At a time when many conservatives decry the injection of politics into sports, it’s worth recalling how 50 years ago today they saluted the brave actions of the athletes who took a stand in an ice rink in Stockholm, Sweden.
The event had been set in motion two decades earlier, when the Communist Party seized power in Czechoslovakia at the direction of the Soviet Union in 1948. The new government’s repression cast a pall, as the Party took over private property and businesses, restricted travel, censored the press, and put forward a stream of propaganda while quashing dissent in part by imprisoning and executing perceived enemies.
By the 1960s, sparks of opposition began to appear. Students, writers, and figures within the Communist Party openly dissented from the government’s actions. In 1968 a new Czechoslovak leader, Alexander Dubcek, instituted the “Prague Spring” reforms of political liberalization, and many believed that communism’s days in Czechoslovakia were numbered.
However, Moscow had other ideas. Beginning on the evening of Aug. 20, 1968, the Soviet Union made it clear that it was not willing to lose control over its satellite, sending in thousands of tanks and, ultimately, 500,000 troops.
Angry citizens confronted the invaders, obstructing the occupation by removing street signs (except for those pointing the way to Moscow). They created human blockades to slow Soviet tanks. But they couldn’t turn back the Soviets’ overwhelming firepower.
Czechoslovaks’ frustrations intensified. How could they fight back? An ice rink in Sweden offered them a chance.
The setting was the 1969 World Ice Hockey Championships in Stockholm, where Czechoslovakia took on the Soviet Union. As Dubcek himself remarked later, this was no normal sporting event. It was a replay of a lost war.
The entire Czechoslovak nation viewed the hockey arena as a battlefield to exact revenge.
Prior to the reforms, Czechoslovaks believed commonly (if incorrectly) that their hockey team was not permitted to defeat the Soviets. Beginning in 1961, Czechoslovakia could not beat the Russians in any major tournament. The team finally topped the Soviets in an important match early in 1968, just as Dubcek’s liberalizing reforms were beginning to take hold, but six months later Czechoslovaks feared that the Soviet invasion meant a return to total subjugation to Moscow. The 1969 World Championships offered an opportunity to prove that there were some freedoms that the Soviets could not contain.
The tournament had been scheduled for Prague, but all plans changed once the Soviets invaded. To avoid the specter of a furious and uncontrollable home crowd of occupied Czechoslovaks, Communist authorities had the championships moved to Sweden’s capital city. Thousands of telegrams arrived in Stockholm for the Czechoslovak team: “We don’t care what you do, just beat the Russians!”
The players faced a Herculean task. The Soviet Union had won the previous six world titles, including the gold medals in the 1964 and 1968 Olympic games. Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev had invested himself deeply and personally in his country’s hockey program and, especially given the political context, the Russian squad faced massive pressure to crush the Czechoslovaks once and for all.
At the same time, a coincidental change to the tournament format threw a bone to the Czechoslovaks. Concerned about the lack of competition since the Soviets had begun dominating ice hockey, the International Ice Hockey Federation altered the rules so that in 1969 only a small number of teams could participate in the World Championships, but they would each play every other participating squad twice. Czechoslovakia would have two shots at revenge against its occupiers. An estimated 93 percent of households in Czechoslovakia watched the games on TV.
The Czechoslovak team squared off against the Soviets for the first time on March 21. Czechoslovakia had played well in its first four games, winning three, but the Soviet team came in undefeated, having humiliated their opponents by a collective score of 34-6. But no matter.
Finally able to hit back against their enemy, the Czechoslovak players poured extra energy into every pass and every chance to knock a Russian skater onto his back. The mostly Swedish crowd went berserk, screaming and whistling wildly with every Soviet penalty and roaring with delight with every hard hit by a Czechoslovak. Led by a few hundred Czechoslovak exiles, the arena chanted “Dubcek! Dubcek!” in support of Czechoslovakia’s under-duress leader.
After the team’s first goal, a Czechoslovak forward leaped high into the air and then ripped half of the net off the ice. A teammate shook his stick a mere inch from the Russian goalie’s face, screaming “you [expletive] Commie!” He tore the remainder of the net off its moorings and tossed it toward the boards.
Nearly 15 minutes later, Czechoslovakia scored again, and finally they shut out the mighty Soviets, 2-0, in a game so intense that Soviet Coach Anatoli Tarasov suffered a heart attack in the midst of it.
Prior to their second game against the Russians, seven days later, prominent Czechoslovak players placed black electrician’s tape over the star on their jerseys intended to represent the country’s place in the communist Eastern Bloc. Upon the players’ return home after the tournament, the Communist authorities rebuked them, insisting that they keep politics out of sports.
The second game proved even more tense than the first. Czechoslovakia took an early two-goal lead, but the Soviets charged back to tie. Entering the final period, the Russians appeared poised to take over. But Czechoslovakia shocked the defending champions with two late goals that brought the underdogs a stunning win.
At home, more than half a million Czechoslovaks–in a country of only 15 million people–marched into the night air. They carried signs:
“There were no tanks, so they lost.” “Brezhnev 3, Dubcek 4.”
The celebrations turned into protests. Rioters set Russian vehicles on fire, attacked Soviet military barracks, tried (unsuccessfully) to storm Soviet diplomatic buildings, and destroyed the Prague office of Aeroflot, the Soviet airline.
The Soviets announced that what became known as the “Hockey Riots” were proof that Czechoslovakia’s leadership could not maintain order, and immediately used them as an excuse to remove Dubcek from power and install new leaders who backed hardline Communist orthodoxy.
Adding further insult, the Czechoslovak hockey team lost to Sweden on the final day of the tournament, but few at home truly cared. The hockey team’s defeat of the Soviets had offered the Czechoslovak people a powerful reminder: Moscow might hold them physically captive, but when given a level playing field, they could take down their oppressors.
Even today, Czechoslovakia-born tennis legend Martina Navratilova remembers watching the games on television with her family:
“The hockey games went beyond sports. They gave people hope. They let us know that we had the freedom to win.”
Ethan Scheiner (@EthanScheiner), a professor of political science at the University of California, Davis, is writing a book about how Czechoslovakia used hockey to fight back against the Soviet Union during the Cold War.