Note: This article was written during the end of the first lockdown of the Czech Republic, although some points might seem out of time, a majority of this article still stands as we a have entered our second wave of lockdown.
Hit Hard by the Pandemic, the Czech Olympic Team Still Stands Tall
Extraordinary times call for extraordinary measures. In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee announced the postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Games until next year. Many athletes who have worked tirelessly over the past four years saw their Olympic dreams melt away. But modern pentathlete Jan Kuf’s story is different. The world and European champion experienced twists and turns that seem scripted by a Hollywood screenwriter.
“A pentathlete’s training is a full-time job, plus weekends. We train every week and sometimes get Sundays off. We go running five times a week for 60-90 minutes and swimming three times a week. For the parkour with horses, we travel to Podĕbrady twice a week, which is a trip that takes the whole afternoon,” explains Jan. His weekly schedule also includes two or three fencing and shooting practices. To fence with the professionals, Jan has to travel to Letňany. He usually arrives at the ASC Dukla stadium at 09:00 and returns home at 20:00. Practice takes five straight hours on average, and travelling eats up the rest.
Surgeries and chances
When the Olympic year draws near, Jan changes his routine. At the beginning of 2020, though, fate dealt him different cards. “The state of my meniscus was so bad I needed surgery. This a routine surgery; mine took about 15 minutes. Everything seemed alright until my knee began swelling repeatedly. The doctors found inflammation and instructed that I undergo knee washouts. The procedure tied me to a hospital bed for another 14 days,” says Jan.
These complications led to a shift in priorities. There could be no more pushing through the pain under medication to make it to the Olympics. To make matters worse, Jan still had to qualify for the Games, and the last race in which he could secure his spot was in May.
“When I look back at the state of my knee in May, my chances weren’t too rosy. I could have participated, but that was about the long and the short of it,” ponders Jan. Had he qualified for the Olympics, getting to the winner’s podium among the fierce competition would have been too tough a nut to crack. “Making it to the Olympics is great, but I wouldn’t stand a chance against other fully fit athletes,” said Jan.
The turn of events after COVID-19 made everything grind to a halt, including the postponement of the Games, was a saving grace for the 29-year-old. Since the races scheduled to the end of 2020 now do not count in the qualifying calculations, he can focus fully on his recovery. “After the surgery, it felt like my thigh did not have any muscles. It was half the size of the other. My knee had to relearn everything,” says Jan. When COVID-19 broke out, Dukla allowed him to take home some exercise equipment for his rehabilitation. He also found great help in his girlfriend, who works as a physiotherapist. Despite all that, the lockdown and social distancing restrictions prevented him from swimming, the most helpful exercise during his recovery.
Jan’s home club acknowledged his frustrations and granted him permission to visit their rehabilitation facilities. At first, Jan felt like he returned to a ghost town. A huge stadium, once visited by hundreds, was now occupied only by three people – a janitor, a cleaning lady, and Jan himself.
Jan also had access to a peculiar rehabilitation device: an anti-gravity treadmill. “It helped with my recovery a great deal. It has a sort of bubble around it that inflates to lessen the impacts on your joints. After you put on the special shorts and strap in, the treadmill weighs you, and you choose how much of your body weight you want to run with,” explains Jan and smiles. “When you set it to less than 50 %, it’s more of a moonwalk.”
There has been other good news for this student at Prague’s University of Economics and Management. Thanks to the rise of teammate Martin Vlach and his international success, Jan now shares the photoshoots and related activities with someone else. Therefore, he can focus even more on getting into top shape in order to qualify for the Olympics.
Should he be successful, Jan will follow in the footsteps of another Czech pentathlete, David Svoboda, who won gold in the modern pentathlon at the London Olympics in 2012. “Superstitious? I guess I am a bit. David fell from a horse in 2008, and four years later, he won gold. I also fell from a horse at the last Games, so this could be a positive sign. On top of that, my story has a plot twist with the injury and the postponement. But I have never been the nervous type, so I don’t feel any pressure that I have to win in the next Games. The people around me, fortunately, take it with a grain of salt too,” shares Jan.
The amiable athlete is currently slowly getting back to his daily routine and looks forward to future events, however uncertain they may be. The earliest you can see Jan racing is at the Milan Kadlec Memorial that takes place in Prague and Podebrady from 20-23 August.
New dawn for Czech NOC
As for the major competitions, the World Athletics Federation has provisional dates for the European Championships that were originally due to take place in September, as well as for the World Championship which was to follow it. However, any of the participating countries can object and their athletes, who in some cases will not have had equal practice conditions, could contribute toward the cancellation of the events.
