Petr Hrubec - secretary general of the Czech Olympic Committee

06-02-2006

This coming Friday sees the start of the 2006 Winter Olympics in Turin. The Czech Republic is sending a record 82 competitors to the games, which are sure to capture the public imagination here - especially if the Czech ice hockey team do well. To discuss Czech chances in Turin I visited the headquarters of the Czech Olympic Committee, to meet the organisation's secretary general, Petr Hrubec. Mr Hrubec first told me about Prague's unique place in the history of the Winter Olympics.

"In May 1925 there was an international Olympic congress in Prague and on the agenda of this meeting there was the question, if there should be some winter Olympic games. During the meeting the International Olympic Committee said yes.

"The Winter Olympic Games started in Chamois [France] in 1924, but they weren't called the Winter Olympics at the time. But at the congress it was said that the Chamois games had been the first, and Prague was the cradle of the Winter Olympic Games."

I imagine in those days there were far fewer sports than today?

"Yes, that's true. I think the programme of the games included 15 events. There were things like...military skiing - there weren't the events that we are witnessing now."

Some of our listeners live in countries where the Winter Olympics aren't so much the focus of attention, they don't get as much coverage as the summer Olympics. For Czechs, would you say they're equally important or are the summer Olympics a bigger thing?

"I think the summer Olympics are still bigger for Czechs too. But we have a big tradition of winter sports, because of our climate, because of our weather. For instance, ice hockey is played in nature, on ponds and on rivers - the water freezes and boys and their parents play hockey.

"Also I think we have more than one million skiers, and I think that's a big number for a country of 10 million..."

Actually, about skiing, is the case that the Czechs are better at cross country skiing, in terms of winning competitions, and if so why is that?

"They are better. The reason is that we don't have big mountains. We have, we call them Giant Mountains, in Czech it's Krkonose, but the highest peak is 1,600 metres. If you would like to train and do some good downhill skiing you probably can't go here, you have to go the Alps. So that's why I think cross country skiing is more popular."

I've heard that this Olympic Games will be the first in which the Czech team won't be staying in the same country where the games are being held - they're going to stay in a hotel in France, not in Italy, near Turin.

"Yes, that's true - it probably is the first time. We picked a hotel in Briancon, which is about 20 or 30 km from the French-Italian border. So our main meeting point, and celebration point hopefully, will be in France."

Why didn't you choose something closer to the actual venue?

"We were trying, of course - it wasn't our first idea to find something in France, but we were trying to find a hotel with meeting rooms and other facilities, that will host Czech Television, there will be some news rooms and all the accommodation. And also there should be accommodation for our guests. We were really trying hard but we couldn't find a suitable hotel in Italy, so then the choice came to France."

The Czech team for this Winter Olympics is the biggest ever - 82 competitors are going from this country. How many medals can you imagine the Czech team bringing back, and how many would you regard as a success?

"Some realistic people are talking about three medals, some optimistic people are talking about five or maybe six. I think four would be very nice, and that would be a success.

"Hopefully we are no longer a planned economy like we were before 1989, because then everything should be planned, and also medals should be planned. And if the plan was not fulfilled you were 'bad' and there were some problems.

"So we are looking forward to every success, and of course we will be glad if there are medals on our necks."

Who would you say are the Czechs to watch out for in Turin?

"I think number one is Katerina Neumannova - I think she will be a medalist, I don't know if she will take gold but we hope she can make it. Jakub Janda, our ski jumper, I think he's also in very good shape. And if some of our new stars like Martina Sablikova in speed skating, or Ales Valenta [free-style aerial skiing] again...or of course we are all looking forward to our ice hockey team, and we hope they can make a good effort to get some medal."

I imagine ice hockey will be the most watched sport, people will be hoping for a repeat of Nagano in 1998, how important is it in terms of interest in the games that the hockey team stays in Turin as long as possible, and wins?

"I think it's success for all teams and when we get the best players to the Olympics...after there were no restrictions on professionals starting and players from the NHL, it's I think the biggest tournament ever...It's important for all of us because when they are always the best you can say this was important and this was a real competition. So I think it is importance number one."

This may seem like a strange question but I was reading recently that Czechs say that the thing they're most proud about their country is sporting success. Is that something that you at the Czech Olympic Committee and the competitors themselves are conscious of?

"Yes, of course, when you remember what happened when our 'gold boys' from Nagano came home and there were really thousands of people on the streets...sometimes we think that at least our people and our nation is proud of something, because the political life and our politicians and all these scandals and what we witness every day is not really what we are proud of.

"Of course we feel it, we like it, but sometime it will maybe be better that we are not proud only of our athletes but also of something else like, not only politicians, but our people who do something good for others."

06-02-2006