Czech sports organization celebrates 150 years | Europe| News and current affairs from around the continent | DW | 16.07.2012
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Czech sports organization celebrates 150 years

The Czech sports organization Sokol is celebrating its 150th birthday this month. Formed in the 19th century to help foster a national identity, it was banned on several occasions during the 20th century.

Four-year-olds learn simple exercises in a Sokol gymnasium in Czechoslovakia in the 1930's

Four-year-olds learn simple exercises in a Sokol gymnasium in Czechoslovakia in the 1930's

At a state-of-the-art sports stadium in the suburbs of Prague, the crowd claps and cheers as legions of elderly Sokol members file onto the field. There follows an impressive display of swinging arms and marching feet, resplendent in smart white and navy blue uniforms - all of it part of just one event to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Sokol this month.

The participants are Sokol veterans - people who belonged to the sports and gymnastics organization before it was banned by Communists in 1948, some even from before it was banned by the Nazis a decade earlier. Olga Erbenova, 73 years old, attended the very last post-war Sokol mass meeting in 1948.

"It was in Prague, in 1948," Erbenova recalls. "It was just a few months after the Communists came to power but you could already feel the atmosphere of the totalitarian regime closing in. It was clear that this was the end for us Sokols."

A mix of ages

Olga had to wait four decades for the organization to be reformed before she could attend the next slet, or mass Sokol meeting in 1990. The Sokol continues to hold an important significance for her today.

"The Sokol gives me ... health, that's the main thing obviously, but also a great group of friends, male and female," says Erbenova. "There's everyone here from little kids to old people, one of the gymnasts today is more than 90 years old."

"The Sokol taught people to be patriotic, both during the Second World War and afterwards, even though the Communist era was tough for us," Erbenova notes. "But in 1990 we managed to bring it back to life, and today you can see the result from the people around us - from the youngest athletes to the oldest."

Various comebacks

Aerial view of the sports stadium in Prague during a Sokol gymnastic event in April, 1938

Aerial view of the sports stadium in Prague during a Sokol gymnastic event in April, 1938

The Sokol - which means "falcon" in Slavic languages - was founded back in the 19th century, as Czech national feeling began to stir in what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

It was eventually banned by the crumbling Hapsburg monarchy, but not before spawning similar movements throughout the Slavic world. The organization enjoyed massive popularity after the creation of Czechoslovakia in 1918. At its peak it had 600,000 members.

Suppressed again during the Nazi occupation, with many Sokol members ending up in concentration camps for their fiercely pro-Czech and anti-German views, it briefly re-emerged after the liberation of Czechoslovakia in 1945 before being shut down again by the Communists, who were keen to replace it with something more socialist.

Stiff competition

After 1990, however, it emerged again, although its blend of patriotism and physical fitness can appear slightly outdated to some. To others, it's enticing - although most members today are much younger than Olga Erbenova. The thousands of children and teenagers who belong to their local Sokol are attracted more by the sports facilities than the nationalist and patriotic rhetoric, which has taken something of a back seat. Not all of the older Sokol members think that's a good thing, says a different Olga - Olga Malcikova of Prosterov, Moravia.

"Today's children, today's young people, they're not brought up to feel patriotic. It's got to start at school, in the family," says Malcikova. "Being patriotic has gone out of fashion."

Nowadays, people go to a gym simply to exercise, notes Malcikova, and view the Sokol as a bit irrelevant. The younger generation pokes fun at older Sokol members.

But Malcikova has her own opinion of the younger crowd. "They get their muscles from those energy drinks they drink, but that's not sport in my opinion," she says. "Kids have to be brought up from a young age to believe in sport and patriotism. To be honest, I don't know where the world is heading. It's going downhill in my opinion."

There's no doubt the organization is struggling to compete for the attention of a generation intoxicated with smartphones and social networks - and in a Czech society which is increasingly multi-cultural thanks to globalization. Terms such as "patriotism" and "nationhood" sound almost comically anachronistic in 2012; certainly the Sokol has nowhere near the numbers of before the war. But 150 years later it is still here - which, given the trials and tribulations of the 20th century, is in itself an achievement.

Author: Rob Cameron, Prague / als
Editor: Joanna Impey

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