Czech Olympic Committee chief Kejval: War on doping can’t be won but must be fought

Jiří Kejval, photo: Šárka Ševčíková

Over 100 Czech athletes are set to take part in the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, an event that for some will no doubt be the pinnacle of an entire lifetime in sport. But what would be a satisfactory medals haul from the perspective of the Czech Olympic Committee? And why hasn’t the team adopted the name Czechia? I discussed those issues and more with COC chief Jiří Kejval, himself a former international rower. But I first asked Mr. Kejval for his reaction to tennis stars Tomáš Berdych and Karolína Plíšková pulling out of the Olympics, citing concerns over the Zika virus.

Jiří Kejval,  photo: Šárka Ševčíková
“There are two levels. The first one is Zika itself, especially the presentation in the media, which is a little bit unfortunate.

“Because the World Health Organisation and our ministry have said that the risk is very low.

“From the other side, from the perspective of the athletes, they’re young, so they want to have families, and when they see the pictures on TV and in the media showing the effect on children then OK, I understand.

“I don’t agree, but I try to understand their decision.”

What about the timing? They said they weren’t going just a few days after being approved as members of the Czech team.

“It’s very unfortunate, of course, in terms of all the procedures we have, because they had to be replaced.

“Once again I can understand how hard a decision it was for the athletes. As I said, it’s very unfortunate, but I try to understand.”

This year the Czech team is the smallest ever because there are no Czechs taking part in collective sports. Is that a problem that there are no Czechs teams? I know some people say that team sports don’t even belong in the Olympics.

“Oh, it’s not like that. But definitely it’s very unfortunate that we were not able to qualify for a team sport for the first time in Czech history.

“I’m afraid that the reason is the system of financing of Czech sport, because in past years we have always reduced the budget for sport.

“The advantage of individual sport is that when you focus on a few individuals it’s much easier to develop those athletes and for them to qualify, compared to teams.

“Teams are of 10,15, 20 people at the top level.

Czech water slalom team,  photo: CTK
“But I hope that it will change in the future, because even the Czech government recognises the need to put more money into sport, not only into top-level sport but into sport generally.”

One big story surrounding the upcoming Olympics is the fact that Russian track and field athletes have been banned going. What’s your reaction to that news?

“I don’t like decisions like that. I’m not familiar with the details.

“I read the reports. They shocked me – the practices in Russian sport, especially the second report on the practices during the Olympics.

“On the other hand, when I think about the decision on Russian athletes themselves, if there is one single athlete who is innocent, then it’s a bad decision.

“I’m deeply democratic and I can never agree with the principle of collective responsibility.”

Were there times in the past when you were suspicious of Russian athletes, watching their performances?

“I try to be always on the side of athletes but generally… Russians, and not just Russians, there are countries that were always suspicious – their results and their successes.

“On the other hand, if I look at this case, I wonder whether, for instance during the Sochi Olympic Games, the Russian anti-doping laboratory, which got a license from WADA [the World Anti-Doping Agency], and this laboratory… everybody knows the problems in Russian anti-doping systems.

“This laboratory was responsible for the control of doping tests. That surprised me, and I would like to know who was responsible for that, who took that decision.

“Also after the report, which shocked everybody, where is the guarantee that this will not be repeated?

“I’m not talking about just Russia, but also other countries.”

Every so often I hear people – and I don’t know how serious they are – saying that all athletes should be allowed to take drugs, therefore creating a kind of level playing field. What do you say to that?

Photo: CTK
“Oh no! That’s not the way. I think nobody wants to see athletes dying at stadiums. So I’m strongly against.

“You know, the war against doping is something like the war against everything bad and that we have to try to stop.

“You can never refuse the fight against doping.

“That idea is not possible. I’m absolutely against it.”

Do you think it’s a fight that can ever really be won?

“No. It’s like everything – the fight against criminality will never be won but you can never stop that. You have to always support what’s right.”

On my way here to the Czech Olympic Committee I noticed you have flags outside saying Czech Team. I’ve seen some of the Czech athletes wearing t-shirts with Czech Republic. I say this because the government has been pushing to replace Czech Team and Czech Republic without “the” with Czechia. Why aren’t you using Czechia?

“First of all, just right now we had a meeting with our colleagues about the outfit for the Olympics in PyeongChang in 2018. That means that the decision [on the year’s outfits] was taken two years ago.

“Czechia has been on the table since just the beginning of this year. That’s first.

“Second, I’d like to get the information from the government as to what we are – if we are Czechia or the Czech Republic

“We have Czech Team and Czech Republic and we’ve been using them for 20 years.

“It’s not easy to change people’s minds and we need to know exactly if there’s some kind of rule that has been agreed by the government.”

This is perhaps a strange question, but I’m curious how much you as the head of the Czech Olympic Committee are involved in the design of the outfits or uniforms – how much direct participation do you have in that process?

“A lot. That’s essentially important. Not necessarily the design, but we always have some kind of idea before the Olympics.

Barbora Špotáková,  photo: CTK
“During the Olympics in London we paid tribute [in the outfit design] to František Kupka, the famous Czech painter. It was the 100th anniversary of his most famous painting.

“That was our theme for London. This Olympics we have Emil Zátopek, which is running very well.

“So there’s always a main theme… Not just me, but all the athletes and all the team have been talking about this.

“It’s always a big issue for us. Because this is how we create the spirit of the Games.”

At the last summer Olympic in London, the Czechs won 10 medals: four gold, three silver and three bronze. What for you would be a satisfactory tally in Rio?

“We want to match the results from London. London was our second-best result ever. If we match it and get four gold medals, I will be the happiest man on the planet.”

For people who perhaps aren’t super interested in athletics and in sport, who are the main Czech medal hopefuls, in my viewer?

“I’m a rower, so I have to mention Ondřej Synek and Mirka Knapková, the Olympic champion from London. But also the canoeists, in flat water and whitewater.

“In athletics we have the javelin throwers, men and women, as well as the 400 metres hurdles.

“Also we believe in the judo, and I hope some of our shooters will succeed. And cycling of course. There are many possibilities.

“I hope also there will be some underdog who will cause a surprise.”

Roughly how many fans do you expect to go from the Czech Republic to Brazil?

“It will be much less than the previous Olympic Games. First, Rio is 10,000 kilometres from Prague.

“Second, as you mentioned, the Zika virus – lots of people changed their plans after that.

“But even still I think there will be a nice atmosphere, because the Brazilians are great supporters of sport. I think it will be a good Games.”

And here in the Czech Republic you’re planning some kind of fan centre at Lake Lipno?

“Exactly. We had a very good experience during the last Olympics in Sochi when we organised an Olympic Park at Letná in Prague. During the Olympics it was visited by 400,000 spectators or supporters.

“Based on this success we have organised a similar park on Lake Lipno in southern Bohemia.

Visualisation of Olympic Park at Lake Lipno,  photo: archive of Czech Olympic Committee
“It will be much bigger and present not just Olympic sports but also non-Olympic sports – all together over 40 sports.

“It won’t be just a park to support Czech athletes – there will also be the possibility to practice the sports.

“We’d like to invite people, especially young children, to try the sports, to have a look – and maybe they will find their own sport.”

Why Lake Lipno? Why not Prague?

“It’s important to look at when the Olympics are being held. It’s the middle of the school holidays, when Prague is full of tourists but there are no children there.

“We thought we had to change the system and go where the children and families are. And we think Lipno, southern Bohemia, is a great destination.”