Sokol: a loyal ally of sport and Czech nationalism

Sokol´s flag of Prague, that bears the motto: “let us harden ourselves”, by Josef Mánes. Source:


In the 19th century, nationalism was on the rise in the Old Continent, leading to several revolts and protests against monarchs and rulers in the latter half of the century. The Austrian Empire consisted of different nations, some of which viewed Germanic influence as an obstacle to their national development.

For this and other reasons, Miroslav Tyrš, a graduate in Philosophy from Charles University of Prague, believed that a strong nation, both physically and mentally, was necessary within the empire. To achieve this goal, Tyrš concluded that physical and collective exercise would be vital in strengthening this Slavic nation.

In this context, in February 1862, Miroslav Tyrš and his friend Jindřich Fügner, a businessman who supported Czech nationalism, founded the oldest physical education organisation in the country. Two years later they renamed it Sokol, meaning falcon in English, and it played a major role in the development of the Czech nation.

First falcon flights

Miroslav Tyrš. Source:

Kateřina Pohlová, a representative of Sokol, explains that Miroslav Tyrš, who was also a professor of art history at Charles University in Prague, was a great admirer of Greek philosophy. He understood that the health and beauty of the body could not be without the development of the mind and vice versa, both individually and collectively. In fact, the word sokol means falcon in English. According to Pohlová, the word was used in Slavic countries, especially in the South, to mean a strong and healthy person, hence the name of the sports organisation. In addition to Tyrš, his friend and businessman Jindřich Fügner also defended the Czech cause. Thus, Pohlová states: “Tyrš provided the ideas and Fügner the money”.

Jindřich Fúgner. Source:

But what was happening in the Czech lands at that time that led to the rise of nationalism? As mentioned at the beginning, in the 19th century there were several revolts against various European kings and emperors demanding, among other things, an end to the absolute monarchies brought back by the Restoration. In the case of the Austrian Empire, the 1848 protests also had a nationalist character, as the Habsburg Crown consisted of Austrians, Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, Romanians, Croats, Serbs, Slovenes, and Italians. These revolts called for reduced control by Vienna over the various nations that formed the vast empire.

As a result of these protests, the Habsburgs worked for years to introduce new measures granting citizens more freedom. In fact, from 1848 to 1860 various laws on freedom of association and trade unions[1] were studied and implemented, paving the way for the establishment of Sokol in 1862. Additionally, between 1860 and 1866, Hungary gained increasing autonomy and recognition within the Habsburg Monarchy, which set the stage for the dualism of the empire in 1867. However, when Austria-Hungary was established, a major difference between Vienna and Budapest emerged: Austria declared itself a multinational state, while Hungary declared itself a Hungarian nation-state. Therefore, the nations or peoples that were under Magyar rule could hardly develop culturally[2]. For this reason, Sokol did not widely spread to Slovakia until the birth of Czechoslovakia in 1918, as it was located in Hungarian or Magyar territory.

Austro-Hungarian empire. Wikipedia

Once Vienna had allowed such associations, Sokol could be established in the Czech Lands. As a sports organisation, Sokol promoted physical activity and, importantly, teamwork. According to Pohlová, Tyrš believed that this would strengthen the whole nation at the same time. In fact, Sokol was open to all social classes, from the bourgeoisie to the working class, as everyone was part of the Czech homeland. They also defined themselves as an organization above politics and aimed to remain apolitical. Nevertheless, some of its members were also members of the Young Czechs’ Party, Mladočeši in Czech[3]. This party advocated, among other things, greater Czech autonomy within the Empire. For example, one of Sokol’s members was Jan Podlipný[4], mayor of Prague from 1897 to 1900, for the Young Czechs.

It is worth noting that Sokol was also a response to the German Turnverein[5], a physical education organisation founded in Berlin in 1811, which spread to the Austrian Empire and accepted only German speakers. Interestingly, both Miroslav Tyrš and Jindřich Fügner were Czechs of Germanic descent and German speakers. It should be remembered that the Czech Lands had a large Germanic population due to their integration into the Holy Roman Empire and, later, the Austrian Empire. For both of them, the local feeling of belonging to Prague, to the Czech Lands, was more important than their German ancestry.

Sokol’s development and influence on the Czech population

As already mentioned, Miroslav Tyrš was an admirer of Ancient Greek philosophy. Consequently, in Sokol, they strived to achieve harmony between the body and mind, working diligently with the concept of kalos kagathos (beautiful and good). Thus, within this organization, they advocated for discipline and engaged in physical activities such as running, javelin throwing, weightlifting, and fencing, among other exercises. It is noteworthy that several Sokol members participated in significant sporting events. For instance, František Erben competed in the 1900 Paris Olympics and won a bronze medal in the ring event at the 1909 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Luxembourg, as well as a gold medal in the same event at the 1911 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships in Turin. Another prominent Sokol gymnast was Bedřich Šupčík, who secured a gold medal in rope climbing at the 1924 Paris Olympics.

