In an era when National Football League players protesting police brutality during the national anthem are called “disrespectful,” the 2018 Winter Olympic Games serve as a reminder that sports have long provided an arena where political battles play out, and where sparks of hope and freedom can catch fire.
In South Korea, men’s ice hockey opens Wednesday with play between Olympic athletes from Russia and Slovakia, just one day before the golden anniversary of perhaps the most politically meaningful contest in Winter Olympic history. On Feb. 15, 1968, the hockey team of Czechoslovakia, of which Slovakia was part, took on the Soviet Union at the Olympics in Grenoble, France. Czechoslovakia’s challenge extended far beyond the ice: The game served as a lightning rod in the movement for political freedom back home, a role hockey would continue to play in the country for the next two decades.
In 1948, the Czechoslovak Communist Party carried out a coup, bringing to power a repressive regime that followed dictates established in Moscow. With the encouragement of the Soviet leadership, Czechoslovakia’s Communists censored the press, imprisoned those who spoke against the government and prohibited travel outside of the Eastern Bloc. The Soviets sent “advisers” to Prague to train the Czechoslovak government in the art of the communist show trial, which ginned up public support for executions of (real and imagined) high-profile dissidents. Czechoslovakia established foreign and economic policy that followed the Soviets’ explicit orders. And no leader in Prague retained power without Moscow’s support.
In the 1940s, Czechoslovakia had been a hockey powerhouse. Czechoslovakian players actually helped the Soviet Union found its hockey program, but the Soviets quickly gained the upper hand. In 1950, the new Czechoslovak Communist regime imprisoned the national hockey team on trumped up charges, setting the squad back years. Meanwhile, the Russians improved dramatically. They quickly joined the ranks of the leading teams in the world, and by the early 1960s had become the dominant power in the sport.
The Czechoslovak Communist regime promulgated propaganda espousing the greatness of the Soviet economic and political system — propaganda that also played up the genius of Soviet sports. As the Czechoslovak hockey team improved but failed to beat the Soviets — all while the government marched to the Soviet tune — the public wondered whether the fix was in.
Then came the “Prague Spring.” In 1968 a new Czechoslovak government took power. It instantly asserted greater independence from Moscow and instituted reforms that permitted greater freedom of expression, travel and the press. Because many Czechoslovaks believed (inaccurately) that Moscow’s control had prevented them from defeating the Soviet hockey team, they looked to a victory over the USSR for proof that the reforms were genuine and far-reaching.
When the two squads faced off in the 1968 Olympics, the Soviets had won the past five world titles, were unbeaten in their previous 38 world championship games and had defeated Czechoslovakia in every major tournament since 1961. But this time, in a stunning upset, Czechoslovakia won 5-4. In the game’s iconic moment, Czechoslovakia’s melodramatic team captain Jozef Golonka dove onto the ice to celebrate, leading to hockey folklore that he was trying to hear if Russia had cut off oil to Czechoslovakia as punishment.
Although the Soviets went on to take the gold medal, for Czechoslovaks the win over the Russians catalyzed a new sense of possibility. Tens of thousands of fans took to the streets to celebrate the team.
The jubilance was short-lived. Displeased with Czechoslovak political reforms, Moscow ordered a return to communist orthodoxy and then announced that Prague’s efforts to reverse course were insufficient. Unwilling to lose control over their satellite, in August 1968 the Soviets sent 500,000 troops to end Czechoslovakia’s “counterrevolution.” Soviet troops remained for more than 20 years.
Jan Havel, a star on the 1968 hockey team, expressed (perhaps hyperbolically) what many in Czechoslovakia felt: “The tanks rolled in in ’68 … because the nation was united behind hockey and behind beating the Russians and the Soviets got scared.” Czechoslovakia hockey legend Josef Horesovsky later reflected that the events surrounding hockey “added to the mood that the Soviets didn’t have so much control over us,” which provided the principal impetus for the invasion.
Hockey served as a proxy battlefield. As Russian tanks overran Czechoslovakia, “5-4” graffiti appeared everywhere, offering a reminder of the outcome of the Olympic match. A few months later, the entire Czechoslovak nation — even people with little interest in the sport — viewed the 1969 World Hockey Championships as a way to fight back against the Soviets. When their team defeated Russia twice in the tournament, a half-million Czechoslovaks poured into the streets to celebrate and to protest the occupation.
In a context in which the seemingly all-powerful Soviet Union and the Communist Party denied the people of Czechoslovakia freedom, hockey had become the venue for them to continue their fight against those who oppressed them. In challenging the Soviets on the ice, Czechoslovakia’s hockey players became the embodiment of the country’s desire to defy the superpower that sought to crush them.
Hockey and politics continued to intertwine in Czechoslovakia for the next two decades. The most striking example comes from November 1989, with the start of the “Velvet Revolution” that brought an end to Communist rule after protests erupted in Czechoslovakia’s cities. The protests were sparked by an incident in which state police violently beat students who had been demonstrating peacefully.
Just before the start of the next Czechoslovakia League game, the Prague hockey team went to center ice to announce its support for the students. In response, the crowd and players broke into spontaneous singing of the national anthem — not as a show of allegiance to the government, but in solidarity against the repressive regime. And before the following scheduled match, the two opposing Czechoslovakian teams took the ice together to announce that in support of the protest movement, they would not play the game. No one in the audience jeered the players or requested ticket refunds. They simply chanted, over and over, “Freedom!”