Robert Strybel, Warsaw Correspondent
In Sochi, Russia, Poland’s best winter Olympic games ever got off to a bad news/good news start. The bad news was that 31-year-old Justyna Kowalczyk, the 2010 Vancouver gold medalist, managed only a disappointing sixth place in the skiathlon, a 15-kilometer (9.4-mile) cross-country race. To make matters worse, an x-ray showed an injury that had plagued Justyna since January was a fractured bone in her right foot, casting doubt over her further competition in Sochi.
But that setback was soon offset by ski-jumper Kamil Stoch, 25, who soared past his Slovenian and Norwegian rivals to capture Olympic gold in the men’s normal hill ski jump. And, as if to confirm the Polish saying that there is no bad thing that doesn’t produce some good, regardless of her injury Kowalczyk said she was determined to “win or croak” (“wygrać albo zdechnąć”). On painkillers and with a tightly bandaged right foot, she not only finished but won the women’s 10-kilometer (6.3-mile) cross-country event, giving Poland its second gold medal.
Stoch meanwhile won his second ski-jumping gold of the Olympics when he triumphed on the large hill, stripping Japan’s Noriaki Kasai of a chance to become the oldest ever Winter Games champion. Yet another gold medal for Poland was won by speed-skater Zbigniew Bródka who beat his nearest rival, Dutchman Koen Verweij, by a microscopic 0.003 of a second.
The impressive showing, particularly Stoch’s golden double, pumped him and his three mates – Maciej Kot, Piotr Żyła and Jan Ziobro – full of hope and adrenaline ahead of the team ski-jumping event. All four were Małysz’s boys, youngsters a decade ago, when champion Adam Małysz was putting Poland on the world’s ski-jumping map and inspiring a generation of young imitators. Although several years ago he hung up his skis for the car-rally scene, Małysz is remembered as one of the most successful ski-jumpers in the sport’s history.
As it turned out, the Polish foursome fell short of the podium, landing in fourth place behind Germany, Austria and Japan. But optimists were quick to note that that too was a record of sorts: never before had Poland captured the No. 4 slot in that particular Olympic competition.
Days went by with no new Polish medals in sight. In women’s biathlon, a sport combining cross-country skiing and rifle shooting, the Polish team landed in 10th place. In all other competitions Poland also fell short of even the bronze slot. In fact, for a time it appeared Poland would be one of the few countries ever to bring home only Olympic gold. That changed on the penultimate day of the games when Poland took bronze in the men’s speed-skating pursuit, marking the country’s fifth medal in Sochi and the second for speed-skater Bródka. Not to be outdone, the same day their female counterparts – Katarzyna Bachleda-Curuś, Luiza Złotkowska, Natalia Czerwonka and Katarzyna Woźniak – won Poland’s first silver medal of the games.
But there was more bad news from Justyna Kowalczyk who had to drop out of the grueling 30-kilometer (over 18-mile) Olympic cross-country race at the 13th kilometer. At the start of the competition, a rival bumped and hurt her leg – an injury that caused unbearable pain and forced her to call it quits. But “the divine Justyna” continued her national heroine status in spite of the setback. Some even said she had actually won two gold medals in Sochi – the second for her undaunted spirit, courage and determination.
Although Poland has taken part in winter Olympic games since they were first initiated in 1924, it has never been a winter-sports powerhouse. In fact it took until 1956 for the Poles to win their first ever medal (bronze) in the Nordic combined skiing event in Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. The first winter Olympic gold was captured in 1972 by ski-jumper Wojciech Fortuna in Sapporo, Japan. The previous Vancouver Olympics gave Poland six medals, the same number as in Sochi, but only one gold, three silver and two bronze. All told, Poland now has 20 winter Olympic medals to its credit.
Sochi’s quadruple gold gave Poland 11th place among the 100 competing nations ahead of countries with a larger overall medal count such as Sweden (15) and China (9). Host country Russia captured the games’ top slot with 33 medals ahead of Norway (26), Canada (25) and the U.S. (28). Russian President Vladimir Putin had spent more than $50 billion to bankroll the event in a bid to enhance his country’s neo-imperial image.
The speed-skaters, who had brought home from Sochi one-half of Poland’s Olympic medals, all agreed that Poland needed at least one indoor speed skating rink enabling year-round training. At present, open-air rinks operate only during the colder three to four months a year, and at other times the skaters are forced to use facilities in Germany, Holland, Canada and the U.S.
The Sochi games appear likely to reinforce the country’s attachment to ski-jumping, but may also spark new-found interest in speed-skating. The lack of indoor facilities may be a nuisance to high-performing competitors, but not to the young amateurs just trying things on for size. In winter, Poland is a land peppered with frozen lakes and ponds – the ideal place for youngsters to get their start. Eight years from now, maybe some of them will be ready to meet the challenge in the Tatra Mountains. That is if Poland and neighboring Slovakia win their bid to co-host the 2022 Winter Olympic Games.