Book Review: James Stout, The Popular Front and the Barcelona 1936 Popular Olympics

June 2, 2020

The Popular Front and the Barcelona 1936 Popular Olympics: Playing as if the World Were Watching, by James Stout. New York: Palgrave MacMillan, 2020. xix + 136 pp.

James Stout’s The Popular Front and the Barcelona 1936 Popular Olympics combines sports and political history to probe an unusual and largely forgotten episode in 1930s Spain. It is the sad story of athletic games, organized in the anti-fascist spirit of the Popular Front movement, that never were because the Spanish Civil War exploded days before their planned start in July 1936. The book also draws some interesting connections between past and present, specifically between anti-fascism and the Popular Front then and Antifa and the Catalan independence movement today. This framing provides a particular urgency to the work, though it also leads to some idealization of the left’s cause and sport’s ability to bring people together. Stout discusses these matters openly so the reader can maintain a critical distance from the historian’s assertions.

The book’s first two chapters provide a background for the development of Catalan nationalism, the Olympic movement, and Popular Front alliances. Through the 1920s and early 1930s, Catalan nationalism had evolved from its middle-class roots and was seeking a broader, more populist base. Cultural activities fit this goal well, especially in an age when sport grew rapidly and many of Barcelona’s sports organizations adopted stronger regional identities in contrast with Madrid. At the same time, the Olympic movement landed in controversy leading up to the 1936 Berlin Games. Various boycott movements against the Nazi games sprang up in France, the US, UK, and Spain and some leftist groups sought an alternative that spoke to a larger swath of the western population than the narrowly class-based Workers Olympiads organized in the 1920s and 30s.

Stout’s third through sixth chapters go into fascinating detail about the event’s organization, participants who strove to attend, the events planned, and what happened after the Civil War. They provide the core new research for the book and prove well worth the effort the author clearly exerted. In chapter three, Stout delves into the idea for “popular” games and how Barcelona emerged as host city. The goal was for an event that had a working-class base but also included a broader coalition of anti-fascist groups that stretched into the middle classes. Importantly, this effort was supported financially by the Popular Front governments of Spain and France. Barcelona offered a logical location because of Catalonia’s established history of using sport for identity building. The city also boasted a significant sporting infrastructure from its own clubs, past international exhibitions, and prior attempts to lure the official games. The Estadi de Montjuïc, for example, was less than a decade old. In these arguments, Stout underplays the importance of nationalist motives driving some of the organizers. The Barcelona middle class harbored a strong desire for international recognition.

Though most of the athletes came from Spain and France, Stout details the efforts to bring attendees from other western European countries, North America, and North Africa, who often represented groups that had faced repression. They included communist and Jewish athletes from Germany, women, and representatives of other Spanish regions like the Basque Country. Most competitors paid for their own travel (some from the US were subsidized by labor unions) and the hosts offered rooms in hotels, the stadium, and even private homes. Stout rightly emphasizes that idealism and internationalism ran through the entire organization. For example, athletes from every nation were mixed together in accommodations instead of dividing them by nations; the games included three times as many competitions for women as the Berlin Olympics, and even a 20 x 500m mass relay race for larger teams that would have forced non-runners into its competition. These plans were laudable and sought to put internationalism and equality into practice, although we can never be sure that they would have come to fruition. Since the games were only days from becoming reality when the civil war broke out, this is a story of a very near miss rather than an idealistic failure.

Stout wraps up his account with the poignant image of the orchestra rehearsing Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” the evening before the Opening Ceremonies, even as tensions rose and disparate reports of a military uprising began to trickle in. In the final chapter, he explores what happened to participants of all stripes when war broke out. Most sought a way home through what was now a war zone, some stayed and joined the forming militias, and a few eventually drifted into the International Brigades that were formed in October. Stout does well to focus on a few specific participants with stories he can tell, though the vast majority get lost in the chaos of history. He supplements these accounts by discussing who came to fight in the International Brigades and their ideological and national similarities with the athletes who came first. Overall, Stout’s is an innovative work that should be of great interest to readers of The Volunteer.

Andrew McFarland is an Associate Professor of History at Indiana University, Kokomo.