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Tennis funding leaves kids out in cold

A school gymnazium on Lazaretská Street in Bratislava is surrounded by a covered walkway that protects passersby from falling masonry. Inside, paint hangs in peeling strips, and chickenwire grids cover weak spots in the walls. Elementary school children use the ageing facility for sports in the day, while local residents practice aerobics and martial arts there by night.
The Education Ministry, with hundreds of similar 'problem' gymnaziums on its hands, this summer asked the government for Sk1.2 billion ($25 million) to make school exercise grounds safe and better equipped. But far from coughing up the money, last week the government instead donated Sk330 million ($6.8million) to reconstruction of the National Tennis Centre in the capital. The gymnasium request was turned down.
School principals across the country erupted in anger at what they saw as pork-barrelling in the nation's capital at the expense of youth in the regions.


One of Slovakia's most famous tennis players, Karol Kučera. Would he have done better had there been a national tennis centre?
photo: TASR

A school gymnazium on Lazaretská Street in Bratislava is surrounded by a covered walkway that protects passersby from falling masonry. Inside, paint hangs in peeling strips, and chickenwire grids cover weak spots in the walls. Elementary school children use the ageing facility for sports in the day, while local residents practice aerobics and martial arts there by night.

The Education Ministry, with hundreds of similar 'problem' gymnaziums on its hands, this summer asked the government for Sk1.2 billion ($25 million) to make school exercise grounds safe and better equipped. But far from coughing up the money, last week the government instead donated Sk330 million ($6.8million) to reconstruction of the National Tennis Centre in the capital. The gymnasium request was turned down.

School principals across the country erupted in anger at what they saw as pork-barrelling in the nation's capital at the expense of youth in the regions.

"A gymnasium is a luxury we can't even imagine," said Valéria Urbanová, vice-principal of an elementary school in the town of Demandice (where, what pop.). "Our students exercise in the hallways. And we're not a small school - we draw students from four villages."

Zuzana Haciova, principal of an elementary school in Sloboda (where, what pop.), said the showers and toilets in her gymnasium had been built in 1964 and no longer worked, while the windows and wall coverings also needed repair.

The government's November 28 decision will mean such repairs are put off again. The tennis centre rehaul will be financed largely from privatisation revenues (Sk195 million), with another Sk97 million from state lottery earnings and Sk10 million in money not spent repairing damage from last year's drought.

Although the tennis centre project had originally been presented by the Education Ministry, the ministry had later given priority to a programme dubbed 'Let's Bring Sports Back to School', which called for the reconstruction of gymnasiums. Ministry officials voiced dismay after the funding verdict.

"I'm very sorry about this because the tennis centre was really a number two project," said Mária Ďurišinová, director of the sports and youth section at the Education Ministry. "It looks as if tennis players are very good at lobbying cabinet members."

Ivan Mikloš, the Deputy Prime Minister for Economy and the cabinet member most closely identified in press reports as behind the decision, said tennis was the best image-building sport for Slovakia, in turn a solid reason for approving the reconstruction. "I agreed with the tennis centre construction," he said, although he maintained Education Minister Milan Ftáčnik had actually introduced the proposal.

The national tennis centre will have a five-court training area and a central court for 4,000 viewers with a retractable roof. It is expected to be completed in the first quarter of 2003. The Slovak tennis association has already received Sk23 million($475,000) in lottery revenues for purchase of the land.

The centre will meet the standards of the International Tennis Federation for men's and women's competitions, including the Davis Cup and Fed Cup.

The last time a similar amount was invested in Slovak athletics was before 1989, with the only significant construction project over the last decade being a Sk91 million ($1.9 million) investment into an indoor athletic hall in Bratislava which finished last year.

Igor Moška, generally secretary of the Slovak tennis association, said the last investment into an international standards tennis complex was in 1940. "With the success Slovak tennis players have been having, it was incumbent on us to make up for lost time," he said.

Five Slovak tennis players, including Karol Kučera, Dominik Hrbatý, Karin Habšudová, Henrieta Nagyova and Daniela Hantuchová, are in the top 100 world rankings.

Slovak tennis successes in 2001 include Hantuchová's Wimbledon victory in the mixed doubles and Hrbatý's reaching the quarter final at the Australian Open.

Moška added that Slovakia had recently been given a period of grace in which to build an adequate international standards arena for world-class competitions such as the Davis Cup and the Fed Cup. The period ends this year.

Such competitions now take place in Slovakia even though the country does not have a tennis arena meeting world standards.

Earlier this year the head of the International Tennis Federation, Francesco Ricci-Bitti, travelled to Slovakia to ask Prime Minister Mikuláš Dzurinda to build an international standards facility so that the competitions would not have to be moved to another country.

"This is another reason for building the tennis centre," Moška said. But Darina Malová, a sociologist with Comenius University in Bratislava, said the government had not ensured the greatest good for the greatest number of Slovaks.

"Just think how many children would have used repaired gymnasiums, and how many will come to the tennis centre. It was a tough decision and the government was right not to ignore the international success of Slovak tennis, but I would have supported the schools first," Malová said.

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