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What to do with ab aging giant

What to do with ab aging giant

Posted: August 12, 1998

By Alex FriedrichÄ?Ä?

Jan Obst knew it was time to redesign Strahov stadium when he became too ashamed to bring foreign soccer officials to his stadium office.Ä?The facilities had become so cramped that to reach his quarters, visitors often had to squeeze past half-naked female athletes coming out of a nearby locker room.Ä?"I couldn't believe it when I saw it," the Czech-Moravian Football Union deputy secretary said with a sigh. "It was impossible. These spaces are not efficient. They're not dignified. That's why I always hold my meetings in different places."Ä?Visitors may no longer have to press flesh with sweaty athletes, but Obst still cringes at the other things they see: a deteriorating hulk of crumbling walls and creaking beams-not exactly the showcase for a European championship contender.Ä?Nor can he even say the stadium is designed for soccer; the plain is so wide that winds have often ripped through the field and disrupted matches.Ä?So for people like Obst, Strahov - the largest stadium in the world and a symbol of Czech patriotism and physical culture - has become an embarrassment.Ä?That's why he's leading a plan to revitalize the giant through a 4 billion Kc ($129 million) renovation project that he says will to turn it into a top-ranked, regulation national stadium that would enable the Czechs to host European club competitions in style.Ä?"If we exaggerate a bit, in [soccer] we entered the European Union with our match against Germany [in the 1996 European Championship]," he said. "We need a stadium for that."Ä?That would mean a leaner, meaner stadium built in right in the middle of Strahov's vast field. With room for 51,000 fans in the stands and another 10,000 on the field for concerts, the stadium would be the home to the national soccer team and a venue for cultural events.Ä?The current Strahov covers 6 hectares (15 acres) of land and has the potential to house some 200,000 people. The Rolling Stones managed to pull in about half that amount in 1995.Ä?The existing tribunes and sides of Strahov will be converted into offices, shops and recreational areas, and the space between the new stadium and the boundaries of the old will become a park.Ä?Now that the city has awarded the soccer association rent-free use of the stadium, Obst says he's ready to assemble a construction team and deliver up a deluxe sports facility to the soccer world by 2003.Ä?That should leave enough time for one final extravaganza in celebration of the year 2000 for Sokol, the nationalist, physical fitness movement whose name is inextricably linked to the stadium.Ä?Though many people mistakenly believe the colossal, concrete Strahov is a communist-era structure, the stadium actually was built under Tomas Garrigue Masaryk during the First Republic - the heyday of Sokol. The original construction took place in 1930.Ä?The stadium, with its vast field, was perfect for Sokol's rallies: masses of color and movement in which hundreds of thousands of athletes performed synchronized exercises.Ä?Despite being a small nation, with the Strahov stadium the Czechs could flex their muscle by amassing an amazing number of people who were capable of demonstrating physical prowess and discipline to the world. Sokol was as much linked with nationalism as it was with exercise.Ä?The sight of thousands of determined Czechs unsettled the Germans so much in 1938 that the Nazis executed Sokol leaders before the leaders could mobilize their members into an opposition force.Ä?After the war, the communists banned Sokol and replaced the movement's mass exercises with their own version, Spartakiada, and the next generations of Czechs slowly began to identify the stadium with the Communist Party.Ä?After the revolution in 1989, Sokol was among several far-flung expatriate organizations that managed a revival;, but it hasn't grown beyond a fraction of is original size. So far it hasn't been able to stage enough large events to justify such a large venue. The Sokol reunion of 1993, which drew thousands of participants, still played to what looked like an empty house.Ä?Jiri Zizka, the Sokol deputy mayor, said he hopes to hold rallies in the new stadium in the future, though the grandness of the old stadium will be lost.Ä?That loss of prestige has chafed some old Sokol members, who oppose the remodeling and say the movement's current leaders "should have fought for the stadium," according to Zizka. "But we've always rented it out, so we have no proper stake in it. It's a pity to lose Masaryk's stadium, but life goes on."Ä?Sokol isn't the only group having trouble filling the stadium's broad plain and sea of empty seats. The sheer size of Strahov dwarfs most events held there. It's a nightmare for rock groups, especially those that are upset if they don't sell out their shows.Ä?"There are only four to five bands in the world you can put there," said music executive David Urban. Only the Rolling Stones, Pink Floyd, U2 and Bon Jovi have mustered the courage to try to fill all those seats. Faced with the task of filling that gaping void a third time, the Stones recently opted for Vystaviste's Sportovni hala, which seats only 10,000.Ä?The awkwardness of such a big venue is not lost on city officials.Ä?"It has always been a megalomaniacal idea," said TaEana Stedra, a director at Prague's institute for city development. "It's too big for the city, it's too big for the country. The First Republic had big ambitions, but ... the idea of [Strahov's] creators wasn't fulfilled." Ä?Despite its awkwardness, Czechs such as Stedra say they like the building. They show a pride that their little brother Strahov is the largest - albeit clumsiest - kid on the block.Ä?

By Alex FriedrichÄ?Ä?

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