“People will divide into “parties” over the question of a fresh gigantic canal, or the distribution of oases in the Sahara (such a question will exist too), over the regulation of the elements and the climate, over a new theatre, over chemical hypotheses, over two competing tendencies in music, and over a best system of sports.”
– Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution
In the beginning of the twentieth century sport had not flourished sites like firstrowsports in Russia to the same extent as in countries such as for example Britain. A lot of the Russian population were peasants, spending hours every day on back-breaking agricultural labour. Leisure time was difficult to come by and even then people were often exhausted from their work. Needless to say people did still play, taking part in such traditional games as lapta (much like baseball) and gorodki (a bowling game). A smattering of sports clubs existed in the larger cities however they remained the preserve of the richer members of society. Ice hockey was beginning to grow in popularity, and the upper echelons of society were keen on fencing and rowing, using expensive equipment a lot of people would never have been able to afford.
In 1917 the Russian Revolution turned the world upside down, inspiring millions of people using 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, like the games they played. Sport, however, was far from being truly a priority. The Bolsheviks, who had led the revolution, were met with civil war, invading armies, widespread famine and a typhus epidemic. Survival, not leisure, was the order of your day. However, during the early part of the 1920s, prior to the dreams of the revolution were crushed by Stalin, the debate over a “best system of sports” that Trotsky had predicted did indeed take place. Two of the groups to tackle the question of “physical culture” were the hygienists and the Proletkultists.
As the name implies the hygienists were an accumulation of doctors and healthcare professionals whose attitudes were informed by their medical knowledge. Generally speaking these were critical of sport, concerned that its focus on competition placed participants vulnerable to 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 period of time the hygienists influenced Soviet policy on questions of physical culture. It had been on their advice that certain sports were prohibited, and football, boxing and weight-lifting were all omitted from the programme of events at the initial Trade Union Games in 1925. However the hygienists were far from unanimous in their condemnation of sport. V.V. Gorinevsky, for instance, was an advocate of playing tennis which he saw to be an ideal physical activity. Nikolai Semashko, a health care provider and the People’s Commissar for Health, went much further arguing that sport was “the open gate to physical culture” which “develops the type 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 one another, dividing people by tribal and national identities, as the physicality of the games put unnatural strains on the bodies of the players.
Instead 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 similar to carnivals or parades compared to the sports we see today. Contests were shunned on the basis they were ideologically incompatible with the brand new socialist society. Participation replaced spectating, and each event contained a definite political message, as is apparent from a few of their names: Rescue from the Imperialists; Smuggling Revolutionary Literature Over the Frontier; and Helping the Proletarians.
It would be an easy task to characterise the Bolsheviks to be anti-sports. Leading members of the party were friends and comrades with those who were most critical of sport through the debates on physical culture. Some of the leading hygienists were near Leon Trotsky, while Anotoli Lunacharsky, the Commissar for the Enlightenment, shared many views with Proletkult. Furthermore, the party’s attitude to the Olympics is generally given as evidence to support this anti-sport claim. The Bolsheviks boycotted the Games arguing they “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.
It is clear that they regarded participation in the new physical culture as being highly important, a life-affirming activity allowing visitors to experience the freedom and movement of their own bodies. Lenin was convinced that recreation and exercise were integral elements 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!”
Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the revolution, sport would play a political role for the Bolsheviks. Facing internal and external threats which may decimate the working class, they saw sport as a way 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.
This tension between your ideals of a future physical culture and the pressing concerns of your day were evident in an answer passed by the Third All-Russia Congress of the Russian Young Communist League in October 1920:
“The physical culture of the younger generation is an essential element in the overall system of communist upbringing of young people, targeted at creating harmoniously developed human beings, creative citizens of communist society. Today physical culture also offers direct practical aims: (1) preparing teenagers for work; and (2) preparing them for military defence of Soviet power.”
Sport would also are likely involved in other areas of political work. Prior to the revolution the liberal educationalist Peter Lesgaft noted that “social servitude has left its degrading imprint on women. Our task is to free the female body of its fetters”. Now the Bolsheviks attempted to put his ideas into practice. 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 really is our urgent task to draw women into sport,” said Lenin. “If we can achieve that and obtain them to make full usage of the sun, water and oxygen for fortifying themselves, we shall bring an entire revolution in the Russian life-style.”
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 one of these workers. Through the next decade the RSI (and the reformist Socialist Worker Sports International) held numerous Spartakiads and Worker Olympics towards the state Olympic Games. Worker-athletes from around the world would come together to take part in a whole range of events including processions, poetry, art and competitive sport. There was none of the discrimination that marred the ‘proper’ Olympics. Individuals of all colours were eligible to take part regardless of ability. The results were quite definitely of secondary importance.