Slovakia aims for first Olympic medal

FOR the third time in the nation's independent history, Slovakia's sports people are competing with the world's best in the Winter Olympics, this time the 19th holding of the event in Salt Lake City, Utah. Slovakia has not scored any medals to date in the Winter Olympics, but the country's largest sport mission ever - 29 individuals and the 40-member hockey team - hopes to change that.
"We're longing for the first medal from the Winter Olympics in the history of independent Slovakia," said František Chmelár, chairman of the Slovak Olympic Committee (SOV). "Secondly, we desire that our hockey players advance from the qualification round to the main event. It could be said that the performance of the Slovak delegation in Salt Lake City stands and falls on the success of our hockey team."


Members of the Slovak Olympic team make their official pledges to President Schuster on January 28.
photo: TASR

FOR the third time in the nation's independent history, Slovakia's sports people are competing with the world's best in the Winter Olympics, this time the 19th holding of the event in Salt Lake City, Utah. Slovakia has not scored any medals to date in the Winter Olympics, but the country's largest sport mission ever - 29 individuals and the 40-member hockey team - hopes to change that.

"We're longing for the first medal from the Winter Olympics in the history of independent Slovakia," said František Chmelár, chairman of the Slovak Olympic Committee (SOV). "Secondly, we desire that our hockey players advance from the qualification round to the main event. It could be said that the performance of the Slovak delegation in Salt Lake City stands and falls on the success of our hockey team."

With 25 Slovak nationals playing in the National Hockey League, including some of the league's top players, Slovakia is expected to provide some strong competition to tournament favourites Canada, Russia and the US. When the games open on February 8, Róbert Petrovický, a hockey forward who now plays for the Swiss club Ambri Piotta, will carry the flag of the Slovak mission.

But the SOV also has high hopes for those athletes who have been scoring good results this winter, such as cross country skier Ivan Bátory, who has finished in the top 10 several times at World Cup events, or the women's biathlon relay team, which came third in a recent World Cup competition. The youngest of the three-member women's downhill ski team, 17-year-old Veronika Zuzulová, represents another great hope; Zuzulová finished in the top 10 at a World Cup alpine event in the Swedish Aare, and was the fastest in the second round of the competition.

The rest of the Olympic team consists of six biathlon competitors, a five-member bobsleigh team, three figure skaters, one short track skater, a four-member luge team, seven skiers and one snowboarder.

None of Slovakia's ski jumpers met the Olympic standard, but compensation arrived when the bob team's results swelled its nomination list from two to five members, despite the fact that the sport is in its infancy in the country. Dressed in black body suits and white helmets, the bobbers will be making their Olympic premiere.

"I expected it," said Chmelár. "The guys don't belong at the absolute top, but they deserve their chance. During the last four years they managed to improve very quickly and meet the nomination criteria at their own expense, practically without any help."

Milan Jagnešák, a member of the bobsleigh team said: "Just participating in the Winter Olympics is a success for us. When we started some time ago, nobody believed in us. We want to compete well in Salt Lake City and show that Slovakia has a good bobsleigh team as well."

While ice hockey with its long tradition has become Slovakia's most widely followed sport, skiing and skating have also built up a tradition and a strong talent network.

"Obviously it's hockey that leads the country," said Jozef Liba, deputy chief of the mission. "That's followed by the Nordic disciplines which have a base of operations at the High Tatras ski resort of Štrbské pleso."

During the last two Winter Olympics, Slovak sports representatives showed improvement, if not medal calibre performances. In Lillehammer in 1994 Slovakia twice came sixth on the biathlon performance of Martina Jašicová and the hockey team's record. In Nagano, Japan, in 1998, while the hockey team did not make it out of the preliminary round, biathloner Soňa Mihoková and the women's biathlon relay both finished fourth, one step from an Olympic medal.

"I hope this trend will continue," said Chmelár. "Slovak sports people have prepared themselves for the Olympics conscientiously, the current generation of hockey players is doing some beautiful things, and biathlon, skiing and luge are all good.

"But the nation will evaluate the success of this Winter Olympics mainly according to the hockey results. I have no doubts they'll do well."

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