On July 3, 1936, a month before what’s come to be known as the Nazi Olympics in Berlin, a group of American athletes boarded a ship bound for Europe. The U.S. team included Black sprinters from Harlem, Jewish gymnasts from Manhattan, and a biracial boxer from Pittsburgh. Their coach was Abraham Alfred “Chick” Chakin, an immigrant whose family had fled pogroms in Russia. Chakin, retired from wrestling, had returned to the mat to lead the athletes, but they weren’t going to the official games in Germany. They were headed to Spain for the inaugural Popular Olympics, which promised to be the “greatest anti-fascist spectacle yet seen.”
While the 1936 Olympics is remembered as the games where Black American sprinter Jesse Owens undermined Nazi racist ideology by winning the most gold medals, the Popular Olympics athletes hoped their games would demonstrate the strength of the antifascist movement. They quickly discovered that the contest against fascism was going to be far more brutal than they’d expected.
The Popular Olympics, scheduled to open July 19, 1936, arose out of the global movement to boycott the event in Germany, the first such boycott attempt in Olympic history. But this wasn’t the first time that the Olympics had been engulfed by world events. The games had been canceled in 1916 during World War I; they’d be canceled again during World War II and postponed in 2020 due to the pandemic. By the summer of 1936, many people could no longer ignore what was happening in Germany: Hitler had remilitarized the Rhineland in violation of the Versailles treaty that ended World War I and had begun rounding up Jews, Roma, leftists, men accused of being gay, and people with disabilities and sending them to concentration camps. (Learn about the dark history behind the Olympic games.)
Still, the boycott campaign failed to convince countries to keep their teams home. The International Conference for the Respect of the Olympic Ideal, held in April in Paris, came up with another plan—an alternative event that would showcase the Popular Front, the broad alliance of leftists, liberals, communists, and socialists that had come together to prevent the spread of fascism. The Catalan government in Barcelona offered to host, even though Spain was spiraling toward conflict. Earlier that year, Popular Front governments had been elected in Barcelona and Madrid—a call to arms for monarchists, fascists, Catholic extremists, and landowners on the right. Even so, some 20,000 anti-fascist athletes and fans decided to attend the games.
Alternatives to the Olympics weren’t a new idea. The International Workers’ Olympiad had been held every four years since 1921 to counter the official game’s perceived aristocratic bent, but the socialist effort excluded anarchists and other members of the Popular Front. The Maccabiah Games launched in 1932 and continue to this day, but that competition was primarily for Jewish and later Israeli athletes.
The Popular Olympics would be different, especially from the official events in Berlin. During the opening ceremonies, exiled Jews from Europe and colonized people from North Africa would enter the stadium with teams representing both nation-states and stateless nations, accompanied by a song composed by an exiled German Jew with lyrics written by a Catalan poet. The crowd would be drawn from 21 nations, and the first athletic event of the games would be the 10x100m relay, a 10-person relay race designed to reward nations for elevating the fitness of their working people rather than for celebrating individual talent. (Read about the Iroquois’ quest to compete in Olympic lacrosse.)
Women would be competing, too, with more opportunities to demonstrate their skills than the International Olympic Committee allowed in Berlin. “The picture of the Peoples’ Olympiad would not be complete if woman did not take her due place in it,” proclaimed the organizers, among them the Catalan Feminist Sports Club.
The Popular Olympics, planned in just three months, couldn’t offer the luxuries of the official games. Berlin athletes stayed in the newly built Olympic Village (after they left, the village housed the Condor Legion, the German military unit that would go on to bomb the Basque town of Guernica a year later, killing hundreds of civilians). Athletes in Barcelona stayed in homes, hostels, and the recently re-appointed Hotel Olympic. In the weeks before the games, Catalan officials dashed around the city desperately trying to find more lodging due to the unexpected appetite for an antifascist Olympics. When the games were extended from four days to one week, posters that had already been hung had to be individually updated.
The U.S. team arrived in Barcelona on July 15. They’d heard rumors of unrest in Spain—whispers of a coming coup—but sprinter Dot Tucker, the team’s only woman, later recalled that “we had no fear.” Chakin struggled in vain to keep the athletes out of Barcelona’s bars and nightclubs. The night before the games, however, they retired early.
A few hours later, sprinter Frank Payton woke to “the rumbling of cannon, several thousand machine guns and rifles, and the sound of marching feet.” From their hotel windows, the athletes watched men and women tearing up cobblestones and filling sandbags to build barricades. Soon, the Spanish army came marching into the city, intent on overthrowing the Catalan government.
The civilians at the barricades fought back. “Socialists, communists, and unionists united to eradicate fascism,” Payton later told an interviewer. “Women held barricades; some women even led detachments of workers against the fascists.” Many of those same women had formed the Feminist Sports Club, which had invited young Catalan women to compete, and fight, as men’s equals. In one instance, Catalan anarchists advanced on the military with their hands in the air, spoke to the soldiers, and convinced them to turn their artillery pieces on their officers.
The battle made a huge impression on the young Americans. Charlie Burley, a national champion boxer from Pittsburgh, rushed outside with his teammates as soon as the shooting stopped and grabbed a shovel to reinforce the barricades. They were joined by exiled Germans and Italians, who knew that the only way they could ever return home was to defeat fascism, first in Spain and then in Berlin and Rome. Throughout the city, workers armed themselves with weapons from raided armories and managed to repel the best efforts of Spain’s professional military.
In a few short hours, antifascism went from an idea to an action to a resounding victory in the Catalan capital. The coup was defeated, for the moment, but there would be no Popular Olympics. The Spanish Civil War had begun.
After the battle was over, the teams marched through the streets singing the left-wing anthem “The Internationale” in their own languages. One French athlete had been killed, the first of more than 15,000 international casualties in the conflict. Many athletes left later that week. “You came for the games and stayed to see the victory of the Popular Front,” the organizers told them. “Spread through the world news of what you have seen in Spain.”
Not every athlete would stay home for long. Chakin was haunted by what he had witnessed in Barcelona. The following year, he and his wife, Jennie Berman Chakin, returned to Spain. She established an art therapy program for children displaced by the war, while he set off for the front where he served as a quartermaster in the Mackenzie-Papineau Battalion. In March 1938, Chakin was captured by the Nationalists and executed.
Two hundred athletes who’d intended to compete in the Popular Olympics fought with the Republicans in Spain. Most of them were killed. George Orwell, who also took part in the conflict, once said that sports was “war without the shooting,” but for the antifascists who came to Barcelona for the games in 1936, they really were playing a life and death match.
James Stout is the author of The Popular Front and the Barcelona 1936 Popular Olympics: Playing as if the World Was Watching.