Dissatisfied with the lack of dedication to the communist cause of the socialist SASI (Sozialistische Arbeiter Sport Internationale or International Socialist Workers’ Sport) (see Workers’ Olympiad), on 23 July 1921 Nikolay Podvoysky founded the International Association of Red Sports and Gymnastics Associations, better known as the Sportintern or Red Sport International (RSI). Within a few years, it had attracted members from outside the Soviet Union, and had been recognized by the Communist International (Comintern). In 1928, it organized the first Spartakiad, intended as a proletarian alternative for the Olympic Games held in Amsterdam that same year. This name was a combination of Olympiad and Spartacus, the leader of a major slave rebellion in the first century B.C., who had become a heroic figure for Communist and Socialist organizations.

Although most of the participants in the event were from the Soviet Union, there were delegations from 14 other nations, twelve from Europe, as well as Algeria and Uruguay. In 1930, RSI decided to hold a second Spartakiad in Berlin, as a counter-manifestation to the socialist 2nd Workers’ Olympiad that would be held in Vienna in 1931. But it was marred by organizational troubles. After suffering difficulties with venues and passport issues for the invited Soviet guests, a new law made political manifestations illegal (as these frequently amounted to violence). In the end, some sport competitions were held, although illegally, but it could hardly be called international. This also signalled the beginning of the end for the RSI, and it was eventually disbanded in 1937. The Spartakiads did not die, however, and throughout the 1930s the word was tacked onto many different kinds of local and national sport manifestations throughout the Soviet Union. After the Soviet Union started competing in the Olympic Games in 1952, the Spartakiad became a national multi-sport festival held approximately every four years, and often featuring international competitors from Eastern Bloc nations. These Spartakiads were held 10 times between 1956 and 1991, with seven winter editions staged between 1962 and 1990.