Presented by Dejan Zec

The second half of the nineteenth century was the time when the region of South-eastern Europe (or the Balkans region), divided between the dying and decadent Ottoman Empire, powerful but fragile Habsburg monarchy and young and potent but still quite wild nations such as Serbia and Montenegro, saw the gradual introduction of the western peculiarities, which were the integral part of western way of life, life that wasn’t a complete mystery in the Balkans anymore. Young members of the elite, students and pupils sent abroad to study and to collect the vast corpora of knowledge and skills necessary to transform and modernize ‘savage’ nations of the Balkans, were introduced to modern sports and other various forms of physical exercise. Turnverein system in German lands, Swedish gymnastics, combat sports popular in France, Czech Sokols and entertaining competitive sporting games originating in the British isles were all very familiar to the new generation of the Balkan ruling classes of the 1870ʼs and 1880ʼs. In their desire to differ from the generation of their parents, they embraced characteristics of modern and urban European societies and adjusted them to the needs of their young and striving nations. The main question in South-eastern Europe of the late nineteenth and early twentieth century was the question of national independence and the national elites were heavily engaged in the process of nation-building – in both practical and ideological sense. Sports and physical exercise, new phenomena in the region, were given a very important role in the process. Sporting associations were established not just to promote healthy way of life, competition and entertainment, but also to carry important nationalist and romantic message. Sokols, organizations that combined gymnastics with folklore and anti-Habsburg and anti-Ottoman politics, became very popular in the region, with thousands of youths participating in their activities. Other sporting organizations, based either on Sokols or the German Turner (especially in Serbia and Bulgaria), but also regular football or athletic clubs, were the carriers of nationalist ideas and important factors in politics in South-eastern Europe at the turn of the century
Article © Dejan Zec