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Culture Shock: Sports is a different game in Slovakia

The culture of sport, I have discovered, differs around the world. This probably explains why my Slovak friends don't share my enthusiasm for the upcoming Super Bowl. Of course, by the time most of you read this, it will have already occurred. But for me, pre-deadline and pre-Super Bowl, I'm just randy with anticipation.
The first Super Bowl I watched in Slovakia was in 1999 when the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers. I stayed up late to catch the midnight kick-off, and stayed with the German telecast ('Das ist super diving catch!') until four in the morning.
The following year, when my favourite team (St Louis Rams) made the Super Bowl, I made plans to travel to Prague because I'd heard of a sports bar that would show the game on live satellite feed with American commentators. Because of a lack of funds, I ended up settling for the German telecast in Bratislava again, but the will to travel five hours each way just to watch a football game was certainly there.

The culture of sport, I have discovered, differs around the world. This probably explains why my Slovak friends don't share my enthusiasm for the upcoming Super Bowl. Of course, by the time most of you read this, it will have already occurred. But for me, pre-deadline and pre-Super Bowl, I'm just randy with anticipation.

The first Super Bowl I watched in Slovakia was in 1999 when the Denver Broncos beat the Green Bay Packers. I stayed up late to catch the midnight kick-off, and stayed with the German telecast ('Das ist super diving catch!') until four in the morning.

The following year, when my favourite team (St Louis Rams) made the Super Bowl, I made plans to travel to Prague because I'd heard of a sports bar that would show the game on live satellite feed with American commentators. Because of a lack of funds, I ended up settling for the German telecast in Bratislava again, but the will to travel five hours each way just to watch a football game was certainly there.

And I'll do it all again this year (my Rams are back in the final, against the New England Patriots) accompanied by a group of Slovaks who are already wondering aloud why I don't just get some sleep and check the score in the morning.

I have tried to explain to them the importance of this game and the bragging rights that winning it entails. This is serious business. The victorious city, after all, earns the right to riot in the streets, shouting 'WE'RE NUMBER ONE!"

What about the Slovak fan? Are they as crazy about sport as some Americans? Would a native of, say, Nitra, stay up till the early morning hours to watch their home team play Slovan in the national hockey championship game?

Having witnessed first-hand the hockey atmospheres in Bratislava, Skalica, Košice and Spišská Nová Ves, it seems to me that the enjoyment of Slovak sporting events is not as dependent on the outcome as the amount of 20 crown beers consumed.

You also are not likely to find Slovaks discussing statistics with the same fervour as your average American baseball fan. ("You know, Johnny Damon may have had an off-year, but it was that .150 April that did him in. He finished strong, though, at .256 with an on base percentage of .324, which isn't far off his career mark of .346.")

Does that mean that American sports fans are more informed about their teams than Slovak fans? Perhaps, but only in that Americans love sports full of statistics, from e.r.a. to r.b.i., yards after catch to quarterback rating, free throw shooting percentage to triple-doubles. This may explain why soccer's popularity remains so low in the states: not enough stats in a 1-0 match.

Slovaks, meanwhile, are more appreciative of quality of play and the overall experience. This was perfectly illustrated in 2000, when I witnessed the most remarkable mass public gathering in my life.

In my four years in Slovakia, I have seen hundreds of people commemorate Jozef Tiso and the first Slovak state in front of the Presidential Palace, thousands show up on Námestie Slobody to protest Vladimír Mečiar's arrest, and some 25,000 gather on SNP námestie to rail against the Mečiar government in 1998. All were memorable events, but none of them matched the gathering on SNP after the Slovak national hockey team lost a match.

On May 14, over 30,000 fans took to the square to watch the final of the 2000 World Hockey Championships, Slovakia versus the Czech Republic. Although the Slovaks lost 5-3, the celebration was unbelievable. The daily Sme immediately printed a special edition with the blaring headline: "We got the silver!". The dancing, writhing mass partied through the night while the hockey heroes flew back from Russia. When they arrived at 3:00 am, nobody had yet left - if anything, the party had swelled as word of the players' return spread around town. A huge fireworks display over the city centre again commemorated the victory, that is loss. It was Slovakia's highest ever finish in the games, and the fact that they had lost to the Czechs (again) was a minor detail and not important.

I, however, am American. So if the Rams lose the Super Bowl on Sunday you won't find me dancing on the main square of Spišská Nová Ves shouting "We're number two!". On the other hand, if they win, I promise not to riot or loot even a single store.

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