IT WAS four years ago that Slovakia's Olympic hockey team was sent packing after losing to Kazachstan in the last game of the opening round. It was a bitter moment for Slovak sport, but then the winter of 1998 was a low point for the country in general.
I remember the disappointment, both in our offices, around the nation and in the Nagano rink. I remember watching Slovak NHL spark Ziggy Pálffy cover his face with his hands, and thinking, Jesus, this country never catches a break. Kazachstan, for crying out loud.
Sport through the years has proven one of the only things that can distract Slovaks, a dour nation fit to beat the Scots. In the 1994 Winter Olympics I watched Pálffy, then unknown beyond Slovakia, blow past heavy limbed defencemen to become the country's top scorer in a sixth place team finish. I watched the games on the couch of a single mother of three who earned Sk5,000 a month running the x-ray machine at the local hospital. She kept putting down her sewing and saying "naši su šikovní" (our guys are pretty good), for all that she could care less about hockey.
In 1996 I watched Slovakia outclass Canada in a 3-3 tie at the World Championships in Vienna. The most impressive part of the match was the Slovak national anthem, in which 5,000 hoarse daytrippers from across the Danube added some real thunder to Lightning Over the Tatras.
The football World Cup qualifiers in 1997 brought a 2-1 home victory over the Czechs, and perhaps the only moment in modern Slovak history when a gang of skinhead rowdies has enticed a crowd of 32,000 into a deafening chant of "České kurvy" (Czech whores). Not pretty, but a statement of independence nonetheless.
I attended the 2000 hockey World Championships simulcast on SNP Square in Bratislava, where Slovakia lost to the Czechs 5-3 in the gold medal match, but it was no place to be with an eight-month-old baby, however much he loved hockey. But the square was more crowded than it had ever been for anti-Mečiar demonstrations, and they stuck around until the silver medal heroes returned from St. Petersburg in the early morning.
In all the faces at these gatherings, and in all the nearly-there performances, I've seen something very moving. If sports is the barometer of how things are going on the home front, then what I read from Slovakia's sports record is "we're nearly there." What I've seen in crowds is the response "we need you to be better now."
It must be tough to be a US sports fan. How does the dialogue go? "We're the best again by a wide margin." "America is proud." To say nothing of what they discuss at the opposite end of the spectrum, in Papua New Guinea or Andorra.
Sports, like life, needs a struggle with a small chance of victory to be fulfilling. If you live in a country where victory (a comfortable standard of living) is virtually assured, a silent ingredient of happiness is lost, and the outcome is somehow bland. And if it's all struggle and no victory, the meal may be spicy but has no spiritual nutrient whatsoever.
Slovakia, almost a decade after independence, desperately needs some confirmation that life's victories can be won. Political change, in which people invested so much hope from a near-empty larder, hasn't helped. Economic reforms, which sent my 1994 couch partner as an au pair to Egypt at 46 years of age, have stalled half way (struggle without victory). It beggars the imagination, but the country's leaders are still calling widespread dismay "a stupid mood", and are even organising a mid-February conference on the government's right to greater trust from its voters.
I've never been able to tell inquisitive Slovak hosts exactly what I like so much about their country, but on the eve of the Salt Lake Olympics I think I know. It's people cheering for a vision of their nation, through the prism of sport, that still has the power to overcome resignation. It's hockey teams that never win, but always smell of possible victory. It's Ziggy Pálffy, streaking over the blue line, watched proudly by a middle aged woman who could care less about hockey.
11. Feb 2002 at 0:00 | Tom Nicholson