Around two thousand people filled in the main square in Jihlava on Thursday evening to welcome home the only Czech gold medallist from the Olympic Games in Rio: judoka Lukáš Krpálek. The 25-year old Jihlava native won in the under-100kg division in Rio and clinched the Czech Republic’s first-ever Olympic judo medal.
The town of Jihlava, located on the very border of Bohemia and Moravia, greeted its currently most famous compatriot in grand fashion. Krpálek mounted the podium in the centre of Masaryk square to the music of brass bands to receive gifts from the mayor of Jihlava and from the governor of the Vysočina region: a tiny kimono for his baby son and a ten-kilogramme basket full of goodies, which should help him with the planned move to a higher weight division.
With the help of a large screen located next to the podium, people were able to relive Krpálek’s journey at the Olympics, in which he ousted the reigning and former world champions. In the final match, he threw Azerbaijan’s Elmar Gasimov, the current world No. 1, for the maximum ippon.
Lukáš Krpálek, who dedicated his golden victory to his baby son and fellow Czech squad teammate Alexander Jurečka, who died last year in a scuba diving accident at Italy’s Lago di Garda, was clearly moved by the welcome:
“I am so glad that you came to greet me. I expected a lot of people to come, but this has surpassed my expectations completely.”
Among the people who packed the Masaryk square on Thursday were several dozen youths from local judo clubs dressed in kimonos, who came to see their idol. But perhaps the most emotional onlooker was Lukáš Krpálek’s former coach, Josef Šimáček:
“I cannot even begin to describe my feelings. It’s simply great. We meet occasionally, but now, with the medal, it’s something completely different. Lukáš used to be a difficult child, but he balanced that with his diligence. And I used to be a pretty tough coach, so I managed to keep him on a tight leash.”
Thanks to the international successes of Czechs in judo, coaches across the Czech Republic have regsitered a growing interest in the sport both from kids and their parents. With Krpálek’s Olympic victory, that is likely to increase even more.
Judo coach Michal Váňa summed up the situation:
“The interest in judo has grown every year, because parents discovered it is good for the kid’s physical and mental condition. They learn to accept defeat and victory, and they learn not to make fun of their opponents but to respect them.”
Lukáš Krpálek is the first Czech to win a judo medal in the history of the independent Czech Republic. In the former Czechoslovakia, Vladimír Kocman secured bronze at the Moscow Olympic Games in 1980, which were boycotted by the United States.
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