Origins of Polish Sport

23 June 2023

In late June and early July, Kraków hosts the European Games.

Michał Białoński

The event brings together athletes from dozens of countries to compete in Olympic disciplines and fascinating up-and-coming events.

Kraków is uniquely placed among Poland’s cities to sever as an arena of major international sporting events. It was at Kraków’s Błonia Meadows where the history of modern Polish sport began with Poland’s oldest football clubs, Cracovia and Wisła, both founded in 1906.

Fencing and riding
Before the rest of the world ever heard about our football clubs, Kraków focused on sports essential in everyday life, such as fencing, riding and dance. The Kraków Fencing and Dance School was popular as early as the 1830s, and Teodor Cogen published his textbook on the theory of horse riding around the same time.

Józef Fałęcki, hero of the Spring of Nations, physician, philosopher and graduate from the University of Lwów, was widely regarded as being one of the most talented students of Józef Dietl. He devised and introduced a set of physical exercises which he used in the treatment of many disorders. In 1851, the School of Gymnastics and Fencing was founded by Michał Starzewski, participant in the November Uprising and author of the first treatise on fencing in Polish.

The most famous club from the era was the “Sokół” Gymnastics Society under the patronage of Tadeusz Kościuszko, predated by 15 years by the now rather forgotten “White Eagle” Gymnastics Society.

Ice skaters on the Zwierzyniecki Pond
Another discipline widely practiced in Kraków to improve physical fitness, long before anyone here dreamed of football, was ice skating. The Ice Skating Society, founded in December 1871, organised open skating events first at the Zwierzyniecki Pond and later at the Macewicz gardens at Łobzowska Street. Founded six years later, the Kraków Ice Skating Association had a rink at Kopernika Street and later at Krakowski Park which became the alma mater of the sport, hosting the first competition in 1881.

Early days of football
The home of Cracovian football were the Błonia Meadows and Jordana Park. On 4 June 1906, the Lwów teams Czarni and KGS IV High School held a friendly match with Kraków’s “student” and “academic” teams. The events were publicised in the “Nowa Reforma” daily, followed by the first training event attended by the “academics” on 13 June. These were the beginnings of the Academic Football Club, taking on the name Cracovia in September of that year.

In Poland’s first international game, played against Hungary on 18 December 1921 in Budapest, the white-and-read team included seven Cracovia footballers, captained by the legendary Józef Kałuża. It’s hardly a surprise that Imre Pozsonyi, the Hungarian manager of the Polish team, selected so many players from a single club – they had just been crowned Poland’s champions (also under the careful watch of Pozsonyi himself).

As I already mentioned, the history of Wisła Kraków also dates back to 1906. The club was founded by Prof. Tadeusz Łopuszański, mainly for the students from the high school he ran. Józef Kałuża and Henryk Reyman, the legendary captain of Wisła and the Polish team, are the greatest icons of Poland’s early football clubs and an example for younger generations. Reyman famously told his team at half-time of the derby played against Cracovia on 3 May 1925, “If you do not feel up to giving your all during the second half of this match to lift the disgrace that is hanging over us, you’d better not go out on the pitch at all.” Cracovia were leading Wisła 5:1 at half time, but the speech had the desired effect: the team went on to victory, with Reyman himself scoring twice, even though his leg was fresh out of a plaster cast after a recent fracture.

Holy War
The rivalry between Cracovia and Wisła isn’t just a great attraction of Poland’s football – it is a symbol of the sport itself. The teams have played 203 matches since 1908. They have also been successful on the national scene: Wisła have won the Polish championship 13 times, Cracovia five times, and in 1931 the honour fell to another local team – Garbarnia. Holding a total of 19 championship victories, Kraków is Poland’s most successful city.

Hockey after bandy
Hockey arrived in Kraków a little after football. It replaced bandy – a similar team game using a ball rather than a puck. Kraków’s dailies “Czas” and “Ilustrowany Kuryer Codzienny” reported on the first match, played at Krakowski Park on 4 February 1912. Sadly Cracovia lost against the Amateur Hockey Club, as reported by “Wędrowiec”: “Despite limited training and a lack of examples, the match showed a relatively high degree of skill, most likely because the players are former footballers which gives them a clear advantage on ability. The amateur team, including members of a few associations, worked better together and gave the game a higher pace than Cracovia, resulting in a 7:5 win for the amateurs.”

It’s worth saying here that at the time, athletes were highly versatile – something which would be utterly unthinkable in today’s era of narrow specialisations. “In summer we played handball, and when winter came and we could make skating rinks, we became hockey players,” recalled Czesław Marchewczyk; he was Poland’s leading player in both sports, crowned in hockey in 1937, 1946 and 1947, and handball in 1930 and 1933.

Hockey remains Cracovia’s domain until the present day, although I should add that before the First World War, Kraków had enough ice hockey teams to host city championships. In 1928, the champions were Wisła Kraków, even though the club only opened a hockey section a year earlier.

Baskets and nets
Cracovia and Wisła also had strong basketball and volleyball teams. In 1929, the women’s team from Cracovia were crowned Poland’s first champions, although it was Wisła who were the real powerhouse: between 1963 and 2016, the women’s team won the Polish championships 25 times, a huge record on the Polish scale.

The second basketball championships, held in 1929, resulted in a victory for Cracovia, while between 1933 and 1934, Poland’s leading team was YMCA Kraków. Wisła started gaining strength in 1954, winning the Polish championships six times, most recently in 1976.

Early days of the Olympic movement
The origins of Poland’s Olympic efforts are also rooted in Kraków. The Committee for Poland’s Participation in the Olympics was founded in 1919 at Hotel Francuski with the aim of sending a representation to the 1920 games in Antwerp. Although the country ended up facing a far more important challenge in resisting Bolshevik Russia’s attack, it was an important step towards the foundation of the Polish Olympic Committee. During the Paris games in 1924, Jan Łazarski, representing Cracovia and the Kraków Cyclist and Motorist Club, led the Polish track cycling team to win the silver medal in the 4000 metres, becoming Kraków’s first Olympic medallist.

Kraków has been cultivating marathon traditions since 2002. One of the founders of the Cracovia Marathon is the local economist Andrzej Madej, participant in all 20 events held to date. In the last seven years, each run has been attended by over five thousand runners from all over the globe!

Tauron Arena Kraków, Poland’s largest sports venue, hosts regular competitions on European and world levels. It also hosted the charity tennis match between the greatest stars of Polish tennis: Iga Świątek and the Cracovian Agnieszka Radwańska, former world no. 2.

With its extensive sports traditions, Kraków is one of Poland’s most important and best centres. The European Games have the perfect home for summer 2023!

The text was published in the 2/2023 issue of the "Kraków Culture" quarterly.

 * Michał Białoński

photo from author's archive
Sports journalist with 30 years’ experience, currently at Polsat Sport. He has covered some of the most important sports events in recent years, including the London Olympics, Qatar World Cup and the European Football Championships in 2012, 2016 and 2020. Awarded the title of Journalist of the

llustrations: Paulina Ciecholewska


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