Czech House in London draws Olympic crowds
Fans of UK games flock to flagship venue for culture, atmosphere and Czech beer
Posted: August 8, 2012
The restaurant serves goulash, there is Pilsner Urquell on tap at the bar, and you can lie back and listen to some of the best live bands from the Czech Republic. In a small corner of Islington, north London, this is a Czech home away from home.
Taking up residence in the city's Business Design Centre (BDC), the Czech Olympic House is one of more than 30 national hospitality venues that have appeared across the UK capital for the 2012 Summer Games. They provide a relaxed setting for fans to enjoy the action while also showcasing everything that particular country has to offer.
And although the Czech Republic is not topping the medal table at these games, it has proved the runaway winner when it comes to putting on a post-match spectacle. According to an Aug. 3 survey by the Associated Press, the Czech Olympic House gets the gold thanks to its "party playpen" atmosphere and "eccentricity."
"We always had nightmares that we would be here alone," said Vice President Jiří Kejval of the Czech Olympic Committee. "We're not a big nation, and people are skeptical about doing something big. We are so delighted; it's been great."
The Czechs spent some £3 million on the Olympic house, which has come a long way from its humble beginnings at the Barcelona Games 20 years ago, when a small office was only open to competitors and VIPs.
Now, an average of 4,000 people are stopping by every day to watch the drama of the games unfold on giant screens dotted around the venue and sample the delights of the Czech Republic.
"It's a house for the public," Kejval says. "There's been huge demand for Olympic tickets, but not everybody has been able to participate in that. That's why we have the giant projections, and we also want to present Czech business, culture and education."
Outside the venue, David Černý's surreal sculpture of a double-decker bus doing push-ups creates a taste of what lies ahead, but it is inside where the proper fun starts.
On entering the BDC, visitors are hit by an array of lights, sounds and colors. There is a three-on-three indoor basketball court, table football and - for the less active - a chill-out zone. A wander upstairs to the balcony area also reveals some of the best in Czech photography, art and tourism.
Unsurprisingly, the house has been a popular draw for locals as well as those from further afield.
"It's great to have the culture of the Czech Republic in here, and it gives us a chance to support the Olympics as they should be," said Aaron Brandon-Tyrrell from Islington.
"Prague is one of my favorite cities in Europe, so to have it around the corner is far too easy," said another Islington resident, Zak Bora.
"It's beautiful, it's fantastic. I was surprised to see the size of it," said Emöke Rátki from Hungary. "The beer is fantastic, and I've loved watching the tennis today."
Among the other Olympic houses is the Africa village, which is hosted by all the continent's 53 nations competing in London. Other notables include Jamaica House at the O2 Arena and Casa Brasil, where visitors can samba long into the night.
However, Kejval believes the Czech effort stands out from the rest.
"Our concept is strong," he said. "We have a real international flavor here. We say we want people to cheer on Team Great Britain, but when they're not in the field, we want them to cheer on the Czechs."
Business also has an important role to play, with the Czech Industry and Trade Ministry organizing a series of events to promote the country's economic interests. Kejval says the sporting atmosphere is conducive to deal-making.
"It makes a change from the cold, dry meeting room," he said. "The positive atmosphere of sport takes the business relationship to another level."
Adding to the Czech Olympic House's popularity is the fact that tickets for a number of Olympic events have gone on sale here. Long queues form daily outside the entrance as people try to get their hands on the coveted bits of paper.
The tickets were unused from the Czech delegation's original allocation and have been made available to any European Union citizen.
Meanwhile, footballers Tomáš Rosický and Petr Čech, as well as former Olympic legends Colin Jackson and Sergey Bubka, have dropped by to delight the crowds. The venue has also been a regular meeting place for the Czech Olympians, whom Kejval says have been visiting "spontaneously."
"I'm really enjoying the way I can meet my friends and all the people who have come to visit me," said badminton player and Czech flag bearer Petr Koukal. "The fans want to see us in person, and it's nice for us to give them something back by coming here."
Swimmer Simona Baumrtová added, "It's really great, one of the most beautiful Olympic houses. I didn't expect that so many fans would be here in London."
Now all that remains is for the Czech team to start climbing up that other medal table. Rower Miroslava Knapková got the golden ball rolling Aug. 4, and Kejval hopes there will be more to follow.
"I think the last word will be for Team GB. It's astonishing what they've done here, but I think we will definitely have the possibility to celebrate more," he said.
Thousands of fans inside the Czech Olympic House will be hoping Kejval is right.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at
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