Salt Lake City Winter Olympics begin on Friday

Ales Valenta

With just two days to go now until the opening ceremony of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics, Radio Prague's Ian Willoughby has prepared this special preview of what Czech sports fans can expect at the games.

Ales Valenta
The bribery scandal which surrounded the awarding of the 19th Winter Olympic Games to Salt Lake City, Utah will be largely forgotten when the razzamataz of the opening ceremony gets underway on Friday evening. At least there should be some razzamataz - with tickets to the sold-out ceremony costing almost $900. Not all of the Czech team will attend the ceremony. The absence of stars from the Czech ice hockey team - for whom the games don't start till Friday week, and skiing stars like Katerina Neumannova means that the relatively unknown freestyle aerial skier Ales Valenta will carry the Czech flag. Valenta's discipline involves performing acrobatics on skis after coming off a steep ramp at great speed.

By the way today is Ales Valenta's 29th birthday.

Valenta came fourth in the last Winter Olympics and has shown good form in recent months. That said, he's sure to be under a lot less pressure than the Czech ice hockey team. Not only did the Czechs win the gold at the Nagano olympics, they've also gotten in the habit of winning the World Championships in recent years. Anything less than another gold would surely be a disappointment to a Czech nation used to victory and celebrating on Prague's Old Town Square.

Katerina Neumanova, photo: CTK
The other major Czech medal hopeful is cross country skier Katerina Neumannova. Neumannova, who will turn 29 during the games, is currently in excellent form and leading the World Cup. By the way, Neumannova is not staying at the Olympic village - she said it was too far from the venue for her event and also that she wanted to stay somewhere a bit quieter.

The Czech team for the games is the second biggest in Czech sports history with 78 members - the country will take part in all disciplines with the exception of curling and snowboarding.

For those of you who don't know a lot about winter sports a few disciplines may need a little explaining. They include... biathlon - a combination of two very different sports - cross-country skiing and shooting nordic combined skiing - ski jumping and cross-country skiing luge - sledging on your back skeleton - sledging on your front, head first moguls - skiing down a 27-degree slope over large uniform bumps with bumps up to 1.2 meters high. In moguls skiers perform moves in the air with names such as daffy, spread-eagle, twister, helicopter, iron cross and - my favourite - backscratcher.

The closing ceremony of the Salt Lake City games takes place on February 24 - let's hope by that time the Czech Republic has got at least a few medals in the bag.