Bumper Olympic year brings out the best in Czech sports
Big games medal tally was only halfway mark for athletes
Posted: January 2, 2013
Choosing the winner of this year's Czech Sportsperson of the Year cannot have been an easy job. Included on the shortlist of 10 were four Olympic gold medalists, a Champions League-winning footballer (Chelsea goalkeeper Petr Čech) and one of this country's most famous exports (NHL star Jaromír Jágr). In the end, London champion Barbora Špotáková picked up the award at a glitzy ceremony in Prague Dec. 19. But as The Prague Post's own review of the sporting year shows, it could have gone to any number of contenders.
London 2012 Olympics
They only happen once every four years, but the organizers of the next Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro must already be wondering how they are going to follow the superb two weeks of sport in the British capital in July and August. Despite pre-Games fears over security gaps and transport chaos, London delivered one of the greatest Olympics ever staged. And while the hosts may have stolen the plaudits with their best medal performance in 104 years, the Czech team can also be proud of its showing. Although it was a long time coming, rower Miroslava Knapková grabbed the country's first gold in the single sculls on day eight. That opened the floodgates for a rush of successes, with javelin thrower Špotáková, modern pentathlete David Svoboda and mountain biker Jaroslav Kulhavý all topping the podium as well. For Špotáková - who was also named Czech Athlete of the Year in November for the sixth consecutive time - the victory was especially sweet. She overcame the label of favorite to defend her Beijing title and will now take a year off to have her first baby. In total, the Czech Republic won 10 medals, its biggest haul since the Atlanta Games in 1996.
If the Olympics were this summer's main course, then Euro 2012, hosted jointly by Poland and Ukraine, certainly served as the appetizer. The Czech Republic came into the tournament low on confidence after a disappointing qualifying campaign, only scraping through thanks to a playoff victory against Montenegro the previous November. A 4-1 opening day thrashing by Russia did nothing to ease the pressure on coach Michal Bílek, but improved displays against Greece and Poland saw his side set up a quarterfinal clash with Portugal. That meant a date with Real Madrid star Cristiano Ronaldo, and it was he who broke Czech hearts by scoring the game's only goal 12 minutes from time. Bílek remains under fire as the national team continues to struggle in World Cup 2014 qualifying, although he will hope the emergence of exciting young talents like Vladimír Darida and Ladislav Krejčí is enough to keep him in a job next year. On the domestic front, Slovan Liberec clinched their first Czech crown since 2006 by playing out a nervy goalless draw against fellow title contenders Viktoria Plzeň on the final day of the season, while Sigma Olomouc lifted the Czech Cup. Plzeň have followed up a superb run in last year's Champions League with more success on the Continent. Both Pavel Vrba's men and Sparta Praha reached the last 32 of the Europa League, where they will play Napoli and Chelsea, respectively.
It was a case of déjà vu for the Czech Republic at the World Championship in May. For the second straight year, they claimed the bronze medal, this time after a narrow 3-2 victory over reigning champions Finland. The Czechs had been upset by neighbors Slovakia in the semifinals, but bounced back in style to hold off their spirited co-hosts. Edmonton Oilers winger Aleš Hemský contributed with two assists, while goaltender Jakub Štěpánek produced 34 saves as the Finns looked to tie the game in the third period. However, sadly for coach Alois Hadamczik, that fighting spirit was severely lacking at the recent Channel One Cup in Russia. His side shipped 13 goals during their three matches and finished bottom of the four-nation pile. Hadamczik knows a big improvement will be needed when the Euro Hockey Tour resumes in 2013. Closer to home, the Kontinental Hockey League (Russia's rival to the NHL) made its long-awaited debut in Prague with the creation of expansion club Lev Praha. The Lions started the campaign with a bang, winning seven of their first nine matches, but a run of seven defeats in a row resulted in the dismissal of coach Josef Jandač. Meanwhile, in the midst of the ongoing NHL lockout, America's loss has been Europe's gain, with a number of star players crossing the ocean to ply their trade here. Among them, Czech legend Jágr, whose presence for Rytíři Kladno - the club he owns - has lit up the Extraliga.
Excited fans were spoilt rotten in 2012, as the Czech Republic became the first country to hold all three of the sport's international team crowns - the Hopman, Fed and Davis cups - at the same time. The latter two events took place at Prague's O2 Arena over two memorable November weekends, with the feverish home crowd often threatening to blow the stadium's roof off. Lucie Šafářová, usually shying away from public attention, was the gregarious star of the Fed Cup final. She won both of her matches against Serbian opponents Ana Ivanović and Jelena Janković to ensure the team sealed back-to-back titles following their victory against Russia in 2011. And just when you thought the atmosphere couldn't get any more electric, Radek Štěpánek cranked it up a notch when he overcame Spain's Nicolás Almagro in the pair's decisive Davis Cup final rubber a fortnight later. That gave the Czech Republic its first men's team title since 1980, much to the delight of the watching Ivan Lendl and Tomáš Šmíd. The performances of Czech No. 2s Šafářová and Štěpánek upstaged those of their higher-ranked compatriots Petra Kvitová and Tomáš Berdych, who endured frustrating seasons. Berdych finished 2012 where he started it, ranked No. 6 in the world, while Kvitová - whose year was blighted by injury and illness - slipped six places to No. 8, despite clinching the U.S. Open Series in August.
Jonathan Crane can be reached at