During the four years since the 1996 Atlanta Summer Olympic Games, the life of Slovakia's leading speedwalker, Igor Kollár, has been filled with ups and downs.
Riding a wave of confidence heading into the Atlanta games, Kollar's hopes were dashed when, after establishing a huge lead over the pack in the 20 kilometre speed walk, he was disqualified from the event. Speedwalkers are issued a yellow warning card whenever they break the cardinal rule of speedwalking, which is that one foot be in contact with the ground at all times. After two yellows - the misfortune suffered by Kollár - a red card is issued, signifying expulsion.
Kollár, however, maintains that the judges disqualified him simply because he had forged so far ahead of the pack - that they disqualified him in the name of preserving a close finish. While his former coach disputes that theory, it cannot be denied that Kollár's dissapointment in Atlanta was followed closely by a steep his decline in his career. Over the following two years, his performance lagged, eventually to the point where he was expelled by his sports club, Dukla Banská Bystrica.
"I tore my hip muscle before the European Championships two years ago," Kollár (35) said. "They [Dukla Banská Bystrica] didn't care that I was injured, and when I finished 15th, they threw me out. They said I was too old."
At that point, Kollár was broke, unemployed and downcast. Not willing to give up on the sport, however, he established his own club called HITEC, and began training for the Sydney Olympics. Free from what he called the oppresive coaching style of his former club, Kollár began to thrive.
"The  World Championships caused a big surprise," he told The Slovak Spectator September 4. "I finished sixth and was nominated for the Best Athlete in Slovakia award."
Kollár's unexpected success also established him as Slovakia's brightest hope for a speedwalking medal in Sydney. The Slovak speedwalking team also includes Róbert Valíček (31), Peter Tichý (31), Peter Korčok (26) Štefan Malík (34) and Zuzana Blažeková (20). Valíček and Blažeková will compete in the 20 km race, while Tichý, Korčok and Malík will all compete at 50 km.
"This is the biggest speedwalking team in Slovak history to go to the Olympics," said Juraj Benčík, Dukla Banská Bystrica chief coach.
Slovak speedwalkers have been successful in the past - in 1988, Slovak Jozef Pribilinec took gold at the Seoul Olympics for Czechoslovakia. And while the competitors have changed, not all the names have done the same. Blažeková, for example, is the daughter of four-time Olympic competitor Pavol Blažek. As the youngest member of the team, Blažeková has earned a supportive group of fans. "I wish her success the most because she is the only girl on the team and she is a very hard worker," said Mária Mračnová, the Slovak Athletic Union's chairman.
Of the six-member team, though, Kollár stands the best chance of winning a medal. "Kollár is our hottest hope," said Benčík, his former coach of 14 years. Under Benčík's training, Kollár finished eighth in the 1993 World Championships, and his world ranking climb to third in 1996 for the 20 km distance.
But then came the slide: "He became more independent, wanted more freedom from his coach," Benčík complained. "Then he failed to satisfy the club's requirements, and after being disqualified in Atlanta, mainly through his own fault, he got worse year by year."
Benčík said he now uses his own training techniques to prepare speedwalkers for competition. His style has made believers of Korčok and Valíček, both of whom train with him.
"We recently began a new approach to training that has now been used world-wide for amost four years," Benčík said. "It's based on training at different altitudes."
Kollár, for his part, said he was happy to be on his own. Armed with a new sense of calm after the many trials of the last four years, Kollár insists he will not put pressure on himself in Sydney. "Last time I just wanted to win. I believed in myself," he said. "This time I just want to do my best."