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EDITORIAL

First impressions count

THE ARENAS open on April 29, giving the masses their ice rink gladiators and some long-awaited entertainment, shared euphoria and, for some, even shared grief. Entertainment it is, but the Ice Hockey World Championship can also be an important tool of diplomacy and international promotion – if handled skilfully.

THE ARENAS open on April 29, giving the masses their ice rink gladiators and some long-awaited entertainment, shared euphoria and, for some, even shared grief. Entertainment it is, but the Ice Hockey World Championship can also be an important tool of diplomacy and international promotion – if handled skilfully.

Sports do help to transcend cultural differences, provided the very purpose of a football match, for instance, is not to provide shaven-headed men fuelled by hate an opportunity to let off steam and lash out at whatever or whoever is defenceless and easily to hand.

Foreign diplomats, who could be forgiven for having grown tired of political small talk or of trying to extract any meaningful interpretation from statements by Slovak politicians who are themselves less than sure about what they want to say, have been relieved to have the subject of ice hockey to fall back on.

Diplomats, especially those whose home countries have some ice hockey tradition, now have an escape route to avoid chatting about yet another fruitcake politician announcing the establishment of yet another political party.

One story in the Slovak press on April 28 reported that “in Russia the championship is helping to renew a direct air link between Bratislava and Moscow”. More specifically, Slovakia’s chargé d’affaires to Moscow told the daily that the championship is a very good argument for this effort by Slovakia.

Tourism industry professionals say that the event is a huge chance for this small central European country to implant its name into the consciousness of hundreds of thousands of potential tourists as a result of ice hockey visitors recommending Slovakia to their friends and families – or simply being inspired to return because they liked it here.

But the frail beauty of wooden churches, the charm of small towns and the majesty of the Tatra Mountains will not be the first thing that a foreign visitor encounters when arriving in Bratislava.

The most run-down parts of the city have been cleaned up or, where it was not possible to obscure the decay with billboards and plastic or overspray it with artistic graffiti, simply left alone in the hope that tourists will simply not go there.

The better informed visitors might deliberately seek out the forget-me-not symbol awarded to services and businesses that have pledged to smile and be pleasant to customers – something which is by no means guaranteed in Slovakia, no matter how much you pay. Locals can only hope that the lessons taxi drivers and restaurateurs learn from the fair-play game will stick with them for longer than the two weeks of the ice hockey championship.

Such international events always evoke a sudden rush of national pride in politicians and public figures, with most of them trying to get a bite of the cake.

There are, of course, the notorious ones who want to make sure that their “pride” is more than visible. The leader of the Slovak National Party (SNS), Ján Slota, and Vincent Lukáč, an MP for the party – a man whose qualities can be judged according to his recent statement that he would stand behind Slota until the day he dies since Slota is “a god” for him – have appeared on billboards all around Bratislava wearing the outfit of the national ice hockey team.

Fortunately, most foreign visitors will have no clue about the identity of these grinning figures, or the meaning of the slogan (in Slovak) “SNS trusts our boys”. Fortunately, most foreign visitors will also not give a damn about another clone of the nationalist SNS that is now emerging, established by Anna Belousovová, Slota’s former colleague and arch-enemy.

They will care very little about Slovakia’s politics at all and are unlikely to submerge themselves in the tortured details of the selection of Slovakia’s next general prosecutor or the ruling coalition’s attempt to get itself out the latest, related pickle.

Of course, the visitors are not coming to understand Slovak politics or to comprehend the depth – or perhaps shallowness – of the national pride and national frustrations of Slovaks. Rather, they are more likely to judge Slovakia based solely on whether the taxi driver cheats them or whether their waiter smiles or glares at them when they ask for an extra napkin.


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