In addition to sports, Sokol also organised nature trips and cultural activities, such as theatre and music. They also defended Czech history, fostering patriotism. Furthermore, their ideas were reflected in the Sokol magazine, founded in 1871, and in the various lectures they organised. On the other hand, something very important that Pohlová points out is that, in the beginning, Sokol was intended only for men, and it was not until 1869 that Tyrš decided to form a physical education group for women.

Pohlová tells us that the members of Sokol played sports in the sokolovny, which are the various units or gymnasiums of Sokol. The organisation’s representative explains that the first sokolovna was established in Prague in 1862, and the second was in Příbram two years later. From then on, they spread to more towns and villages in the Czech Lands. Later, in 1887, all units were grouped into the Czech Sokol Community. Pohlová emphasizes that, aside from serving as venues for sporting and cultural activities, the sokolovny were vital and accessible social gathering places. Consequently, in many villages and small towns in the Czech Lands, the sokolovna became a meeting point for group activities, with Sokol emphasizing the importance of teamwork. In fact, Tyrš encouraged collective work to build a strong nation, as everyone played a part. Additionally, communication between different sokolovny was robust, which proved advantageous for the Czech Lands during the First World War.

To illustrate what Sokol was like in villages and smaller towns, Barbora Ilčíková, representative, educator and trainer of Sokol in Uherské Hradiště, explains that the organisation was established in the small Moravian town in 1872, ten years after the first one in Prague. Ilčíková expounds that this was good news for the locals, as there was nothing to do for sport and it greatly helped the social interactions of the inhabitants. She also explains that Sokol composed a musical band for the municipality and encouraged excursions into nature. Furthermore, Ilčíková stresses that in 1905 this sokolovna founded the local puppet theatre, which is still active today. In fact, according to Ilčíková, some of the puppets are 100 years old. Apart from this, she explains that the relations and communication with other sokolovny was very consistent, such as with the one in Karviná, a small town in the Moravian-Silesian region, very close to Slovakia.

Puppet theater. Source: Sokol in Uherské Hradiště

In addition to the sokolovny, another notable feature of Sokol for connecting and engaging the population were the slety, which were gymnastic festivals held in Prague every six years. These festivals served as a significant demonstration of Sokol’s unity and discipline. During these events, the athletes showcased their skills and strong coordination. For Tyrš, these festivals were very important, as they represented “the synchronised movement of an entire nation”[6].

Not only did gymnasts from Czech units participate in the slety, but also those from other sokolovny around the world. The first slet was held in 1882 and was the only one attended by Miroslav Tyrš, who died two years later. These gymnastic marches attracted an increasing number of participants over time. For example, one of the most crowded slety was in 1912 when 30,000 athletes from various Slavic nations took part. However, the largest slet took place in 1938, with the participation of 250,000 sportsmen and women of various nationalities.

Sokol spreads to other territories

As we have observed, the Czech physical education organization played an increasingly significant role in countering the Germanization of the Czech Lands and in the cultural and national development of these Central European Slavs. This influence extended to other Slavic peoples within the Austrian Empire, who viewed Sokol’s work favourably and took it as an example to combat Germanic influence in their own territories.

Consequently, the falcon flew to Slovenia in 1863 and to Polish Galicia, which was under Austro-Hungarian control, in 1867. Years later, in 1874, the Sokol movement reached Croatia, and in 1904 the first Sokol was founded in Vojvodina, in the north of present-day Serbia.

Kristina Pantelic Babic, a professor at the University of Banja Luka in Bosnia-Herzegovina, explains that Sokol’s expansion into the Balkans was influenced by several factors. The inhabitants of the Balkans sought to emulate the example set by the Czech Lands in their resistance against Germanization. Sokol also sent representatives to these regions to support the establishment of Sokol organizations. Additionally, Pantelic Babic points to population fluctuations and migrations as contributing factors.

According to Pantelic Babic, the first Sokol initiatives in Bosnia-Herzegovina took place in 1893 in the town of Foča, located in today’s Republika Srpska in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Later, in 1899, the first association was established; mainly anti-alcoholic and it had the characteristics of Sokol. “And in 1910 this association was registered as the Serbian Sokol of Foča”, explains Pantelic Babic. She also highlights that gradually more Sokol units were formed in Herzegovina, which was very important, especially for small villages, “as they contributed to the development of the village and the literacy of the people”, the expert stresses. She also points out that the communication and organisation between the different Sokol units in the Balkans was quite strong.

