The first ever Spartakiad mass exercise and how it was influenced by the Sokol movement

Spartakiad mass excercise in 1955, photo: Gender Sociologie

Tuesday marks the 65th anniversary since the first Spartakiad was held in Czechoslovakia. These mass synchronised exercise events were some of the largest the world has ever seen and took place on the specially built huge Strahov Stadium in Prague. A lesser known fact is that they were very much influenced by the older Sokol slet gatherings and were often organised with the help of Sokol leaders.

Petr Roubal, photo: Czech TV

It was June 23, 1955, and Czechoslovak President Antonín Zápotocky had just launched the first ever Spartakiad. The mass exercise would become a regular quinquennial event in socialist Czechoslovakia, and its images are often used when depicting the Communist regime. However, Spartakiads were in fact very much an adoption of a much older, Czech patriotic tradition of Sokol slets, says Dr Petr Roubal from the Czech Academy of Sciences who has written a book on the phenomenon.

“The Sokols were always behind the Spartakiads for simple practical reasons.

“Such a huge event, which involved a million people training for the Spartakiads and then hundreds of thousands of people performing at the biggest stadium in the world [in Strahov], was simply not possible to organise without the expertise of Sokols, who over the course of decades learned how to run these very complex events.

“This is something that the Communist regime learned the hard way when they were organising the 1955 Spartakiad and realised that they actually have no competence to successfully make this happen. The Communists had some experience with organising such events and were therefore able to realise it quite quickly.

Spartakiad mass excercise in 1955, photo: Archive of the National Museum in Prag

“Something like eight months before the event they changed track and recruited a number of Sokol organisers as well as changing the rhetoric to make it possible for Sokols to be part of it. That sort of ensured that the first Spartakiad was not a complete fiasco, even though there were some major hiccups in the organisation.”

It was not just the organisation in which the Sokols were deeply involved. Dr Roubal says that the idea of the Spartakiad was more influenced by the Sokol slets than any equivalent Soviet mass manifestation.

“In the Spartakiads we see a sort of dominant influence of the Sokol tradition. In the first two Spartakiads we also see quite a strong influence of the sort of Soviet style of celebrations and performances. However, Sokol is definitely far more important in the shaping of the event.

Spartakiad mass excercise in 1955, photo: ČT24

“We can actually quite easily prove that, because the archives show how Soviet experts are coming to Prague to see the Sokol slets and later Spartakiads in order to learn how they should manage their own performances. Spartakiads are actually not a Soviet import, because nothing like that was taking place on this massive scale in the USSR.

“We see synchronised movement in the USSR as well, but these were ways to frame other events. For example, at the opening of the Olympic Games in 1980 in Moscow, there was this sort of synchronised exercising before that or in the closing ceremony. However, in the case of the Spartakiad, a massive event is centred specifically on synchronised exercising.”

The last Sokol slet in 1948

It is estimated that 1.7 million practitioners took part in the first Spartakiad, including soldiers, children and workers. But why did it take so long for the Communist Party to harness the potential of a tradition that had been around since the mid-19th century in the Sokol form? Dr Roubal explains.

“The interaction between Sokol and the Communist Party was very complex.

“In a nutshell, what happened was that, after World War Two, the Communist tried to incorporate all sorts of physical education movements into Sokol and hope that they could manage Sokol under their own terms. However, Sokol resisted that pressure and organised the last Sokol slet in 1948 which was clearly an anti-Communist demonstration.

“Most of the Sokol leaders were not Communist and were in fact very much opposed to it as something imported from the east. This was quite a shock for the new Communist government when they saw that, just a few of months after their putsch, there is this organisation which can bring hundreds of thousands of people together to actively express their resistance to Communism.

“The Communists’ reaction was that they dissolved Sokol and completely moved away from this style of performances. They focused on the Sovietisation of physical education, competitive performances and training for Olympic Games.

Klement Gottwald and Joseph Stalin, photo: National Archives, Wikimedia Commons, CC0

“This is, I believe, very closely connected to the cult of personality. They imitated the cult of personality in the sporting arena. However, that changed after the death of Joseph Stalin and Czechoslovak President Klement Gottwald in 1953. Suddenly, there was a vacuum there that needed to be filled. The cult of the leader without the leader is difficult to maintain and the Communist regime was searching for new forms of political representation and political rituals.

“The Sokol tradition, the most important ritual of the First Republic, was quite logically at hand, an available tradition that they could appropriate. So quite shortly after Gottwald’s death in 1953, it was decided that the Sokol slets would be renewed under the title of the ‘Spartakiad’.”

Photo: STN

The 1955 Spartakiad was perceived largely as a success by the Sokol movement members aborad as quite a good imitation of the earlier Sokol slets. However, making this happen was a stressful affair for many functionaries, say Dr Roubal.

“I studied this in the archives, so I also saw the desperation of the organisers and the Communist leadership. They saw how badly it was managed in comparison to the previous Sokol slets. Very important parts of the organisation were not ready until just hours before the event.

“For example, the closing ceremony, a major part of the first Spartakiad, had to be cancelled all together and replaced by a performance which therefore took place twice. So, some major organisational problems emerged which were later managed far better.

Source: Olympia Sport

“However, it was a success, because it managed to imitate the Sokol slets and incorporate a large part of the Sokol movement into the state physical education system.”

With the exception of 1970, the Spartakiads would take place every five years until 1990, when the event was renamed as the “Prague Sports Games”. Originally planned to be the largest Spartakiad yet, it would end up being the last, to the disappointment of many of those who had been eagerly training for their moment in the spotlight. Dr Roubal says that the end of the Spartakiads was not just a consequence of the Velvet Revolution, but a shift in cultural values and a decision by the Sokols themselves.

“The Spartakiads were becoming quite a part of the daily routine of many people, especially from the countryside. They no longer saw these events as ideologically charged. They wanted to take part in this event, which they saw as a tradition of Sokol performances. It was of course a very enjoyable, as well as providing the opportunity to spend a week or two in Prague. They saw no reason for why this should be cancelled due to politics. Many of them actually compared the situation to 1970 when the Spartakiad was canceled by the Communist Party for political reasons.

Spartakiad mass excercise in 1985, photo: TV Nova

“However, I think that this is quite a narrow perspective of people who were actively taking part in exercising. I think that, during the 1970s and 1980s, society moved quite far away from this type of cultural practice. Individualism became the main cultural principle and Spartakiads are the furthest apart from that.

“Therefore, it was quite unlikely that this massive event would be possible to organise in changed economic and political conditions. The last nail in the coffin to the Spartakiads was hammered in by the Sokol movement, which decided that they want to organise their own events and do not want to be associated with the 1990 Spartakiad. Once this political support was removed it was pretty obvious that this massive event, which was also very expensive, will take place in new democratic conditions.”