Jiří Kejval: Deputy head of Czech Olympic Committee reflects on “very successful” Games

Jiří Kejval

The London Olympic Games, which are already being viewed as one of the greatest Olympics ever, were certainly memorable for the Czech Republic. The team took 10 medals, four more than in Beijing, and the wellington boots they wore at the opening ceremony received a lot of international attention. Meanwhile, the Czech Olympic House, which unlike at previous Games welcomed the general public, attracted a huge number of visitors.

Jiří Kejval
A couple of days after the country’s athletes returned from the U.K., I managed to catch up with Jiří Kejval, who is deputy chairman of the Czech Olympic Committee and will stand for head of the organisation in October. My first question: how were the London Olympics from the Czech perspective?

“Very good. First of all, our athletes took 10 medals, including four gold medals. After Atlanta [in 1996], that's the Czech Republic's second best result ever. The Czech Olympic House was very successful, and we had 80,000 visitors during the 17 days. We had a very successful outfit for the opening, and many other pluses. From the Czech side it was a very successful Games.”

The Czechs had a very slow start to the Olympics. The women shooters didn't do as well as hoped for, and the big names in tennis didn't go as far as we wanted them to. Were you getting nervous when there were no medals for the first three or four days?

“Yes, absolutely. Everybody was nervous at the beginning. But we had a few fourth and fifth places. Then later, in the second half of the first week, Vávra Hradilek broke that, when he took the silver medal. After that Ondřej Synek took silver and Mirka Knapková won gold, and there was the gold finish at the end, with three gold medals in a row. So it was fantastic.”

For you personally what were the biggest highlights?

Photo: Czech Olympic Committee
“First of all, I was very happy about the feedback for our outfit, especially for the wellies. The opening ceremony was awesome. I really like the British, because they have a very similar sense of humour to the Czechs.

“And I think the Czechs contributed a little bit, because when we came into the stadium with the wellies and the umbrellas everybody understood that we have some kind of sense of humour similar to the dry British humour. The response of the British media, and the worldwide media, was very positive, which I really liked.

“And from the sports point of view, my background is in rowing and for me Mirka Knapková's story was very strong. She had a very painful injury and came close to exiting the competition. But she survived and in the end she had a fantastic final and won in start-to-finish style. It was awesome, a great story.”

Did it make a difference to the Czech team performing so relatively close to home? I can only imagine there were more Czech flags in London than in, say, Beijing.

“Absolutely. We've been thinking about that in regard to the next Olympics in Sochi and Rio, because according to our embassy, thirty to eighty thousand Czechs live in London, mainly young Czech learning English and studying. So this population will definitely not be there in Sochi or Rio.

“But every city has a different atmosphere, every Games is different, and the Olympic House must be adapted to the conditions. But London was a great opportunity for us.”

Barbora Špotáková,  photo: CTK
When Barbora Špotáková won it was after Bolt had won his second race. The stadium was almost empty, but there were a lot of Czech flags there.

“That was great. We were very active during the ticket allocation process and one of our major concerns was about tickets for Barbora, because we know that she's very popular here and she was a big favourite for the gold. We had something like one thousand tickets for this event alone. I think Barbora appreciated that and she delivered the gold. That's the most important thing.”

The government is cutting funding for sports in the Czech Republic, but at least in terms of medals you are more successful. Do you think the present level of success, or the level achieved at the Olympics that have just ended, can be sustained, if the state continues to cut spending for sport?

“You're right. We're very happy about the results. On the other hand, sometimes in the eyes of the statistics and financial guys, they think, OK, they have less money and better results, which means there is no problem with sport.

“But what's important is that sport is like a pyramid. The base is the most important part, and that's where you spend the most money. The top of the pyramid is top level sport, which is mainly not funded by state money but by sponsors and so on. So there's no direct relation.

Cross country biker Jaroslav Kulhavý,  photo: CTK
“But there is a relation in terms of time. When you cut the money now, you will see it in 10, 15 years maybe. That's the problem. We have to take care of the money now so that it's there for the young, for the youth.”

Does the Czech Olympic Committee try to focus its spending, or its energies in general, on particular sports that the Czechs are relatively good at?

“That's always a question. It's important to look at foreign countries. For example, 15 or 20 years ago Austria decided they would only support skiing and nothing else. What does that mean? In terms of the Winter Olympics, Austria is excellent; they have very good skiing in all kinds of disciplines.”

“But this year for the first time Austria didn't get any medals. They were not among 85 countries that received medals – which is incredible for a country with such a big sporting tradition.

“On the other hand, you have the British, who for such a big nation had only 13 medals in Atlanta. But they significantly improved the support of sports and they concentrate on more sports, not just one, and look at the results – they had 65 medals, and were third in the table of nations. That's a great success.”

But what is the Czech policy?

Chair of the London 2012 Organising Committee Sebastian Coe,  Jiří Kejval,  photo: Czech House London
“We like to support a big variety of sports, of course. I think also the Czechs are good at individual sports. But unfortunately that's not the result of the system, but the result of the capabilities of individuals.

“If you look closer at the situation with team sports, our situation is not good at all. The women's basketball players were the only team that qualified for London, not the other teams. There the situation is getting worse, and I'm afraid not only for summer sports, but also among winter sports. You can even see the tendency in ice hockey and football, which are both our national sports.

“That's definitely what we have to change. But it's easier to raise one athlete – it's very hard to raise 20 athletes for a team. You need money for that, to support more people. And that's the problem.”

Finally, later this year you're going to run for the post of chairman of the Czech Olympic Committee. What's your motivation in going for the top job, and what will you change?

“The motivation is not only to change sport but to change the understanding of sport in society. Before the revolution, in the '80s, sport was on a pretty top level. It was also very close to the communist government.

David Svoboda won the gold medal in modern pentathlon,  photo: Czech House London
“After the revolution sport, and the prestige of sport, went dramatically down, I think also thanks to those circumstances. But I think sport itself was not bad, and its connection with the communist regime has not been properly understood.

“I think sport can be reborn, not only in terms of results and the Olympics, but also in terms of its position in society, to have sport as a lifestyle. Maybe it's a very general answer, but this is what drives me – to put sport in the position it used to be in, and which it occupies in Western countries.”