A brief look at the history of the Czech Olympic movement

19-01-2005

All of us are familiar with the Olympic Games and its many moments of sweet victory, captured in time, that slowly form part of the patchwork of nations' collective identities. There are Czechs who will never forget the feats of runners like Emil Zatopek and his triple triumph in Helsinki. "Less than 200 metres to go it's Zatopek in front! Zatopek wins...what a beautiful race!" Others will always remember gymnast Vera Caslavska's seven gold. Most recently, a whole generation will never forget 1998's stunner at Nagano, in which the Czechs downed the Russians in the ice hockey final to take the highest prize. "In the middle of the third and... gooaaaaal! It's a goal from defenceman Petr Svoboda! The Czechs lead 1-0!"

But, the Olympics are more than just about sport, they are also about spirit: as a movement the Olympics have very deep roots in Bohemia, going back more than 100 years. The Czech Olympic Committee was founded way back in 1899. According, to Olympics specialist and historian Frantisek Kolar, the Czechs had very close ties to the Olympics modern founder, Pierre de Coubertin - largely thanks to one man.

"The founding of the Czech Olympic movement, in a way, is a story of incredible luck. In 1891, Jiri Guth the head of physical education at a high school in the south Bohemian town of Klatovy - befriended de Coubertin while on a study trip to Paris. The two became life-long friends, and de Coubertin would urge Guth to help found an Olympic committee for his people. De Coubertin had a lot of respect for Czechs after seeing Czech gymnasts clinch the three top spots at the first international gymnastics meet in 1889. After that he thought the Czechs unusually talented in sport."

De Coubertin invited Guth to take part in the congress founding the first Olympic Games, but initially the Czech failed to grasp the importance of the emerging Olympics movement, and didn't attend. It was only after seeing the final ceremony at the first modern games in Athens that he realised his mistake. Seeing individual nations' flags raised high, he gained new appreciation for the Games' enormous political impact.

"As you know, at the time the Czechs did not have their own country, so for them to be able to participate in the Games - as Czechs - had enormous symbolic potential. Guth returned home and took steps towards founding a permanent Olympic Committee that would oversee all Czechs in sport. Initially athletes competed along lines of ethnicity, rather then state, which meant that Czechs were able to compete as Czechs in the first years of the Games. That lasted until 1914, when the rules were changed to the ones we've had ever since. After 1914, as now, athletes must represent their state, regardless of their ethnic background."

With the outbreak of World War I, Guth and others were eventually pressured into dissolving the Czech Olympic Committee or risk being branded disloyal to the Austro-Hungarian Empire. It was a move De Coubertin never recognised, and after the war, just three days after Czechoslovakia was founded, the Committee was reinstated. It was the beginning of a new chapter in Czech Olympic history.

"The committee was named to fully represent the newly-emerged state: a state not just of Czechs and Slovaks but also ethnic Hungarians and Sudeten Germans. Now the committee would represent them all."

But, things would not be ideal for long: the rise of Hitler's Germany in the '30s spurred unrest on Czechoslovakia's borders, and Sudeten German athletes longed to represent the Nazi state, not least because the 1936 Summer Olympics were to be held in Berlin. Not surprisingly, the Czechs were dead against, and the International Olympic Committee also resolutely rejected the ethnic Germans' request. In the end, the Czech Germans were left no choice but to compete for Czechoslovakia, though they apparently wore emblems on their uniforms displaying loyalty to Germany. The emblem, Frantisek Kolar says was a green fir branch.

Just a few years later Czechoslovakia no longer existed: Bohemia and Moravia were under occupation, under the Nazi Protectorate, while Slovakia had become an independent Fascist state.

Interestingly, as late in the day as 1939 Jiri Guth received an invitation to attend an IOC meeting in London. Guth wanted to attend and asked the German authorities if he could depart. At first he was told he could leave, but soon after the matter was consulted with Hitler himself.

Frantisek Kolar says in the end the dictators' aides persuaded Hitler not to let the Czech representative go, since it would only fuel Czech nationalist resistance to the Nazis' plans. Within two years the Czech Olympic Committee would be dissolved again, though once again not for long.

"After the Second World War the committee was reinstated and set about lobbying for the Soviet Union to become part of the Olympic family. The irony is that after the communists came to power in Czechoslovakia in 1948, they demoted the Olympic Committee by making it just part of centrally-run sports organisations. It was no longer an independent body."

At the same time, the communists like others before them recognised the value of the Olympic Games.

"After 1948 the communists used the Olympic Games to showcase their own successes, saying look at runner Emil Zatopek, who had been a boy from a poor background who worked his way up through diligence and hard work. The communists saw him as an ideal representative. The irony is that in 1952 Zatopek almost didn't compete. After a fellow athlete, Stanislav Jungwirth, was struck from the Olympics roster for political reasons, Zatopek famously dug in his heels and said if Jungwirth couldn't take part, neither would he. And of course he succeeded: both were allowed to go in the end and of course Zatopek won three gold medals""

More than fifty years have passed since then, and following 1989 the Czech Olympic Committee was restored to full authority. Today it is more dedicated than ever and Czechs can still boast some of the best athletes in the world in both winter and summer sport. After re-electing its long-time president last week, the Czech Olympic Committee will now hope to try and secure one thing: the Olympic Summer Games in Prague for either 2016 or 2020.

19-01-2005