senior winner, had been invited to try out for the 1936 Olympic team, and had refused on the grounds of racist and religious discrimination in Nazi Germany. With the exception of Burley, who was from Pittsburgh, the entire team came from New York. Irving Jenkins, the team’s only college student, was on Cornell’s University’s varsity boxing team.

“They were clearly not athletes who would have qualified for the Berlin Games,” says David Wallechinsky, president of the International Society for Olympic Historians. “They were picked by a local club or union.”

You didn’t need to qualify for the Barcelona games, he says, the way athletes who were chosen to attend the games in Berlin had. You only needed to find a sponsor and go.

Republican soldiers and Assault Guards fight in Barcelona during the July 1936 uprising.
Republican soldiers and Assault Guards fight in Barcelona during the July 1936 uprising. Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

But pure athletic prowess wasn’t really the point—the People’s Olympiad was about cultivating a spirit of equality, in direct contrast to Nazi ideals, Pujadas i Martí explains. “They were looking to create something where anyone could participate, any nation or national representation, and they wanted to have different categories, some more competitive and some less… These games represented the more general, more open spirit of anti-fascism.”

The U.S. team arrived in Barcelona on July 16, a few days before the games were scheduled to begin on July 19. Having even a small team of American athletes participating in the People’s Olympiad made headlines at the time, Pujadas i Martí says. “When the news that athletes were coming from North America was first announced, it had an important impact here.” North American athletes were seen as a benchmark of excellence in sports. “It gave a lot of hope for the success and impact of the [games],” he adds.

But in the months leading up to the Protest Olympics—when Barcelona was preparing its international “workers sports” demonstration against fascism—the political winds were shifting. Upset by results of the elections earlier that year, a coalition of Spanish Nationalists, monarchists, and conservatives led by a group of military generals were planning a coup to overthrow the Popular Front government.

Right as the protest Olympics were to begin, they struck. Military leaders took control of the Spanish Protectorate in Morocco and shot 189 people on July 17, two days before the planned opening ceremonies. The fighting reached Barcelona before dawn on the 19th, and the athletes who had made it to Barcelona woke up to the sounds of gunshots. Some athletes en route to Barcelona, like the exiled German Jewish team, were stuck at the border, unable to enter Spain at all.

Most of the Spanish Army near the city supported the coup, but the civil guard and Catalan police force remained loyal to the government and fought them in streets, along with members of an anarchist union.

One athlete from France was killed, possibly caught in the crossfire.

Posters advertising the People's Olympiad
Posters advertising the People's Olympiad Modern Records Centre at the University of Warwick

Though pro-Republic forces prevailed in Barcelona, the coup would not be stopped quickly. The Spanish Civil War had broken out, and the People’s Olympiad—with its dreams of uniting all peoples and races through sport—was canceled. A few days after fighting started, the athletes were evacuated from the city.

“When we sailed on the Transylvania for France on our way to Barcelona, I know that there were a number of athletes on the American team who hadn’t thought too much about politics and didn’t have any set opinions,” runner Frank Payton wrote in a newspaper article upon their return. “When we talked these things over on the way back, everybody agreed that the fighting we had seen in Barcelona had taught us the need for unity in the struggle against fascism.”

In those very early days, it seemed like the Republicans had the advantage in the Spanish Civil War. But Fascist Italy and Nazi Germany supported the coup with munitions, air strikes and soldiers, while the rest of Europe and the United States practiced a policy of non-intervention. Soon, the Spanish Republic was faltering.

A year after the canceled Olympics, Chick Chakin returned to Spain as part of the International Brigades, some 40,000 fighters from around the world who came to support the struggle of the Spanish Republic. Other athletes from the People’s Olympiad also joined the fight, though exact numbers are unknown.

Chakin went missing in action on March 17, 1938, killed by the Nationalist forces, who took control of the country soon after. Francisco Franco, the junta’s leader, ruled Spain until his death in 1975.

Today, few remember the Olympic Games that weren’t—some of those involved were killed in the Spanish Civil War, and others went into exile after Franco came into power. From the American team, only Charles Burley went on to have a notable athletic career: in the 1940s, he was ranked in the top 10 in both the Welterweight and Middleweight divisions, though he never got a chance to compete for a world title.

But Barcelona did get another shot at Olympic glory: the city finally hosted the games in 1992—in the very same stadium where the protest Olympics almost took place.

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