A very important fact is that after World War I and the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes was one of the new states that emerged from the ashes of the old empire in 1918. Pantelic Babic emphasises that before independence from Austria-Hungary, there were different Sokol organisations: in Slovenia, Croatia, Herzegovina, Vojvodina, Bosnia, Montenegro and Serbia. But after the formation of the new state, all these organisations were grouped together in the Sokol Union of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes.

In addition to being a model against Germanisation for other Slavic nations, Sokol also reached the Russian Empire, which contributed somehow to pan-Slavism. Thus, the falcon crossed the Austro-Hungarian borders and reached Imperial Russia in the 1870s. Irina Sirotkina, a historian of the cultural movement, argues that the Czechs wanted to bring Sokol closer to Russia because they considered it to be “the greatest Slavic nation”. For this reason, in 1867 František Palačky and František Rieger, both very influential in Czech nationalism, travelled to Moscow to, among other things, support the Sokol movement in the Russian Empire[7]. Sirotkina indicates that by the end of the 19th century there were already Sokol organisations with Czech trainers in Tiflis, Tashkent, Kiev, St. Petersburg and Moscow. She also stresses that between 1907 and 1908 Sokol was officially recognised, because Russian Prime Minister Pyotr Arkadyevich and his son joined the physical education organisation.

Sirotkina also underlines that, from that date onwards, many gymnastic societies where the Sokol system of physical education was taught were renamed Sokol, the first being the one in Tiflis in 1908. These organisations continued to employ Czech trainers. In total, there were about 200 Czech coaches, including 36 women. In addition, Sirotkina explains that in 1905 the Czech Sokol “opened courses in Prague to prepare coaches specifically for Russia”[8]. As was the case in the Czech Lands and the Balkans, all Russian Sokol organisations were united in the Russian Sokol Union in 1910.

In addition to the units in the Slavic lands, Sokol was also established in places where Czechs emigrated, such as the USA and France. In fact, the first Sokol organisation was founded in the USA in 1865 and in Paris in 1892. Today there are still Sokol units in these countries, which play an important role for Czech culture abroad and are a meeting place for Czechs and their descendants in both countries.

It is worth mentioning that Sokol made a minor impact in Spain. During the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Czechoslovak consul in Spain, Vlastimil Kybal, publicised the great work that Sokol meant to him[9]. Moreover, during the Second Republic (1931-1939), the Spanish press reported on the Czechoslovak sports organisation. Also, at the beginning of the 1930s, the Falcons were formed in Catalonia and in 1932, a Pro Sokol Physical Education Committee[10] was formed in Madrid to attend the slet of that year in Prague and to take notes in order to structure physical education in Spain. This committee stressed that Sokol was a good sporting model, as it emphasised the collective work of all its members. Nevertheless, the idea of Sokol faded away after the outbreak of the Civil War in 1936.

The birth of Czechoslovakia and the two world wars

During the First World War (1914-1918), the Czech Lands fought alongside the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the other members of the Triple Alliance: Germany and Italy. However, during the course of the war, a parallel army was formed to fight for independence known as the Czechoslovak legions. These legions consisted of Czech and Slovak volunteers, including members of Sokol. And several of these volunteers were members of Sokol[11]. Notably Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk, the first Czechoslovak president, was a Sokol member. It should be recalled that at the outbreak of World War I, Tomáš Masaryk, Edvard Beneš and Milan Štefánik began to realise their plan for independence[12]. They considered it very important to gain international support, especially from the countries of the Triple Entente and the United States. As a result, they travelled separately to Russia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States. Pohlová notes that Sokol was very useful abroad, as they had several contacts, especially in the USA.

Tomáš Garrigue Masaryk. Wikipedia

Czechoslovakia finally gained independence on 28 October 1918. As a new state, it had no army or security forces. For this reason, several Czechoslovak legionnaires and members of Sokol, among others, took on this role in the early years of the young country until a regular army was established in 1920[13]. Furthermore, following independence, Sokol experienced substantial growth, boasting over a million members during the inter-war period.

Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia and Slovak Republic. Wikipedia

Nevertheless, Sokol faced a severe setback with the German occupation of the Czechoslovak Sudetenland in 1938, and the subsequent occupation of the rest of Czechoslovakia in 1939, resulting in the establishment of the Slovak Republic (now Slovakia) and the Protectorate of Bohemia and Moravia (now the Czech Republic). Members of the Sokol organization fought against the Germans until the end of the war, leading to its prohibition by the Nazis in 1941 and the arrest of several members. Approximately 5000 members of the Czech organisation lost their lives in the Second World War[14]. The end of the war and the occupation allowed Sokol to reopen its doors… but not for long. The victory of the Communists in 1948 and the subsequent totalitarian regime until 1989 dealt another blow to Sokol. Pohlová explains that the organization came under political control, leading to the expulsion of several members and the resignation of many others. As a result, Sokol was dissolved in 1956, and the communist government consolidated athletes under the Czechoslovak Union of Physical Education and Sport.

