Farmer, be an athlete.
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:50

Sport and the Russian Revolution

Published in 1917 Centenary

Gareth Edwards considers the changing attitudes to sport that resulted from the Russian Revolution. 

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day.

It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party, such as Leon Trotsky and Anotoli Lunacharsky, were close to those most critical of sport during the physical culture debates that took place in the early 1920s. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games on the grounds they would “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

In the aftermath of the revolution, sport would, unsurprisingly, play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

Go to the stadiums

Youth – to the stadiums! Golovanov, 1947

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games.

Just as important was that participation in the new physical culture could be a life-affirming activity, allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the best system of sports or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process, create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”

sports games soviet peoples

Sports Games of the Soviet peoples, Vlasov, 1928

The Bolsheviks approach was just one strand in the wider physical culture debate, which also included the hygienists and the Proletkultists. The hygienists, as the name implies, were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits - like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed, they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the relative strength of East and West was measured at each Games in gold, silver and bronze. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Today, sport is a plaything of oil sheiks and states, corporations and oligarchs. Corruption, controversy and doping are all rife. Sports fans are increasingly priced out of the games they love to watch and play; workers building the stadiums for global mega-events are, tragically, paying a much higher price. The need for a critique of the contemporary sports world is, if anything, even more urgent than it was 100 years ago.

Farmer, be an athlete.
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:50

Sport and the Russian Revolution

Published in Sport

Gareth Edwards considers the changing attitudes to sport that resulted from the Russian Revolution.

In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people with its vision of a society built on solidarity and the fulfilment of human need. In the process it unleashed an explosion of creativity in art, music, poetry and literature. It touched every area of people’s lives, including the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were confronted with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of the day.

It would be easy to characterise the Bolsheviks as being anti-sports. Leading members of the party, such as Leon Trotsky and Anotoli Lunacharsky, were close to those most critical of sport during the physical culture debates that took place in the early 1920s. In addition, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is normally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games on the grounds they would “deflect workers from the class struggle and train them for imperialist wars”. Yet in reality the Bolshevik’s attitudes towards sport were somewhat more complicated.

In the aftermath of the revolution, sport would, unsurprisingly, play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which would decimate the working class, they saw sport as a means by which the health and fitness of the population could be improved. As early as 1918 they issued a decree, On Compulsory Instruction in the Military Art, introducing physical training to the education system.

The position of women in society had already been greatly improved through the legalisation of abortion and divorce, but sport could also play a role by increasingly bringing women into public life. “It is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and get them to make full use of the sun, water and fresh air for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian way of life.”

Go to the stadiums

Youth – to the stadiums! Golovanov, 1947

And sport became another way of conveying the ideals of the revolution to the working classes of Europe. The worker-sport movement stretched across the continent and millions of workers were members of sports clubs run mainly by reformist organisations. The Red Sports International (RSI) was formed in 1921 with the express intention of connecting with these workers. Through the following decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held a number of Spartakiads and Worker Olympics in opposition to the official Olympic Games.

Just as important was that participation in the new physical culture could be a life-affirming activity, allowing people to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral parts of a well-rounded life. “Young people especially need to have a zest for life and be in good spirits. Healthy sport – gymnastics, swimming, hiking all manner of physical exercise – should be combined as much as possible with a variety of intellectual interests, study, analysis and investigation… Healthy bodies, healthy minds!”

But the Bolsheviks were never overly prescriptive in their analysis of what physical culture should look like. It was not for the party to decide what constituted the best system of sports or produce the correct line for the working class to follow. Rather it was for the mass of people to discuss and debate, experiment and innovate, and in that process, create their own sports and games. Nobody could foresee exactly what the play of a future socialist society would be like, but equally no one could doubt that the need to play would assert itself. As Trotsky said, “The longing for amusement, distraction, sight-seeing and laughter is the most legitimate of human nature.”

sports games soviet peoples

Sports Games of the Soviet peoples, Vlasov, 1928

The Bolsheviks approach was just one strand in the wider physical culture debate, which also included the hygienists and the Proletkultists. The hygienists, as the name implies, were a collection of doctors and health care professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking, they were critical of sport, concerned that its emphasis on competition placed participants at risk of injury. They were equally disdainful of the West’s preoccupation with running faster, throwing further or jumping higher than ever before. “It is completely unnecessary and unimportant,” said A.A. Zikmund, head of the Physical Culture Institute in Moscow, “that anyone set a new world or Russian record.” Instead the hygienists advocated non-competitive physical pursuits - like gymnastics and swimming -as ways for people to stay healthy and relax.

