Prague will be the venue of a very Czech event this weekend, namely the Sokol slet. 25,000 members of the Sokol organization will come together for a variety of mass calisthenics performed in Prague's huge Strahov stadium. The event is the result of a year of training for various groups of people - from primary school pupils to pensioners. And it is an attempt to bring back an old national tradition, which Olga Szantova says, has not been easy.
That march, composed by Frantisek Kmoch, is called Following the Sokol Flag and is one of dozens of Sokol marches, all composed at the time of the organization's heyday. Sokol was founded in 1862 as a sports organization, but it has always stressed all-round fitness, morality, and, above all, patriotism - the most progressive ideals of the time of national awakening which spread throughout Europe in the middle of the 19th century.
For Czechs, under Austrian domination until the end of the First World War, Sokol was extremely important. The organization spread rapidly throughout Bohemia and Moravia, and Sokol halls sprang up like mushrooms. And to demonstrate national unity, members started coming together for their slets, to perform the same gymnastics they had been practicing back home.
Sokols played an important role in creating an independent Czechoslovak state. Later, in 1938 the Sokol slet was a major demonstration against the threats presented by Nazi Germany and many Sokol members consequently lost their lives in the resistance movement during the years of occupation.
The 1948 Sokol slet, held just a few months after the communist takeover, turned into the biggest demonstration against the onset of yet another dictatorship. The government soon banned the organization and replaced the slets with mass performances called the Spartakiada. Participation in the Spartakiada was compulsory for students and soldiers, but others who took part won the instant approval of the communist authorities.
All of which discredited the whole idea to such an extent that after the Velvet Revolution and 40 years of inactivity Sokol has had a tough time trying to continue its work. It's still popular with Czechs living abroad. But whether Sokol has the strength to renew its activities back home in the Czech Republic remains to be seen. This weekend's slet is part of that effort.
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