The Sokol physical exercise organisation, founded in 1862 during the Czech national revival, is one of the oldest associations of its type in the world. Plans have just been announced for the 14th Vsesokolsky Slet (All-Sokol Meeting), a gigantic gathering which takes place every six years. Eighteen thousand people are due to take part in the 2006 Slet, which is being held in the first week of July at the Evzen Rosicky stadium at Prague's Strahov. The modern era of Sokol began with its revival after the fall of communism; I spoke to the organisation's Dr Vladimir Dostal and began by asking him: what shape is it in today?
"We are talking 15 or 16 years after the Velvet Revolution, so Sokol is now a very popular and I think one of the greatest sports and sports for all organisations. We mustn't forget that it's also a cultural organisation. At this time we have approximately 200,000 members."
Around a tenth of them are going to participate in July in the Sokol Slet, or Meeting. How often is the Slet held and how important is it to the movement?
"Traditionally the slets are organised or have been organised in six-year periods: the last one was held in 2000, now in 2006 we have organised the 14th one...We are talking about the great mass of our members, we mustn't forget the rest of those who don't participate.
"But anyway, it's a certain milestone for our movement; thousands of gymnasts are preparing, not only for the Slet at Strahov but for regional, district and other smaller slets, which will be held before the Slet at Strahov."
A couple of years ago I visited the London Sokol - I'm interested how many branches of Sokol there are outside the Czech Republic, and how many members are you expecting to come here in July for the next meeting?
"We expect good participation from abroad, mainly from the Sokols from the states with traditional Sokol organisations - I am talking about American Sokol, Canadian Sokol, as well as from Western Europe, namely Sokol Paris, Sokol Vienna, and the Serbian or Slovenian Sokol for example.
"Besides that we expect participants from non-Sokol countries, such as Spain, Portugal, Brazil and many others."
Sokol has been in existence for almost 150 years. What does the future hold for the organisation? And is there enough interest from young people today to sustain the movement?
"Sometimes the general public thinks that Sokol is only a traditional movement for old people, for seniors, the reality is different. I don't know the percentage exactly, but a great percentage of our members are young people."
For more information go to www.sokol-cos.cz/COS/sokol_en.nsf.
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