For a time, the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It was on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the First Trade Union Games in 1925. However, the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for example, was an advocate of playing tennis, which he saw as being an ideal physical exercise. Nikolai Semashko, a doctor and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the sort of will-power, strength and skill that should distinguish Soviet people.”

In contrast to the hygienists the Proletkult movement was unequivocal in its rejection of ‘bourgeois’ sport. Indeed, they denounced anything that smacked of the old society, be it in art, literature or music. They saw the ideology of capitalism woven into the fabric of sport. Its competitiveness set workers against each other, dividing people by tribal and national identities, while the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.

In place of sport Proletkultists argued for new, proletarian forms of play, founded on the principles of mass participation and cooperation. Often these new games were huge theatrical displays looking more like carnivals or parades than the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis that they were ideologically incompatible with the new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a distinct political message, as is apparent from some of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Across the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.

The hopes of the revolution died, alongside thousands of old Bolsheviks, with the rise of Josef Stalin. The collectivist ideals of 1917 were buried, replaced by exploitation and brutal repression. Internationalism was jettisoned in favour of “socialism in one country”. As the values and imperatives of the society changed so too did the character of the country’s physical culture. By 1925 the Bolsheviks had already turned towards a more elitist model of sport. Around this time Stalin is reported to have said: “We compete with the bourgeoisie economically, politically, and not without success. We compete everywhere possible. Why not compete in sport?” Team sports reappeared, complete with capitalist style league and cup structures. Successful sportspeople were held up as heroes in the Soviet Union and the quest for records resumed. Many of the hygienists and Proletkultists who had dared to dream of new forms of physical culture perished in the purges.

Eventually sport became a proxy for the Cold War. In 1952 the Soviet Union was re-integrated into the Olympic movement, ensuring that the relative strength of East and West was measured at each Games in gold, silver and bronze. As the country was inexorably compelled into economic, political and military competition on the international stage, so it also found itself drawn into sporting competition with the West.

Just as it would be a mistake to judge the ideals of the Russian Revolution by the horrors of Stalinism, so we should not allow the latter days of Soviet sport to obscure those remarkable early experiments in physical culture. Today, sport is a plaything of oil sheiks and states, corporations and oligarchs. Corruption, controversy and doping are all rife. Sports fans are increasingly priced out of the games they love to watch and play; workers building the stadiums for global mega-events are, tragically, paying a much higher price. The need for a critique of the contemporary sports world is, if anything, even more urgent than it was 100 years ago.

Monument in Pariser Platz, Berlin, 1936
Monday, 20 November 2017 13:50

What's Happened to Sport?

Published in Sport

Professor Tony Collins starts a series of articles about the relationship between sport and capitalism with an introduction to the history of sport.

It’s been a rough year for sport. In the last few months we’ve seen match-fixing allegations in tennis, Russia banned from international athletics for alleged doping, and the implosion of FIFA over endemic corruption. That’s not to mention the billionaire takeover of football and the grip of satellite TV on the game.

So where did it all go wrong?

In reality, nothing has gone wrong – modern sport has always been about money. It emerged in the 1700s as part of the growing commercial leisure industry of Britain’s emerging capitalist economy. The first rules of boxing, horse-racing and cricket were drawn up in the eighteenth century explicitly to make gambling easier and more transparent. Even the MCC, that bastion of the gentleman amateur, included rules for gambling in its early rulebooks. Teams and athletes were effectively owned by their aristocratic ‘patrons’, many of whom owed their wealth to the slave trade.

Sport was an entertainment – and like every other aspect of life under capitalism, it was organised to facilitate profit.

The Peoples’ Game?

When football was transformed into a mass spectator sport in the late 1800s, it quickly became commercialised. Soccer may have been ‘the People’s Game’ in terms of popularity, but it was as much a plaything of businessmen as it is today.

There’s no better example than Manchester United. When Newton Heath F.C. went into liquidation in 1902, they were bought by J.H. Davies, owner of Manchester Breweries. Renamed Manchester United, the club became an appendage of Davies’ business. United’s seven-strong board consisted of Davies and six other employees of the brewery. In 1909 Davies provided the cash that allowed the club to move to Old Trafford. And just as the Glazer family today has leveraged the club for their own financial interests, so did Davies: an FA enquiry in 1910 discovered that he received £740 rent from the club for land it did not use.

