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-NAZOV- Slovak Olympians: The higher the hopes, the harder the fall

When the XXVII Olympics Games in Sydney rolled to their festive end on Sunday evening, October 1 - marked by a grandiose fireworks display over the Sydney Harbour and Olympic Commitee President Juan Antonio Samaranch's speech calling the event "the best Olympics Games ever" - competitors from all around the world reflected on their personal results.
Along with reflection came the comparisons. How did this Olypmics' results stack up to those of former years, and to expectations coming into the events?
For Slovakia's 112 member-team, which finished 38th on the medals table out of the 80 competing national teams, the Olympics were both the most successful Olympics ever, and a source of disappointment. While the team notched five medals, compared to three at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (independent Slovakia's first summer Olympics), key members of the national team performed more poorly than had been hoped.


Despite some bitter disappointments, the Slovak Olympic team had some bright moments as well, such as swimmer Moravcová (above, left) who outdid herself winning two silvers in the pool.
photo: TASR

When the XXVII Olympics Games in Sydney rolled to their festive end on Sunday evening, October 1 - marked by a grandiose fireworks display over the Sydney Harbour and Olympic Commitee President Juan Antonio Samaranch's speech calling the event "the best Olympics Games ever" - competitors from all around the world reflected on their personal results.

Along with reflection came the comparisons. How did this Olypmics' results stack up to those of former years, and to expectations coming into the events?

For Slovakia's 112 member-team, which finished 38th on the medals table out of the 80 competing national teams, the Olympics were both the most successful Olympics ever, and a source of disappointment. While the team notched five medals, compared to three at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics (independent Slovakia's first summer Olympics), key members of the national team performed more poorly than had been hoped.

Success

The most enduring image of the 2000 Olympics for the Slovaks will undoubtedly be 24-year-old swimmer Martina Moravcová crying on the winner's podium after winning the first of her two silver medals, in the 100 metre butterfly.

Moravcová won her second silver in the 200 metre freestyle final, marking the first time Slovakia could boast an athlete who had won multiple medals at a single Olympics. The native of western Slovakia's Piešťany surprised the swimming world with her two medals and single-handedly raised the reputation of Slovak swimming.

Martin Benko, the secretary of the Slovak Olympics Committee and the Slovak Chef de Mission in Sydney, said that Moravcová's training in Dallas, Texas had helped her achieve her success. "The American system has prepared for us a top sportsperson," he said. "Obviously, Martina's success is also conditioned by many people in Slovakia, especially her parents. I think I was the only one on the national team who believed she would win two medals."


Rastislav Kužel, a Slovak canoeist who was eliminated in the semis of the K1 1,000 metre, betrays his disappointment.
photo: TASR

Slovakia's other medals, including a gold, were won by the nation's kayakers. The twin brothers Pavol and Peter Hochschorner, 21, competing in white water doubles-kayaking, won the country's only gold this year and the second in its history. Michal Martikán (21), who won the nation's first ever gold in Atlanta, secured the silver in singles kayaking, while compatriot Juraj Minčík (23) took the bronze in the same event.

Reflecting on the kayakers' success, Benko said: "We should all bow down to the championships of our white-water kayakers. It's becoming clearer that for Slovakia this is our number one sport and thus we have to do everything to assure the success of the team for the 2004 Olympics in Athens."

Disappointment

But while athletes like Moravcová and the white-water kayakers excelled, other Slovaks fell short of their dreams and finished far below expectations. František Chmelár, Chairman of the Slovak Olympic Committee, said that he had been disappointed with the performances of several individuals "who need to get their heads straight".

He singled out 110-metre hurdler Igor Kováč as "the individual who disappointed me most with his attitude." Kováč had withdrawn from his event before the competition without, according to Chmelár, sufficiently explaining his reasons. "If he had some kind of health problems he should have had the courtesy to say so before hand, most of all to those people who bore some kind of responsibility for his participation."

Frustrations seeped into other sports as well. Traditionally strong in flat water kayaking and canoeing, Slovakia figured to net at least one medal in the competetions, while the athletes held even loftier aspirations for themselves. But disappointing finishes by every member left them medal-less.

Slavomír Kňazovický, (33), who won silver at the Atlanta Olympics in the 500 metre single-canoe, went to Sydney with a clear goal - to win the gold. Although he started well, the man whose physique has been called 'Herculean' faded in the end for a fifth place finish.

While the nation expected more of him, Kňazovický maintained a positive attitude, saying that the extremely windy conditions at the race's start had adversely affected his performance. "In spite of my finish, I am satisfied with fifth place," he said. "I could have won and I could have lost. This competition was in the hands of the wind."

The four-person kayaking team of Róbert Riszdorfer, Juraj Tarr, Erik Vlček and Róbert Erban also missed out on a medal, finishing fourth in the 1,000 metre competition. In the 1,000 metre doubles-kayak race, the pre-race favourites of Juraj Bača and Michal Riszdorfer finished sixth.

The Olympic letdowns were not limited to the water. Perhaps the biggest Slovak disappointment was rifleman Jozef Gönci, who won a bronze medal in Atlanta and was predicted by the American sports magazine Sports Illustrated to win multiple gold medals. After complaining of illness and withdrawing from one of his competitions, however, Gönci won nothing.

Illness also struck marathon runner Róbert Štefko - or did it? Although Štefko complained of flu-like symptons, his personal doctor publicly doubted his illness and even suggested that the pressures of the competition were behind the marathoner's complaints.

"We have watched him closely for three days and so far we cannot see any health problems that could endanger his starting the race," said his doctor Tibor Marček. "He has been walking around like death warmed over. I think it's mental fear of the race."

Štefko eventually started the 42-kilometre marathon, but dropped out in the 37th kilometre after he had no chance of earning a medal. After the marathon, he maintained that illness had affected his performance. "If this hadn't been the Olympic marathon, I would not have even started the race," he said. "But the Olympics only come every four years and that's why I wanted to try it."

But Štefko was unable to finish the race he had started. "After 35 kilometres I had really had enough," he said. "I wanted to quit then, but there were thousands of spectators around supporting me and pushing me onwards. So I told myself that I had to find a piece of the track where there was nobody. I got my wish on the 37th kilometre, when we got to the highway. I stopped and got on a bus."

Tennis stars Karol Kučera and Dominik Hrbatý also fell short of Olympic medals. In the doubles competetition, the duo only succeeded in reaching the quarter-finals, and both were ousted sooner than expected in the singles event.

For the women, Karina Habšudová advanced to the third round in singles and, with partner Janette Husárová, also made it to the third round in doubles. Henrieta Nagyová was dealt an unlucky hand in singles when she was forced to open against the eventual gold medal winner American Venus Williams.

In team events, the Slovak Under-21 footballers finished fourth in their group with a single victory and two losses. The women's basketball team, anchored by members of the European Club Championship team SCP Ružomberok, finished seventh.

The 2000 Sydney Olympics Medal Results

 CountryGold SilverBronzeTotal
1USA39253397
2Russia 32282888
3China28161559
4Australia16251758
5Germany14172657
6France13141138
7Italy1381334
8Netherlands129425
9Cuba1111729
10Great Britain1110728
13Hungary86317
14Poland65314
28Czech Rep.2338
38Slovakia1315

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