Petr RoubalSep 23, 2021
The Politics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia
Karolinum Press 2020
Today we are joined by Petr Roubal, Senior Researcher at the Institute of Contemporary History in the Czech Academy of Sciences, and author of Spartakiads: The Politics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia (Karolinum Press/Institute of Contemporary History, 2019). In our conversation, we discussed the genealogy of the Spartakiad gymnastics movement, the use of the Spartakiad during the Communist period and how those uses changed over time, and the reception of the Spartakiad by the Czech public.
In Spartakiads, Roubal argues that the Spartakiad can be seen as more than a communist ritual. It was also as a particular Czech nationalist celebration whose popularity made it a central feature of Czech society across the 20th century that resisted postwar Sovietization and subsequently became a costly endeavour for the socialist state.
He shows that the Spartakiad was not a sui generis development, but built upon the popular pre-war Sokol movement, one of the key institutions of Czech nationalism before the First World War. When the Communists took power, they had to deal with the popularity of the Sokol movement and its Slets. They attempted to introduce state socialist values into the gymnastics rituals, but their symbolic aims changed over time, especially after the Prague Spring and Normalization. The 1970 Spartakiad was the only time that the socialist state cancelled a Slet.
These festivals cost the state immensely in terms of money and time. Hundreds of thousands of participants and spectators needed to be accommodated, fed, and transported from villages, and towns across the country to Prague every five years. Yet, the benefits of the Spartakiad were far from clear and elites and the popular class resisted, adopted, adapted, and celebrated the Spartakiad. Indeed, the Spartakiad’s influence in Czech society and on the socialist state defy simple analysis and Roubal does not hesitate to bring the theories of Foucault, Bakhtin, and other critical theorists to help unpack the power of the movement.
Spartakiads: The Politics of Physical Culture in Communist Czechoslovakia is a rich analysis (and a fun read) about postwar socialist Czech society that will be of interest broadly, but especially to scholars of popular culture in postwar Europe and sports historians.
Keith Rathbone is a senior lecturer at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia. He researches twentieth-century French social and cultural history. His book, entitled Sport and physical culture in Occupied France: Authoritarianism, agency, and everyday life, (Manchester University Press, 2022) examines physical education and sports in order to better understand civic life under the dual authoritarian systems of the German Occupation and the Vichy Regime. If you have a title to suggest for this podcast, please contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him at @keithrathbone on twitter.