Sokol turns 155

Slavic group is known for synchronized gymnastics

The athletic and exercise organization Sokol is celebrating its 155th anniversary. It was established Feb. 16, 1862, by Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner. It took two years for the organizers to settle on the name Sokol, which means falcon. The original name was a bit less inspiring — Tělocvičná jednota pražská, or Prague Gymnastics Union.

The group not only promoted health through physical activity, but even though it was supposed to be above politics, it promoted a pan-Slavic agenda and to some extent Czech nationalism. As a result it as banned three times, during World War I, World War II and the communist era. It was re-formed after the Velvet Revolution.

The group still has a visible impact even though its current numbers are much lower than they had been at the group's peak. Most towns of any size and most urban neighborhoods have a Sokol building with exercise courts and sometimes a pool and sports fields. The buildings now usually serve as community centers.

Fügner financed the earliest Sokol buildings. He promoted members using informal grammatical greetings for one another and calling other members “brothers.” Tyrš came up with the motto “Tužme se,” roughly “Let's harden ourselves.” Both men shared similar views on civil liberties and social issues.

Tyrš came from a German-speaking family, but became involved in the early Czech nationalist movement when he was in school. Fügner also came from a German-speaking family.

Some contributions that Sokol made was to standardize Czech terminology for some sports and exercise. The group's early uniform that was a mix of Slavic and revolutionary sources such as brown Russian-style trousers, a Polish-style revolutionary jacket, a Montenegrin cap, and a red Garibaldi shirt. The Sokol flag was red with a white falcon. It was designed by writer Karolína Světlá and painted by Czech artist Josef Mánes.

The movement was known for large meetings with thousands of people performing synchronized gymnastics. The first all-Sokol gathering or “všesokolský slet” took place June 18, 1882 on Střelecký ostrov in Prague. Later ones in Prague were at the plain in Letná, and finally at Strahov Stadium, which opened in 1926 with wooden grandstands which were replaced by concrete ones in 1932. When it was built, the stadium was the largest in the world.

The Sokol movement peaked between the wars, and by 1930 had 630,000 members. The Sokols held their largest slet in 1938 with 350,000 members. The group was suppressed after that by the occupying German forces, and many leading members were killed.

After the Sokol movement was banned in communist Czechoslovakia, the synchronized gymnastics continued under a different name, Spartakiáda.

The movement also moved to Poland, Slovenia, Serbia, Bulgaria, Poland, Ukraine, Belarus and Croatia. Emigrants also took it to the United States and other countries. There are Sokol buildings in New York City and the Midwest, for example.

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