There must have been a thrill going through the bodies of the thousands of performers, varying in age but united as citizens of a communist country, when walking into the roaring stadium in Prague. A core memory was made for many during those days of performance, friendships and even some relationships sparked, but not all might have been as innocent as it looked.

In 1948, the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia. Seven years later, the first Spartakiad was held. A tradition was started, with Spartakiads taking place every five years. There would be five more Spartakiads held after 1955, except for 1970, when the Spartakiad was cancelled due to fear of the aftermath of revolutionary discontent that began after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968.

The first Spartakiad and its organisation

The Czechoslovak Spartakiads were held in the Strahov stadium in Prague, specifically altered to accommodate the hundreds of thousands of performers and spectators.

Due to the huge number of participants, organising the Spartakiads required meticulous logistical organisation. The first Spartakiad even resulted in the shortening of the school year so there would be enough time to rehearse the routines with all the participants present. After the initial 1955 Spartakiad, a five-year plan was set up, dedicating each year to a certain aspect of the organisation and logistics to make the event possible every five years. The performers began their training months in advance, having to pass through regional and national selection to perform in Prague. One of the organisers of the selection process for the 1955 Spartakiad, Štefan Pevný, remembers the cries of the performers and their teachers after not being selected to perform in Prague. Upon arriving in Prague, performers were housed in Prague schools, with the transportation in Prague collapsing under the huge numbers of participants.

The first Spartakiad was held in June as it was the climax of the celebrations of the tenth anniversary of Czechoslovakia being liberated by the Red Army. The opening ceremony of the Spartakiad involved hoisting the Czechoslovak and Soviet flags. A deep nostalgia is being felt towards the 1955 Spartakiad by those who witnessed it. To understand their feelings, it is important to understand the context of the time in which the 1955 Spartakiad took place. Stalin was dead for two years by then, approximately two thousand members of the former bourgeoisie and wealthy peasantry had been freed shortly before the Spartakiad took place, and the country’s industrialisation was prospering. As Alexander Dubček, later known for his policy of ‘socialism with a human face’, noted in his memoirs, Czechoslovakia was on its way out of deep totalitarianism. 

Historical reference

The Czechoslovak Spartakiads held from 1955 onwards were different from the Spartakiads held during the interbellum period. The latter is closely associated with Red Sport International, an auxiliary organisation of the Comintern, operating from 1921 to 1937. Both types are thus deeply related to communist ideals. However, the main difference was regarding the participants of these events. During the Czechoslovak Spartakiads, only members of the Czechoslovak population were able to perform, while during the so-called ‘international Spartakiad’ from the interbellum, also (foreign) performers allied to communist workers’ sports federations could participate. In this sense, the ‘international Spartakiad’ can be argued to be more comparable to the Olympic Games than the Czechoslovak Spartakiad. 

The first Czechoslovak Spartakiad was based on mass gymnastic movements, previously organised by Sokol Slets. The emergence of the Sokol is tied with the loosening of the tight grip that the Austrian-Hungarian empire had on the Czechs and the Slovaks living on the grounds of the empire. Besides the emergence of cultural, ethnic, and nationalist associations, clubs focused on physical well-being also emerged. The Sokol was one of the latter, but also supported the solidification of a national community, becoming the embodiment of the ideals of the Czechoslovak Republic. The Strahov stadium, used during the Spartakiads, was constructed to accommodate the Sokol Slets. After the Second World War, which left many of the Sokol leadership deceased, there was a popularity revival of the Sokol, but inadequate organising left room for the communists to take over. 

The communists then mimicked the Sokol Slets with the Spartakiad. It can be argued that with the organising of the Spartakiad, the communist regime was riding on the tradition of a movement it tried to suppress due to Sokol’s commitment to the nationalist feeling. The communist regime focused on making the population loyal to the regime. It is not surprising that the official newspaper of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia, Rudé právo, evaluated the Spartakiad as an ‘image of the ten-year-long effort of the Czechoslovak people’, while the radio Slobodná Európa (Free Europe) made its own, opposite, conclusion.

In light of communism

Following the first one from 1955, the Spartakiads all resembled each other in terms of choreography and decorations. In his book ‘Spartakiads: The politics of physical culture in communist Czechoslovakia’, Petr Roubal argues that this was done as an attempt to reassure the public of continuity and constancy.

Making the Spartakiad happen every five years brought many challenges, like ensuring there was enough food and housing for the performers. Despite this, the communist regime decided to maintain and ensure the continuance of the tradition of mass gymnastic movements. It can be argued that the communist regime did this in light of what is now known as ‘strategic communication’. Forbes concludes the following about a strategic communication plan: ’a strategic communications plan can help you communicate your message to the right people at the most opportune time ….you can put together a solid strategy that could drive more success for your business and bring about your desired results in less time.’ 

The Spartakiads can be seen as a tool of the communist regime to help communicate their doctrine to the population of Czechoslovakia. This is visible in their attempt to reassure continuity and consistency, which Petr Roubal writes about, and in the overall picture of presenting the fittest people working together as an oiled machine to the nation. The latter can be argued as a method of showing unity, harmony and the prospering of the country as also the kids, the next working generations, were presented. It can, therefore, also be argued that the communist regime used the Spartakiad as a presentation of its achievements and what the future held in its hands.

Conducting politics through sports 

Sports and politics have always been inherently connected with each other. A frequently witnessed but possibly not actively registered phenomenon underpinning this statement is competing in sports under the flag of the country one belongs to. Competition between countries points to a certain nationalism. States will send their best athletes to major events to make sure they stand a chance of winning a medal, thus showing other states that they are stronger. Some states even set up special programmes to ensure they have the best athletes. China, for example, has been criticised for its athletic schools, where children, sometimes as young as four years old, are forced to train to become the country’s future gold medallists. These children are often selected by scouts visiting schools and communities, a method that has also been used in formerly communist countries in Europe. Another example that shows the lengths states are willing to go to ensure that their athletes bring home a medal to showcase that they are better than other states is the Russian state-led doping program. This program was set up by the Russian Ministry of Sport after the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics when Russian officials believed their athletes did not collect a fulfilling number of medals.

The Spartakiad was another way, besides winning at major sporting events, to show the world that people in Czechoslovakia were living a healthy life. However, we now know that also in Czechoslovakia, there were numerous instances of state-run doping, with sometimes even the athletes not knowing they were administered steroids. 

In light of all this, the Spartakiad cannot be seen as something innocent. The communist party was using it as a way to make the population loyal to its regime, as well as a way to make the country look well-performing in the eyes of foreigners. It remains questionable to what extent this was a success as not even forty years after the first Spartakiad, the regime promoting the event fell down like a house of cards.

Picture by ilvic, via flickr.com