The Tokyo Olympic Games are now set to start on 23 July next year, but no one can guarantee they will take place. Although the uncertainty still gnaws at the organisers, the show must go on. When the decision to postpone the Games was announced, Czech Olympic Committee (Czech NOC) spokesperson Barbora Zehanova felt relieved. It meant an end to a period where she and her colleagues on the communications team didn’t know what would happen the following day.
ABCs and broom fencing
Barbora, who worked for 13 years as a sports editor at Mlada fronta Dnes before joining the Czech Olympic Committee, could finally act. As the preparations for the Olympics had been in full swing, she and her team immediately called off some activities. At the same time, they had to adapt and move online. Thanks to several years of a strong social media presence and support from their president, Jiri Kejval, the Committee was well-equipped to handle the situation.
“When it comes to social media, we are the second best National Olympic Committee in Europe, right after the UK. We had to create content that would both entertain and make people move using the hashtag #zabavsepohybem (enjoy yourself with exercise). This strategy worked perfectly,” explains Barbora. One of their most successful posts was the so-called Olympic ABCs, where you could design a set of exercises based on your name.
The athletes played their part as well, be it a more serious documentation of their training at home or a goofy photoshoot of modern pentathletes doing broom fencing, wheelbarrow workout, or in Jan’s case, shooting practice on a deer painting.
More focus on children
By moving their events online, the Czech NOC reached a much wider audience. The Czech Coaching Academy’s educational seminar, Dialogues, scored more than 5,000 views. That is more than hundredfold the number of people who would have attended the event in person. Despite their success, these events are to come back offline as they are designed for one-on-one interactions where participants can get personal in-depth feedback and advice.
The Czech NOC also partnered with the National Sports Agency to enhance the Czech TV educational morning show UčíTelka (TeacherTelly) with physical exercise lessons. Every day, children had the chance to train with a different athlete and get to know less popular sports.
With major events and activities cancelled or rescheduled, the Czech Olympic Foundation came into the spotlight. The foundation supports children from 6 to 18 years old that lack resources to buy sports equipment and pay club fees. “When biker Jaroslav Kulhavy contacted us with his Everest Challenge, we put our heads together and created the fundraiser ‘8848 for children,’ where you could have joined the event by buying a start number. As soon as we could, we also facilitated children’s meetings with our famous athletes. We had some crayons and school supplies from our supplier Koh-I-Noor, which together with the athletes we delivered to vulnerable children’s homes. Yes, we definitely kept ourselves busy,” says Barbora.
But children were not the only ones in need of support. Athletes had to deal with the fact that their four years of training might have been for nothing, especially those who wanted to end their careers after the Olympics. Czech NOC sports director Martin Doktor worked hand-in-hand with Czech athletic stars Barbora Spotakova, David Kostelecky, and others who braved the situation with unyielding optimism and became role models for their fellow athletes. Rather than launching a bigger-scale initiative, they worked with individual athletes who felt under the weather.
As for the outlook into next year’s Games, some sports already have their defined qualification criteria. The Czech Republic has 42 qualified athletes for the next Olympic Games as of now. But most of the sports have qualification criteria according to the rankings, big events, or internal nominations, so the number could potentially be higher. “I can’t really say that the Czech Republic will have more athletes at the Games due to their postponement. Some, such as Jan Kuf, can qualify from the World Championship next year, but the total number of athletes won’t soar compared to what we would have had this year,” says Barbora. The increase will probably be in lower single digits.
The silver lining
When it comes to permanent effects of the coronavirus crisis on the operations of the Czech NOC, the organisational meetings may remain online. Conversely, their events are still aimed at individual consultations and personal contact where people are more likely to discuss their problems; you can’t entirely replace these by video conferences.
“From these difficult times, we are taking two things. The first one is a greater focus on the Czech Olympic Foundation activities and promotion. We consider keeping children participating in sports a vital matter, and we would like to carry on in this trend,” summarises Barbora and adds, “The second part is that we’ve recently launched the Silnější pro život (Stronger for Life) campaign, where we use our media spaces originally reserved for the Olympics. The campaign promotes exercise, quality relationship cultivation, optimism, endurance, and basically everything that the Olympic mindset stands for. If you go out with the trash and use the stairs instead of the elevator, it is an exercise boosting your immunity. This is one of the topics we are focusing on right now and you will keep seeing it more throughout this summer.”
Czech athlete competing in modern pentathlon. World and European Champion in mixed relay, European Champion in individual race. Jan also owns a silver medal from men’s relay at World Championship in Mexico City 2018, bronze medal from individual race at World Championship in Warsaw 2014 and several others from major international events. Jan is also studying at the University of Economics and Management in Prague.
Spokeswoman and Deputy Director of Communications of the Czech Olympic Committee. Before joining Czech NOC, Barbora worked for thirteen years as a sports editor at broadsheet MF DNES, iDNES.cz or Sport print daily. In 2016, she was Czech Olympic Team spokesperson at the Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.