Sazka sports arena opened amid bitter political dispute over money

Sazka Arena, photo: CTK

One of the most modern sports arenas in the world was ceremoniously declared open in Prague on Saturday. Some twelve thousand guests turned out to watch President Vaclav Klaus cut the ribbon on the state-of-the-art Sazka Arena, which will host the forthcoming ice-hockey world championships. But there were some notable absences from Saturday's ceremony - members of the cabinet. Rob Cameron reports.

Ales Husak and Vaclav Klaus,  photo: CTK
Leading figures from the worlds of sport, culture and politics gathered in Prague's Vysocany district on Saturday to attend the opening of the multi-purpose Sazka sports arena. In just a few weeks' time, the stadium, built by the leading Czech lottery company Sazka, will host the world ice-hockey championships, and there had been concerns it wouldn't be finished on time. But finished it is, although an argument over money has snowballed into a bitter political dispute.

The problems began when the centre-left government of Vladimir Spidla refused to provide state guarantees to pay for the Sazka stadium. In retaliation, Sazka's director Ales Husak said Prime Minister Spidla would not be invited to Saturday's official opening. This outraged members of the coalition government, and especially Social Democrat deputy chairman Stanislav Gross. He sent a text message to senior party leaders calling on them to boycott the ceremony.

That seemed to have worked - among the special guests attending the festivities on Saturday, there were no ministers there at all - not even Education Minister Petra Buzkova who is responsible for sport. But enemies of the government were all well represented - including Civic Democrat deputy chairman Vlastimil Tlusty, former Social Democrat Prime Minister Milos Zeman, and the former director of TV Nova, Vladimir Zelezny. Mr Tlusty used the event to launch a bitter attack on the prime minister, telling reporters he had damaged Sazka's reputation.

Sazka Arena,  photo: CTK
Apparently there had been a last-ditch attempt at reconciliation, with Mr Husak considering issuing an apology to the prime minister if the government also said it was sorry. But this seems to have come to nothing: Prime Minister Spidla said he would be taking part in another sporting event on Saturday - the Prague half-marathon, a date he said had been in his diary for almost a year.

Some observers have criticised the fact that what was supposed to be a day of celebration was overshadowed by a petty political squabble over money. Indeed, Sazka's financial worries haven't disappeared - the stadium is complete, the ice-hockey championships can go ahead and the Czech Republic has been spared international embarrassment. But Sazka still has to find around six billion crowns - or 220 million dollars - to pick up the bill.