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A collective form of physical exercise and gymnastics established in 19th-century Czech and Slavic society, founded in Prague in 1862 by Miroslav Tyrš (1832–84) and Jindˇrich Fügner (1822–65). Tyrš had an academic background in aesthetics and enthused about ancient Greek physical culture and education, also writing a book entitled Olympic Homage before Pierre de Coubertin had established his Olympic project in the 1890s. Sokol is the term for both the place at which exercises were practised, and the associated teachings that were promulgated in journals, discussions, lectures, excursions, and performances, and the movement was influenced by the Turnen movement initiated by German Prussian Jahn. Although the Sokol was proclaimed as an apolitical institution of civil society, it expressed nationalist values and aspirations in training programmes and events that included young people from all social backgrounds, and, from the 1890s, women as well as men. ‘Sokol’ derives from the Czech word for ‘falcon’, and the periodic large-scale mass gatherings of the many Sokol (first staged in 1882) were called ‘Slets’, the Czech word for a flock of birds; this complementary imagery captured the strong individual creature's immersion in a bigger collective whole taking flight. In this way, the mass gatherings of Sokol contributed to the soaring development of Czech nationalism, and also assumed a militaristic dimension. Uniformed young people were trained in marching, fencing, and weightlifting; the uniforms combined revolutionary motifs from various countries, as well as a red shirt inspired by Italian revolutionary leader Giuseppe Garibaldi (1807–82).

A union of Sokol clubs was permitted by the authorities of the ruling Habsburg Empire in 1887. In 1889, in defiance of these authorities, some members of the Prague Sokol participated in the World's Fair in Paris, establishing relations with other gymnastic movements. Internal disputes pitted working-class interests against established middle-class influence, and participatory modes of performance against competition; extreme forms of ethnic purity were also claimed by some Sokols in the early 20th century, when opposing the Workers' Gymnastic Club established by Social Democrats—these latter were vilified as ‘Jews’ or ‘Germans’ threatening the true national Czech cause. The Sokols were disbanded at the onset of World War I, though members performed paramilitary functions during the formation of the Czechoslovak nation at the end of the war. Two Slets were held in the inter-war period, and 350,000 Sokols attended the last one in 1938, but then Nazi occupation suppressed the movement. Suppression was also the policy of the communist regime after World War II, which aimed to replace the Slet with the Soviet model of the Spartakiad. Slets have, though, survived but on a much smaller scale than in their earlier history, being revived periodically at distinctive political moments, such as the Prague Spring in 1968, and the mid 1990s after the fall of communism.

Subjects: Sport and Leisure.

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