Spartakiades and Strahov Stadium: Athletic Roots in Prague

Every five years, during the communist regime, mass gymnastics events called Spartakiades were held in Prague. Spartakiades were not an invention of the communist regime, but a continuation of the Sokol movement, traditional sporting events that began in Prague in 1862. The principle of this movement was to promote a strong mind in a healthy body. They organized not only gymnastics exercises but also lectures and discussions, initially only for men and only later included women. The Strahov Stadium hosted these events. It was purpose-built with a capacity of 250.000 spectators. Today, it is in a sorry state and waiting for redevelopment.


The Sokol Movement

The Sokol (Czech for falcon) movement was originally a sports organization that arranged mass sporting events, the so-called slety (Czech for swarm): rhythmic gymnastics shows. These gatherings kept getting bigger and could be compared to the Olympic Games. Banned by the Nazis and the Communists, these slety were reinstated after the Velvet Revolution in 1989.

From the very start, activities included lectures, discussions and group outings and provided the Czechs with physical, moral and intellectual training. Initially, only for men of all ages and classes, and eventually for women as well. The movement also expanded to Slovakia, Poland, Croatia and other countries. Czechs who emigrated to Australia, Canada and the United States set up Sokol in their new homelands. Today, the organization has more than 152,000 members worldwide.

Sokol manifestations were not about individual achievements, or about competition, but about healthy life and togetherness. A spectator should have the feeling of belonging, instead of just being impressed. The communists worried about this ‘feeling of belonging’ as it did not fit in their ideology. There often was tension between the Communist Party and the Sokol organization, since Sokol is a movement from the people. That’s why the Communists came up with Spartakiadas, sports events that could be compared to the Olympic Games.

Strahov Stadium

In 1926, the Strahov Stadium was purpose-built, and hosted the gymnastics performances which were held every six years. The largest gathering took place in 1938 just before the Second World War. Three hundred thousand Sokol members participated and there were more than two million spectators.

Sokol during the wars

Sokol members were active in World War I in the Czech Legions, which fought alongside Allies against the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Sokol members were also active in the resistance during the Nazi occupation. In 1941, a large number of members were arrested, and the movement was disbanded. Most of those arrested were taken to Terezín concentration camp. Sokol members were also active in the Prague Uprising of 1945 that ended with the withdrawal of the Germans. A day later the Red Army marched in.


8 October: Sokol Remembrance Day

On 8 October, 1941, Reinhard Heydrich Reichsprotektor of Bohemia and Moravia commanded the Gestapo to arrest 1.500 members of the Sokol movement. The detainees were taken to concentration camps and a few days later the organization was banned. Every year, the Sokol movement, both in the Czech Republic and abroad, commemorative ceremonies and sporting events are held on this day. The Sokol flag also flies on town halls and Sokol buildings.

Sokol and Slety

When walking in Prague, you will find on buildings the word ‘Sokol’ or ‘TJ Sokol’. TJ is the abbreviation of telocvicne jednota which means: physical exercise association. Sokol started as a ‘stay healthy’ club and grew into a movement that involved sports as well as lectures, discussions and group outings. The aim was to strengthen the national feeling through gymnastics events. Sokol meetings and slety became more and more massive and also more international. In 1938, there were 230,000 participants in the slety held at the Strahov Stadium in Prague.

Photo: Sokol meeting in 1912


Sokol Commemoration Book

Sokolské slety (published in 1948) is an informative and commemorative book about the last Sokol gathering in 1948. The Communists banned the Sokol manifestations and replaced them by Spartakiades (spartakiády), completely different from Sokol gatherings because these Spartiakiades served propaganda purposes.

Sokol Commemoration book: Cover and photos
Courtesy Ruth Kopecky


Spartakiade of 1955

The very first Spartakiade took place on 23 June 1955 at the Strahov Stadium in Prague. Synchronized gymnastics stood central. The event was divided into Youth Day, Adult Day, Trade Union Day and Armed Forces Day. There were also some competitive sports, tourist events and the Spartakiade Festival of Folk Art Creativity.

This first Spartakiade was held to commemorate the liberation of Czechoslovakia by the Soviet army in 1945, ten years earlier. Thereafter, Spartakiades were held every five years until 1985, interrupted in 1970 due to political tensions following the Warsaw Pact in 1968.
Preparations for the first Spartakiad began as early as 1953, shortly after the deaths of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin and Czechoslovak leader Klement Gottwald. The Spartakiad was grandly designed to surpass earlier sokol gatherings. As a result the number of participants was an impressive 1,690,000 whereas the sokol meeting in 1938 had ‘only’ 230,000 participants.

Strahov Stadium

The Strahov Stadium is immense, inside are 8 soccer fields. It is so large that the entire Castle complex would fit within. Built in 1926 for the Sokol, the stadium hosted rhythmic gymnastics shows. It is situated on the west side of Petřín Hill. To reach it, you walk past twelve apartment blocks (on Vanickova Street), prime examples of ‘panelaky’, prefabricated buildings. They were built to lodge the participants of the Spartakiades. Today they are student accommodation.

The last Spartakiade at Strahov Stadium took place in 1990. Since then, it was the venue for pop and rock concerts. Bands like Pink Floyd, Rolling Stones and U2 performed for large audiences.

Strahov Stadium is falling into a state of ruin, but it is on the list of cultural monument and therefore cannot be pulled down. At the moment, some of the fields are used for football training and other sports. The City of Prague owns the building and is figuring out what to do with the venue.

One of the plans is to create a new museum: Museum of the 20th Century Totalitarianism. One of the problems is that the estimated cost of refurbishing the stadium will cost CKZ 1.2 billion (€44m), the new museum is not included in those costs.

If you would like to see Prague’s past glory, a trip to Strahov Stadium is worthwhile. If you are lucky some of the gates will be open and you peek inside. In front of the stadium is a sculpture of Zdeněk Němeček: Poselstvi, (message). As the stadium is on Petrin Hill, another reason for your visit is view of the Old Town and beyond.


Zdeněk Němeček (1931-1989) was a Czech sculptor and is best known for his sports-related sculptures. He was strongly influenced by the Italian sculptor Giacomo, a fervent communist and a devout Catholic. His work ‘poselství’ stands in front of the Strahov Stadium in Prague. A very funny work of his is ‘Sputnik’, a children’s slide that can be seen in a private garden in the Baba district. More about Baba.


Getting there

Strahov Stadium, Vanickova 5, Brevnov, Praag
Public transport: tram 22 Malovanka stop

Related articles:
Traces of Communist Past in Prague
Communist ideology and everyday life in Prague

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