Sokol Slet: a celebration for Czechs and for everyone else

The 16th annual Sokol Slet (gathering) is taking place this week in Prague, bringing together not only Czechs, but also members from Sokol units all over the world. Morgan Childs spoke with some of these visitors to the Czech Republic to see what brought them to this year’s festivities.

Photo: Klára StejskalováPhoto: Klára Stejskalová Every six years, the All-Sokol Slet brings together members of the traditional Czech gymnastics organization for a grand-scale celebration in the capital city. Thousands of people descend upon Prague for a week of gymnastics performances and other sporting and cultural events, the first of which took place in 1882. This year, the 16th Slet happily coincides with the 100-year anniversary of the founding of Czechoslovakia.

For those who live in the country, the Slet presents an opportunity to foster national pride. Some 160,000 people across the Czech Republic count themselves as members of Sokol. But the event is also a chance for people of Czech origin living abroad to reconnect with their roots. At the opening-day parade this past Sunday, I spoke with a young woman representing the Australian arm of the organization, who was marching with her Czech-speaking grandmother.

Photo: Klára StejskalováPhoto: Klára Stejskalová "My name’s Annette Kasbah. I grew up in Canberra, in Australia; I live in Brisbane, in Australia now."

And how long have you been a member of Sokol?

"Since I was born, because Grandma’s the head of it in Australia."

Is this the first time you’ve been to Prague?

"No, no no no! So, it was at the end of the Communist time, in 1990, would have been our first time here as a family, and we’ve been coming every six years for the Slet ever since."

That’s amazing. And tell me what it’s like to be part of this kind of event.

"Pretty exciting. Because, you know, Czech is my heritage and so it’s lovely to come back and feel part of it every few years."

Photo: Melissa CastañoPhoto: Melissa Castaño And you said you spoke Czech. Have you always, since birth?

"Yes, yes, because my mother married a Czech man in Australia, and we were looked after by my grandparents when I was growing up, so we always spoke Czech at home."

And the Sokol community in Australia: Can you feel the Czech heritage, or is that something that’s just part of your family?

"A little bit of both. It is very small in Australia, so that’s why it’s so great to come back here and realize actually how huge it is worldwide."

Mike Drabka, whose grandmother immigrated to the United States from Czechoslovakia, has been a Sokol member since he was two years old. He now serves as the leader of a Sokol unit in Chicago, Illinois. I asked him if this was his first All-Sokol Slet.

Photo: Melissa CastañoPhoto: Melissa Castaño "I’ve been to 2000, 2006, 2012, and then this one."

And what does it mean to you to be here?

"Well, this is just amazing. The Sokol here for the Slet in Prague is just historic and it means so much, too, not only I know here, in this country, but it means so much to us abroad. I mean, this is what it means to be a Sokol, to be here, and helping you guys, you know, supporting it. And when you guys couldn’t have the Sokol from 1948 to 1989, we carried it on in America, and so it’s good that we’re bringing it back here."

Canadian Ivo Septak left Czechoslovakia in 1948 and started a family in Toronto, Canada. He told me that he became a Sokol member shortly after the Second World War and that he’d attended every Slet since 1989. I wanted to know what it was that brought him back every six years.

"Well, this is still our home, more or less. You know, we are still attached to Czechoslovakia or the Czech Republic because this is where our roots are. And we still sort of live a Czech life in Canada."

Photo: Melissa CastañoPhoto: Melissa Castaño What do you mean by that?

"Well, my wife cooks Czech food, we go to Czech clubs, we have our own activities as Czechs, we still live a life of segregation more or less. "

Not everyone who belongs to an international Sokol unit is celebrating their Czech heritage. I also spoke with a teacher of the Brazilian martial art Capoeira, who plans to perform with her group of 19 here in Prague.

"I’m Liva, I’m from Brazil, I live in Sao Paolo, and I’m here with the gymnastics group from Unica, it’s a university. They are from physical education, and we are also going to present capoeira, it’s a Brazilian fight, fight with dance, and we are going to do with gymnastics together."

And how long have you been a member of the organization?

"Since 2004."

Wow, that’s a long time.

"Yes! Long time."

Is this your first trip to Prague?

"Yes. And I think it’s one of the most beautiful cities I have ever seen in the world. It’s very beautiful. Wonderful. We say in Brazil, linda."