Poles bring home 11 medals from Rio

By Robert Strybel, Polish/Polonian Affairs Writer

For 16 days, Poland’s most avid sports fans went about groggy and bleary-eyed from watching live Olympic coverage that began each day around midnight due to the time difference. Others settled for rebroadcasts and wrap-ups later in the day. Despite periodic outbursts of Polish national pride, when it was all over, some felt unfulfilled.

Things got off to a good start when Polish cyclist Rafał Majka won a medal, bronze, on the first day of the Olympics. The first Olympic gold was captured by rowers, Magdalena Fularczyk and Natalia Madaj, in women’s double sculls. Earlier, Maria Springwald, Joanna Leszczyńska, Monika Ciaciuch and Agnieszka Kobus captured bronze in the women’s quadruple sculls, and canoeist Marta Walczykiewicz added a silver medal to the collection.

But the unquestioned heroine of the Rio games was hammer-thrower Anita Włodarczyk, referred to by the Polish media as “Golden Anita.” She not only won the gold medal when she hurled her hammer an amazing 82.29 meters, but also broke her own world record by 1.21 meters. In addition, the two-time world champion and three-time European champion became the first woman in Olympic history to outdo the men’s hammer-throw champion – in Rio an athlete from Tajikistan who threw 78.68 meters.

One of the event’s biggest disappointments was Polish men’s hammer-thrower, two-time world champion Paweł Fajdek, who not only was sure of a gold medal but planned to break the 86.74 meter record set by a Russian in 1986. But, it turned out that Fajdek didn’t even make it through the elimination phase. The honor of Poland’s male hammer-throwers was defended by Wojciech Nowicki who won a bronze medal in the sport.

Oktawia Nowacka, a career soldier in the Polish Army, brought home the bronze in modern pentathlon, a sport combining fencing, free-style swimming, show jumping, pistol shooting and a 3,200-meter cross-country run. A bronze medal was also won by woman wrestler Monika Michalik.

Discus thrower Piotr Małachowski had his heart set on Olympic gold, but had to settle for silver. His claim to fame, however, transcended the strictly athletic realm, when he decided to auction off his medal to help a little Polish boy. Three-year-old Olek (Aleksander) Szymański has a rare eye cancer and stands to lose one of his eyes. The only hope for saving it is at a New York eye clinic where the necessary surgical procedure costs $264,000. Małachowski got the ball rolling, and others have been pitching in.

This year’s Polish Olympic team was not without its whiff of scandal. Brother weightlifters, Tomasz and Adrian Zieliński, were disqualified and sent home on doping charges. They hotly denied consciously ingesting any illegal substance, but the tests conducted by the anti-doping lab proved otherwise.

As the Rio Olympics were winding down, it appeared Poland might not end up with the 17 medals predicted by optimists, but with the same ten the country had won at the previous three 21st-century games: Athens (2004), Beijing (2008) and London (2012). The balance was tipped by mountain biker Maja Włoszczowska who came in second over a grueling, curvy, hilly, obstacle-strewn course. A major disappointment was the Poles’ failure to win bronze in the handball finals where they lost to the Germans.

All told, Polish Olympians brought home 11 medals from Rio de Janeiro: two gold, three silver and six bronze. Of the participating 206 National Olympic Committees, in the final medal tally, Poland came 33rd. Although the Poles’ performance wasn’t quite as spectacular as expected, for what it’s worth, it cannot be denied these were Poland’s best Olympic games of the 21st century!

Sochi 2014: Poland’s best winter Olympics

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.

Polish wrestler returning his Olympic medal

Polish wrestler Andrzej Supron says he is returning his Olympic medal in protest over the sport’s proposed removal from the program of the 2020 Games. Supron, who won silver in the Greco-Roman lightweight division at the 1980 Moscow Olympics, says he is “surprised and outraged by the suggestion to remove this ancient sport from the games.” Supron is also a former world and European champion. In February, seven-time world champion Valentin Yordanov of Bulgaria returned his gold medal from the 1996 Atlanta Olympics. Wrestling is now competing with seven proposed new sports for a spot on the 2020 program. The final decision will be made in September.

Source: Polonia Media Network