chapter  6
27 Pages

The body of the nation: the Czechoslovak Spartakiades from a gender perspective


The human body is the most potent political symbol. Paradoxically, the power of its symbolism, as Mary Douglas showed, is in its seemingly apolitical nature, its rootedness in the world of unchanging natural phenomena, as well as in its symmetry and duality (Douglas 1978: 115; Mangan 1999: 11). While the symbolism of the human body has been endlessly explored from all possible angles, the symbolism of a multitude of bodies still presents a major challenge. From a gender perspective, this is especially true because individuals in the crowd lose not only their individuality, but also their bodies and, with them, their gender markers. The matter is further complicated by the fact that the organized crowd, as a genderless geometrical formation, is often used to portray the single ‘body’ of a nation (Arnold et al. 1998; Rainey 1998; Bredekamp 2003; Roubal 2003; Goltermann 2004). This chapter looks at the evolution of one figuration of human collectivity, the mass gymnastic performances that became a key genre of political representation in Central Europe from the 1860s until the fall of communism. Due to the specific historical circumstances in which nationalism was conceived and practised in Central Europe in the nineteenth century, in particular the absence of a unified national state, there emerged a specific genre of imagining the national community through the synchronized movements of thousands of (male) bodies. The common movements of the gymnasts symbolized the unity of will and the living force of the nation in the historical situation when other forms of representations were neither available nor permitted. This was particularly true for the German gymnastic Turner movement whose style of exercising and festivities, called Turnfests, became a model copied first by the Czechs, who then inspired other nations of Eastern Europe (Roubal 2006a: 92-5). The Czech version of Turners was called Sokol (Falcon) and became a crucial part of the national emancipation movement presenting itself in gymnastic festivities called Slety (Slet in singular; a gathering of birds in English) that attracted dozens of thousands of active participants and spectators. These Slets established themselves as a genre of representing the national community, which then was eagerly embraced also by the communist regimes after the Second World War, because the uniform movement of thousands of gymnasts resonated with a number of Marxist ideological tenets, in particular the stress on collective rather

than individual action. In other Eastern Bloc countries the mass gymnastic displays were usually a part of a larger event, such as May Day parades, but in Czechoslovakia they became the sole focus of the country’s ideologically most important ritual, the spartakiáda (henceforth I will use the anglicized term ‘the Spartakiade’).2 This chapter will discuss the Czechoslovak Spartakiades from a gender perspective, considering the role of gender in attempts to represent the socialist nation through synchronized physical exercises. Through a focus on expert discourse, media representations and actual performances at the stadium, the text will examine the changes that this visual representation underwent vis-à-vis gender. It will first consider the gender model of the Sokol Slets that emerged as a response to the emancipatory efforts of leading female trainers and how this model was radically transformed during the early years of communist rule, especially for the 1955 Czechoslovak Spartakiade. It will then discuss the gradual return to the original Sokol model during the 1960s and, finally, it will consider the shift to traditional family values in the two last decades of Czechoslovak communism after the Soviet-led invasion in 1968.