Key to Czech biathlon’s success in Sochi: hard work… and some well-guarded secrets

Veronika Vítková, Gabriela Soukalová, Jaroslav Soukup, Ondřej Moravec, photo: CTK

The Czech Olympic team won eight medals at the Sochi Winter Games, more than ever before. The games were a dream come true for Czech biathletes who took five of the eight medals. Much of the credit went to the biathletes’ chief coach Ondřej Rybář whose approach and training methods bore fruit at the games. So what are the ingredients of the biathletes’ brilliant success? Jan Richter investigates in this edition of In Focus.

Veronika Vítková,  Gabriela Soukalová,  Jaroslav Soukup,  Ondřej Moravec,  photo: CTK
Hundreds of people came to greet their Olympic heroes in the Czech Radio building in Prague’s last week, shortly after their return from Sochi.

Czech biathletes scored five medals at the games: Gabriela Soukalová won silver in women’s mass start event while Ondřej Moravec finished second in pursuit. The same athlete also won bronze in men’s mass start race while his teammate Jaroslav Soukup took bronze in sprint.

The Czech team’s historic Olympic record was crowned with silver from mixed relay event. Double medallist Jaroslav Soukup explains what some of the ingredients of his success in Sochi were.

“It’s mostly long-term work and preparation, and also the final preparation ahead of the race. All of this came together perfectly. I was in good skiing form, and I shot well, too.

“But in biathlon, you need other things to work for you as well, for instance when faster skiers miss a target. So all of this came together, and I won a medal.”

Ahead of the games, Czech biathletes said they were hoping to win at least one medal, with the results far exceeding their expectations. But was their success really so surprising? At the world championships hosted by the Czech Republic last year, the Czech mixed relay team took the bronze.

Jaroslav Soukup has often reached the podium in World Cup events, and so have his teammates Ondřej Moravec, Gabriela Soukalová, and others. Czech biathletes began scoring good results some four years ago – in fact, shortly after the Czech Biathlon Union hired a new chief coach, Ondřej Rybář.

The coach, who is only 35, had one goal when he joined the team – the Sochi Olympics. He overhauled training methods, and earned the athletes’ respect while maintaining informal and friendly relations with them says silver medallist from Sochi, Jaroslav Soukup.

“We have been training a lot and did many other things. Ondřej Rybář tuned the system to perfection, and it has paid back. Ondřej really knows what he’s doing; he knows what each of us needs, and we all work together.”

Ondřej Rybář,  photo: Matěj Schneider
But what exactly has the young coach done to the biathlon team to make it one of the best in the world? That’s a question Ondřej Rybář hesitates to answer. I spoke to the chief coach and asked him about his recipe for success.

“It was a big success for us because in our Olympic history, we never won medals in biathlon before. But in Sochi, we had a really good team in which more than one of its members had a chance for the podium. Instead, there five or four people who could do that and in the end, we won five of them.”

So how did you achieve that? As you said, these are first medals in biathlon for the Czech Republic. What is the secret to your success?

“I think it’s hard work. In the previous four-year Olympic cycle, we introduced a new training system; we put the entire team together and the A-team and the B-team are now training together the whole time. That’s good physically and also psychologically as the young athletes can learn things from the best. But the most important thing is training hard and the athletes’ health.”

So do you do anything differently than your competitors in Germany, Norway, and other countries?

“We have our own ways, and we also been learning from some of the strong teams like Norway and France. Sometimes, we work together with the Slovenians in Pokljuka where we go to training camp. But we have a big team and it’s not easy to coordinate all this. But as every coach, I look around for new ideas just like my colleagues from other countries.”

So what were the new things that you included in your practice?

“Well, that’s my own recipe, my own cook book. But it’s mostly all about training hard. We have changed some things whenever we felt it was necessary to push the athletes a bit more to the success. But I can’t say more –it’s really our secret to success.”

Gabriela Soukalová,  photo: CTK
I understand that about 15 years ago, a new system of youth biathlon training centres was established. How important has this been for your recent successes?

“We now have four such big training centres for young people which I think is fine for the Czech Republic which does not have that many people. We are of course trying to get more children for biathlon but it’s not that easy. It’s an individual sport and it’s very hard. Many young people spend their time sitting in front of their computers or playing football or hockey.

“But the success in Sochi shows young people they you can win medals in biathlon, and we are now hearing from young people who want to take up the sports. We will just have to somehow adapt our training system. When children come to clubs, it’s very important that they get a good coach. So we are working on this, and on expanding our numbers because right now, we don’t have that many adult athletes.”

How important was the arrival of the experienced sports marketing manager Jiří Hamza, who joined the Czech biathlon association several years ago?

“It’s very important. There are two sides of biathlon: the athletes and the coaches and the team around them; the other is the manager who is very important. As you know, professional sport without money does not really work. The team works very hard but they need sponsors, advertising and so on.

Last year, the world championships hosted by the Czech Republic in Nové Město na Moravě was very successful for Czech biathlon; Jiří Hamza was the head of the organizing committee and it worked perfectly, also for the spectators. Over 20,000 people came to see it.

So I think this was the beginning of our success, and the good organization of the championships gave us a chance to get good sponsors and partners. We now have solid partners and that’s the work of Jiří Hamza.”

After Sochi, you are no longer the underdogs. Do you now feel under pressure to perform and be successful all the time?

Ondřej Moravec,  photo: CTK
“We’ll see what happens. But we are on a good wave and there some things we can still improve. The Czech women team with Gabriela Soukalová and Veronika Vítková is very young and strong; the men’s team – Moravec, Šlesingr, Soukup – is not old either and they can focus on the next Olympic Games.

“We are in the meantime looking for new additions to the team; it’s good to have four or five good biathletes as well as some time to find new people for the team as well.”