Jan Palicka - a man who loves last-minute drama in the world of sport

Jan Palicka

In this edition of One on One we find out what it's like to be a sports reporter on the Czech beat: my guest is Jan Palicka, a sportswriter for the major Czech daily Mlada Fronta Dnes, who covered such memorable events this year like the European Football Championships in Portugal - where the Czechs excelled - and the Athens Olympics, where they clinched just one gold. When we met at a garden café some time ago I began by asking Jan how he long he had been involved in writing and why he had chosen sports.

"When I was eighteen I started in journalism at university. I studied and before Nagano '98 I went to Mlada Fronta Dnes. I wanted to write about sports, I wanted to be 'in action'. So, I chose my profession."

Why sports in particular? Were you yourself a sportsman?

"I loved sports: I played football, handball, I did athletics. I loved it. I still love the action, the last-minute drama."

It is drama, isn't it?

"It is. It is. The Olympics and the European Championship in Portugal were the two most incredible events I've ever covered."

That truly must have been a sportswriter's dream come true: let's discuss Euro 2004 first. What was the atmosphere like in Portugal?

"I forgot it. No, I'm kidding! It was a fantastic month for me in a beautiful place in Penalonga, near the Czech team with great players, it was amazing."

The Czechs did so very well led by Pavel Nedved, Poborsky, and others. Milan Baros was crowned king of the goal scorers... Did you expect that they would go as far as they did and were you impressed with their play?

Mila Baros,  Euro 2004,  photo: CTK
"Yeah, I was impressed. They were very well prepared by coach Karel Bruckner and they were not tired like in previous years. It was the highest level of play reached by this generation."

Can we say now that Czech football has become truly world-class? I mean, the Czechs made it to the final of the European Championship in 1996 in England - they came in second against Germany, but they played a much more defensive style then, far more similar to the style Greece used this year to win.

"That's right: the Greek team this year used the same type of defensive tactics like the Czechs in '96. This time around the Czechs were the attackers, the playmakers, right side and left! In '96 the Czechs were all defence: with just one striker up front. In Portugal it was the Czech team that scored goals, more goals than the others. And they were fighters and creators."

When you're lucky enough to be covering a sport like football which you personally enjoy, it must be difficult not to get caught up in emotions...

"I have to tell you I'm not a 'fan'. I am too concentrated on my work to be a fan. My parents don't believe me but it's true. I couldn't be a fan. If I'm writing an article I just can't. Maybe, for just a few seconds, such as when the semi-final was lost, I was sad. But other journalists were crying. But at that moment I didn't care about the tears. It's not only pity: the opponent was better. It's just, I have to write it. I have to be above everything."

In short, the sense that I get from you is a definite commitment to brining across an objective reality, and I'd like to suggest that within that reality "sport" wins for you. At that point it doesn't matter who kicks the ball into the net, as long as it's a 'perfectly kicked ball'.

"Yes, that's it."

Pavel Nedved and Marek Jankulovski,  Euro 2004,  photo: CTK
In writing there are all kinds of different genres. In sports writing do you have a favourite? The pre-game analysis, the game itself, the column pieces; do you have a favourite?

"It depends on the day. I love the 'big' interview. Sometimes I like stories, reportages, it depends."

As a sportswriter you come into contact with many of the stars, like Nedved. What kind of relationship do you have with them?

"There has to be distance. I was in Pavel Nedved's house in Torino, one or two days. It's not a friendship, it's a professional relationship. We're not friends, we won't be friends. Maybe our children, but not us."

The Czech Republic is not that big a nation - 10 million people or so - yet they have made such a mark in the world of sport in the past and the present: great footballers, hockey players, and in the more distant past now, great tennis players. How do you explain Czech sportsmen's and sportswomen's success?

"I think Czech people are competitive they like to win. In the past sport was one of the ways you presented yourself, you could travel abroad. Baros, twenty-two, is a member of the new generation: they have more money and possibilities now."

Okay, let's turn to the Olympics, what were they like to cover? What was that like as an experience?

Roman Sebrle,  Athens 2004,  photo: CTK
"I was so shocked! It was my first complete Summer Olympics! I was in Syndey in 2000, but only to cover the football and the Czechs went out in the qualification round, so I just flew home! But, now in Athens everything was perfect. A colleague and I were there from the beginning to the end and we just planned every day what to do in the morning when Czech stars were in action. Rowing, shooting, athletics, basketball, canoeing, name more sports! {laughs}"

Was there any moment that for you summed-up the Olympic Games? One moment of an athlete's victory that defined the games; it didn't necessarily have to be a Czech athlete either.

"But it was, it was a Czech athlete, it was Roman Sebrle when he won the decathlon. It was the most expected event by Czechs. When a Czech athlete is successful your daily is successful. So, that was the day, the Olympic decathlon. I knew I had to be at my best: to write swiftly and easily, to be a partner for the readers who watched it on TV. I was so lucky to be there for the gold I have to tell you I screamed!"