JAROMÍR Ruda has deeply engraved his name into minds of deaf athletes and their families. They are likely to associate Slovakia with words like fraud, shame and bitterness for the rest of their lives. Ruda and his story of shame instantly pumps up the blood pressure of those working in tourism in Slovakia’s High Tatras. The man, who allegedly embezzled money earmarked for the Winter Deaflympic games, has put one of the worst possible black marks on one of this country’s premier tourist destinations.
The 17th Winter Deaflympics were cancelled at nearly the last minute, quickly followed by despair among deaf athletes who had already travelled to Slovakia or those who were still planning to come to compete in a global sporting event and show that the faith and support of their families, teams and coaches had been well-invested. But instead of a great sporting experience, a very different kind of lesson about human nature crashed down on them.
According to statements from the police, Ruda, as head of the Slovak organising committee, fraudulently borrowed €10 million from at least four companies to finance the Winter Deaflympics in Slovakia. He has neither returned the money to the lenders nor shown how the money was used. Ruda has denied the accusations of fraud and said he would take legal action against his accusers. Nevertheless, Slovak media have reported that Ruda will face additional charges of having embezzled as much as €1.7 million that was earmarked to finance the winter competition.
News has a cruel anatomy: scandals always travel faster than reports about a significant academic or scientific achievement or a grand performance by a cultural group. It is hard to say what the father of this shame was thinking – perhaps that somehow it would all work out, or that it could be explained in some way, or perhaps it could be gotten away with and then be blamed on someone else. But it is even harder to believe that all along the way of organising these games there was no one who could detect the burgeoning problems and reverse the course of events.
Organising an international sporting event is in a different league to bringing together a couple of family members and neighbours and faking a conference or workshop for a target group that has the attention of European bodies and then finagling funds from the European pocket. We can proclaim that the Deaflympics debacle is a deviation and not really the rule in Slovakia. But for the athletes and their families as well as the wider international community that will not be an acceptable explanation and it will take much more to change how many now view Slovakia.
There is a chance for Slovakia to redeem itself: the Ice Hockey World Championship. It is an opportunity to overcome some of the stereotypes that foreigners nourish about the country but there is also the risk that Slovaks might reinforce a few of those negative perceptions. These will at least be partially decided in the microcosm of each visitor’s reception in Slovakia: the single waiter who cannot manage any words in a foreign language and who greets visitors with that disdainful look that can repel even the thirstiest and hungriest Slovak.
Even if there will be no mega-fraudsters to defraud the whole event, let’s hope Slovaks remember that in the microcosms of all these foreign visitors a single taxi driver who charges twice the fair rate only because he hears a foreign language might leave just as bad a taste.
Of course, such unpleasant experiences can affect a visitor anywhere in the world but our citizens should now be fully aware that the country’s image is at stake when the international community has been invited en masse. It takes much more than just designing a nice logo and unfurling the national flag to be a good host.
Slovakia no longer wants to be viewed and evaluated solely through the lens of being a post-communist country. Slovakia wants to be seen as part of the premier league, at least this is what statements by its leaders suggest.
If that is the case then it must now be crystal clear that past techniques such as “if something goes wrong we will explain and they will understand” will simply not work. There are important perceptions that are not decided by skilled arguments or twisted interpretations but rather by authentic, positive experiences or by simply encountering internationally accepted standards and rules of behaviour.
28. Feb 2011 at 0:00 | Beata Balogová