Academic journal article Shofar

"An Athlete like a Soldier Must Not Retreat": Zionists, Sport, and Belonging in Interwar Czechoslovakia

Academic journal article Shofar

"An Athlete like a Soldier Must Not Retreat": Zionists, Sport, and Belonging in Interwar Czechoslovakia

Article excerpt

In the months preceding the 1936 Olympics in Berlin, debates erupted in several European and North American countries about whether or not athletes should be allowed to boycott the Games.1 In Czechoslovakia that summer, audiences followed the boycott debate with great interest. Months earlier, the Czechoslovak Zionist sport organization Makabi CSR (Maccabi Czechoslovakia, hereafter Maccabi) had announced that its athletes would not participate in the Berlin Games.2 This decision, which met with support in some Jewish and non-Jewish circles, might have gone unnoticed had it not been the case that some of the country's top swimmers and water polo players belonged to the Jewish clubs Hagibor Prague, Bar Kochba Bratislava, and Maccabi Brno.3 In addition, several other Jewish athletes who belonged to non-Jewish clubs were also members of the Olympic swim and water polo teams.4 Sports commentators predicted that the Jewish athletes' withdrawal would significantly weaken the Czechoslovak Olympic team, a team that had otherwise had a good chance of bringing home medals from Berlin.

The Czechoslovak Amateur Swimming Association (Ceskoslovenský amaterský plavecký svaz) fought long and hard to prevent the Jewish athletes from withdrawing from its squad headed for Berlin. Branding the boycott movement a political conspiracy and claiming that the athletes had been coerced into withdrawing, the organization's leaders sowed suspicion about Maccabi's patriotism. The Swimming Association's board members believed that Jewish team members, like all other athletes, had a duty to defend their country's colors. Unable to force the Jewish athletes to Berlin, the board threatened to fine and disqualify Maccabi's clubs and athletes from all competitions for the next two years. In the end nothing came of these sanctions.5 At the Czechoslovak Swimming Championships that July, Bar Kochba Bratislava replaced Hagibor Prague as the national champions. Two weeks later the Czechoslovak Olympic team headed to Berlin without the majority of its Jewish athletes.

Journalists were quick to make the most of the broader issues at play in the dispute between Maccabi and the Swimming Association. They turned their readers' attention to the question whether Maccabi's decision to withdraw its athletes from the national team exposed a deeper, more troubling flaw in Jews' loyalty to Czechoslovakia. In short, were Jews capable of being good and trustworthy Czechoslovak citizens? Writers in the widely read, rightwing Venkov and Ceské Slovo scolded the Jewish clubs for their defiance of the Swimming Association's authority, the harm they had caused the Olympic team, and their alleged lack of loyalty to the state.6 The author of an article titled "An Athlete Like a Soldier Must Not Retreat: Why the Jewish Swimmers Should Participate in the Olympics" argued that since the idea of Czechoslovakia was to unite all different nationalities, it was the responsibility of national minorities to place their civic duty before any particularist interests. In such fateful moments for Czechoslovakia, the author argued, "a soldier must remain a soldier-and the same is true for the athlete."7 War imagery pervaded the debate. One writer likened the Jewish clubs' decision to mutiny, noting, "the interest of the nation, the state, the collective must always trump that of individuals." Playing on the military analogy, the author continued, "for these amateur athletes there is an unwritten law which demands that Czechoslovak athletes, regardless of their nationality or conviction, defend the Czechoslovak flag on the international playing field."8 Like the board of the Swimming Association, some writers declared that Jews were mixing sports with politics. Conflating the Jewish athletes' "betrayal" of the Olympic team with their alleged unwillingness to defend their country, these authors questioned whether national minorities could be trusted as committed citizens in times of war and peace. …

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