It is not surprising that under both totalitarian regimes Sokol had serious difficulties to continue, and was even banned, since there is strength in unity. A national identity organisation, which pursued the unity of the people, and which was so well structured, could have caused a lot of problems for both undemocratic governments.

Nowadays and historical legacy

The end of communism in 1989 marked the return of the falcon in 1990. Pohlová explains that the organization currently has 160,000 members in the Czech Republic, with 1,200 units spread across the country, offering a range of activities from sports to theatre. The tradition of hosting the slety every six years in Prague continues, with the next one scheduled for July next year. The magazine of Sokol is still being published quarterly. Additionally, Sokol maintains its presence abroad, such as Slovakia, Serbia, Slovenia, France and the USA.

According to Ilčíková, Sokol remains a patriotic organization, but not a nationalist one, as the concept of nationalism has evolved from the 19th century to today. It is an organization that cherishes the history, culture, and traditions of its country. Ilčíková mentions that there are currently 502 members, including children, in Uherské Hradiště. Furthermore, Sokol is an affordable option for sports, with a biannual fee of 2000 CZK for children and 2400 CZK for adults. Some of the most popular activities in the Moravian town are volleyball, gymnastic jumps, and puppet theatre, where Ilčíková brought the witch character to life for eight years. Additionally, they also organise summer camps for children.

Theater and Sokol in Uherské Hradiště. Source: Sokol Uherské Hradiště

While it is true that Sokol no longer has as many members in its units as it did in the past, it continues to contribute to the unity of the nation. Sokol emerged as a sports association that effectively organized the nation within the former Austrian Empire. Its remarkable success led to followers in other territories, particularly among the Slavic peoples, as well as in other European and American countries, where it still maintains a presence. Sokol played a significant role in the independence of Czechoslovakia as a well-structured national organization. Today, its successors have several sokolovny within their borders, especially in the Czech Republic, the land of its founder.

Sokol’s work for the Czech nation is extraordinary. It is not just a sports organization but also a cultural and educational one. It instils in its members the importance of discipline, fellowship, effort, and dedication— certainly, values that seem to be fading elsewhere. Sokol remains open to all individuals, whether Czech or foreigners. Its purpose continues to be the development of strong individuals, both physically and mentally, striving for the kalos kagathos that the ancient Greeks spoke of. Miroslav Tyrš can rest assured that the present-day Czech Lands are filled with falcons who would undoubtedly defend them if necessary.

Este obra está bajo una licencia de Creative Commons Reconocimiento 4.0 Internacional.

[1] Vývoj sdružování a spolčování a jeho právní úpravý na našem území Martín Čmolík, 2019, Západočeská univerzita v Plzni, Fakulta právnická

[2] Czechoslovakia, a country which joined two nations I Celia Pérez Carrascosa

[3] Národní strana svobodmyslná (mladočeši)

[4] JUDr. Jan Podlipný

[5] Miroslav Tyrš y el Sokol Daniel Esparza, 2012 Revista Internacional de Ciencias del Deporte

[6] Miroslav Tyrš y el Sokol Daniel Esparza, 2012 Revista Internacional de las Ciencias del Deporte

[7] Cultivating the Aristocracy of the Spirit: The Sokol Movement in Late Imperial Russia George Gilbert  – The Slavonic and East European Review Julio de 2017

[8] The Sokol Movement in Russia: History and Contemporary Revival Irina Sirotkina –

[9] Nacionalismo y deporte: la institución gimnástica Sokol y su difusión en Madrid (1921-1936) Xavier Torrebadella-Flix y Daniel Esparza 2020

[10] Nacionalismo y deporte: la institución gimnástica Sokol y su difusión en Madrid (1921-1936) Xavier Torrebadella-Flix y Daniel Esparza 2020

[11] Sokol: 150 años de una organización prohibida por nazis y comunistas Ivana Vonderková 17/03/2012 Radio Prague International

[12] Czechoslovakia, a country which joined two nations I Celia Pérez Carrascosa

[13] El surgimiento de Checoslovaquia a través de la historia militar Ivana Vonderková 25/04/2019 Radio Prague International

[14] El día en que los nazis arremetieron contra la organización deportiva Sokol Klára Stejskalová 9/10/2022 Radio Prague International

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