Calisthenics, communist style


Last year in this programme I played some archive recordings from the pre-war gatherings of the “Sokol” movement, which brought together tens of thousands of people in displays of mass gymnastics, all in an atmosphere of great patriotic fervour. After the war, the communists suppressed the Sokol movement as part of the old political order, instead staging their own spectacular calisthenics displays in honour of the Communist Party.

The first so-called Spartakiáda – named after the Spartacus Uprising of slaves in Ancient Rome - was held in 1955, to mark the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovakia’s liberation by the Red Army. A million gymnasts took part, performing in front of a total audience of two million. Among the guests was the French artist, Fernand Léger, who was enchanted by the whole thing, telling Czechoslovak Radio:

“My God, I have found a land of people well fed and full of joy…”

The Spartakiáda was then held every five years. 1970 was a notable exception, as the event was cancelled amid fears of protests against the Soviet-led invasion two years before. Ten years later the regime was once again as confident as ever, and the Spartakiáda that was held in July 1980 was again on a grand scale. Choreographed to the last detail, it opened with a series of deafening salvos, as President Gustav Husák took his place on the tribune of honour at Prague’s packed Strahov Stadium.

Then the gates opened and thousands of young gymnasts began to stream onto the field. The radio commentator waxed lyrical:

“The standard-bearers are followed by girls in snow-white vests and free-flowing long skirts, each bearing a bouquet of red flowers, girls as beautiful as brides, so graceful that the goddesses of Ancient Greece, guarding the sacred Olympic flame, would have envied them.”

For months, tens of thousands of people of all generations had been getting ready for the event, practicing songs and synchronized gymnastics:

“Yes – ‘left, right, left, right’ – sing the little children. Over 117,000 children from four to eight years old and hailing from all ends of the republic have been practicing this song. They wouldn’t all fit into the stadium, so we have just 3,840 children here from Prague and its surroundings. And they’re all marching beautifully in time, in neat rows of four, with their comrade teachers beside them in yellow tops and little white skirts.”

The event went on for several days, during which Prague virtually ground to a halt. The next Spartakiáda was in 1985 and preparations were well under way for another in 1990 – an event that was hastily cancelled with the fall of communism.

In January 1990, the Sokol movement, which for 40 years had been banned in Czechoslovakia, was once again made legal, and today it has nearly 200,000 members in the Czech Republic. Sokol organizations around the world continue to organize displays of calisthenics. The next big event will be held by American members of Sokol in Fort Worth, Texas, in June 2009.

The episode featured today was first broadcast on May 28, 2009.

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