The same story was repeated across football. Chelsea was created by the owners of Stamford Bridge as an attraction to bring crowds into what was becoming a white elephant stadium. Most clubs that weren’t created as openly commercial ventures were formed by churches as a way of bringing Christian morality to working-class youths, such as Aston Villa, or by employers seeking to foster corporate unity in opposition to trade unionism, such as West Ham. Football made for great entertainment – but it was a never a people’s game.

Amateurism, Class and Race

The idea that sport was originally free of money and played only for love is a myth that was invented by the Victorian middle classes. Books like ‘Tom Brown’s Schooldays’ spread the gospel of Muscular Christianity across the British Empire, promoting the idea that sport was a moral force for good. This was how the idea of amateurism was invented, based on the belief that sport should be played without financial award.

But behind this lay naked class hatred. The first rules of the Amateur Athletic Club, the forerunner of the Amateur Athletic Association, explicitly stated that anyone who was ‘a mechanic, artisan or labourer’ could not be an amateur. In 1895 rugby split into two distinct sports – league and union – when rugby’s middle-class administrators refused to allow working-class players to be paid compensation when they had to take time off work to play. Until 1963, cricket even divided its players into middle-class amateur ‘Gentlemen’ and working-class professional ‘Players’.

As was made clear in militaristic poems like Henry Newbolt’s ‘Vitae Lampada’ - with its refrain ‘Play up and play the game’ – this was the ideology of the British Empire. Sport, proclaimed the Yorkshire Post, the organ of the northern English industrial bourgeoisie, had ‘done so much to make the Anglo-Saxon race the best soldiers, sailors and colonists in the world’.

In 1911 the then Home Secretary Winston Churchill banned ‘Bombardier’ Billy Wells from boxing against Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion. Between 1907 and 1948 no black boxer could fight for a British boxing title, thanks to a ‘colour bar’ introduced in response to Johnson’s success and the perceived threat he posed to white racial superiority.

The ‘level playing field’ that sport was supposed to provide for everyone regardless of background was never level – and some could not even play on it.

Sex and Drugs

This was doubly true for women. The famous sporting motto ‘Mens sana in corpore sana’ (a healthy mind in a healthy body) referred not to the creation of intellectual minds in healthy bodies, but of morally pure minds, free from effeminacy and the temptations of adolescent sexuality.

Modern sport was above all male, and founded on a strictly policed gender division. Women were discouraged and sometimes actively excluded from taking part in sport. In 1921 the Football Association officially banned women soccer players from using its football pitches. Even when women were allowed to take part, ideas about supposed female ‘weakness’ meant the Olympics barred them from events like the marathon until 1984.

It was the belief that successful women athletes were less than feminine that led to so-called ‘sex testing’ in the 1960s. The tremendous success of Soviet bloc women athletes led to Western paranoia that they were not ‘real women’ and in 1966 sex-testing was introduced in athletics. But this had no basis in science and was merely a more brutal way of enforcing traditional gender norms. Today, sport’s governing bodies assign themselves the right to define an athlete’s gender, an act as arrogant as it is reactionary.

It was also the Cold War that brought hysteria over drugs into sport. Drugs of varying forms had long been used in sport – even Frank Buckley’s Wolverhampton Wanderers were taking monkey gland extracts in the 1940s – but the rise of Soviet and East European athletes from the 1950s saw the West take the offensive and accuse the Soviets of ‘cheating’ by using drugs. As the ethical force of amateurism declined in sport in the 1960s and 1970s, the moral arguments previously used against professionalism were re-focused on medical stimulants.

Paranoia about drugs now replaced fear of professionalism as the raison d’être for tight control over athletes. Thanks to anti-drug legislation in sport, professional athletes today live in a totalitarian world where their every move is monitored and their civil liberties stripped away. And where sport goes, so too does government.

The Future of Sport

Nothing has gone ‘wrong’ with sport. For almost 300 years it has been an essential part of the capitalist leisure industry. There was never a golden age when it was pure; and the attempts to purify it by introducing amateurism led to the systematic exclusion and persecution of all those who fell outside its middle-class norms. Today it is a plaything of the rich and an instrument of control – just as it has always been.

Yet it remains a uniquely compelling form of entertainment. It is unscripted melodrama that allows the participant and the spectator to experience great emotional peaks that are rare in everyday life. It offers opportunities for physical artistry and collective endeavour that can sometimes touch the essence of what it means to be human.

Its liberation lies not in appeals to a mythical past or a morality invented by apostles of the British Empire but in the creation of a society where capitalism no longer exists and in which the full range of sporting experience can be had by all members of society. Only under socialism, in a society free of economic necessity and shorn of stifling bourgeois morality, will sport truly become a level playing field.