What can the Czech team hope to achieve at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver?

In 2006 the Czech Republic took four medals at the Winter Olympic Games in Turin. This year the Czech team is the biggest, and perhaps the strongest, in history. So what can the Czechs hope to achieve at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver, which get underway on February 12?

Four years ago the Czech Republic took four medals at the Winter Olympics: gold for cross country skier Kateřina Neumannová in the 30 km free, silver for Neumannová in the 15 km combined, silver for cross country skier Lukáš Bauer in the 15 km classic, and bronze for the men’s ice hockey team.

But what can the Czech Republic expect to achieve at the 2010 Games, which get underway in Vancouver next week? With 93 members, the Czech team is the biggest ever. It is also the strongest ever, says the president of the Czech Olympic Committee, Milan Jirásek.

But does bigger necessarily mean stronger? That’s a question I put to sports journalist Tomáš Kohout, who will be covering events in Vancouver.

“It’s true that it is the strongest team because we have many medal chances. I can’t tell you how many medals we will have, because there is a very tight difference between winning a medal and being fourth or fifth, or tenth maybe sometimes. But I guess this Czech team for the Winter Olympics really should be the strongest in history.”

One reason there are a record number of members in the Czech team is that almost all the starting places offered in Vancouver were taken up by the Czech Olympic Committee. Its secretary general Petr Hrubec says even athletes who have little chance of succeeding should be allowed to take part, budget permitting. And he illustrates the Committee’s philosophy with one concrete example.

“For the Summer Olympic Games in Athens we took with us a very young athlete, a javelin thrower called Barbora Špotáková. She was in seventh or eighth place there [actually she finished 23rd]…It was her first Olympic Games. In her second Olympic Games in Beijing she was Olympic champion. And we think if she hadn’t taken part in Athens, she couldn’t have made it in Beijing, to win gold at her first Olympics.

“So we don’t take everyone, but we take those who we feel have achieved a very good effort, very good results. And we wish the best for them.”

Several members of the Czech Olympic Team are already in Canada, preparing for their events. Among them is cross country skier Lukáš Bauer, who recently won the Tour de Ski for the second time in his career, adding to a medals tally that also includes silver from Turin. This time out he will be taking part in the 15 km free and the 50 km classic at the resort of Whistler near Vancouver. I spoke to Bauer at Prague Airport, just before he set off.

“I think after the Tour de Ski and the World Cup in Otepaa, if I stay healthy I have a big chance of fighting with the best for a medal.”

In all honesty, what medals would you be satisfied with, or what results would you be satisfied with?

“I’ll be satisfied with a medal. About the colour, I can say to you now that it doesn’t matter. But I know that my dream is the gold medal, for sure.”

How much do you pay attention to the other members of the Czech team and how they might do? For example who do you think, apart from yourself, could win medals in Vancouver?

“I think the biggest favourite for top results is Martina Sáblíková…Tomáš Kraus, Šárka Záhrobská, and we will see about the others.”

Some of Bauer’s tips for success in Vancouver were echoed by journalist Tomáš Kohout.

Martina Sáblíková, photo: Bjarte Hetland, CC BY-SA 3.0
“For sure it’s the speed skater Martina Sáblíková, who is the world record holder and a multiple world champion, especially in long distances. We have chances in Lukáš Bauer, and big hopes, because he will take part in not only one race. I guess it will be hard for him to fight for a medal, but he is a big favourite for sure because he won the Tour de Ski and he is in second place in the World Cup classification overall.

“Ski-cross is in the Olympics for the first time and the four-time winner of the World Cup and world champion Tomáš Kraus is one of the big favourites.”

Are there any names people might not know so well who could cause a surprise and bring a medal home to the Czech Republic?

“Maybe our team in cross country skiing, Martin Koukal and Dušan Kožíšek, because you never know when these two are together what can happen. They were third in Obersdorf in 2005 at the World Championships. And again Kožíšek together with [Milan] Šperl in Sappor in 2007…so they can run a very good team sprint in cross country.

“And also the speed skater Karolína Erbanová who is the gold medalist from the European Championships in the 500 metres. Again a sport without any fixed point, I guess, is short track, in which Kateřina Novotná could also be very good.”

Dušan Kožíšek (front), photo: CTK
The 1998 Winter Olympics in Japan’s Nagano were the scene of one of the greatest ever moments in Czech sporting history, when the country’s ice hockey team took gold after a famous 1:0 victory over Russia. One member of that team Martin Straka recently described the Czechs’ victory as a “miracle”. So what are the chances of that miracle happening again? Petr Hrubec of the Czech Olympic Committee.

“We hope for a miracle, but in my own personal experience, the miracle couldn’t be repeated. But we still hope and there are always a lot of factors. We don’t know who we’re going to play with. We hope and expect that we’ll do a very good job in our group, and then it’s always in the stars who our opponents will be. But if there is a medal that will be great. Even bronze – we will take it.”

At the last Winter Olympics in Turin the Czechs took home four medals. How many would you regard as satisfactory this time?

“I think four medals would be satisfactory, even though we hope for more. But four or five, that would be great.”

There have been stories in the Czech media that too much success could prove costly for the Czech Olympic Committee. It has set financial reward for medals, including a 10-million crown bonus for the country’s hockey team if they take gold. However, the Olympic Committee doesn’t actually have that much money. Petr Hrubec continues.

“You know, you have to plan. And how can you plan how many medals whoever will win? We plan between seven and eight million crowns for the rewards. And if the ice hockey team wins, it’s 10 million crowns, and we don’t have this money yet and we didn’t plan it in our budget.

“Of course if they do it, we promise to pay it, we hope to get the money somewhere. We hope the Ministry of Education and Sport could help us, or our partners. I think it’s a great opportunity for one of our partners to be the one who will help with this kind of reward. We can imagine that could happen.”