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SPORTS AND THE OLYMPIC TRADITION - AN IMPORTANT PART OF SLOVENIA'S CULTURAL HERITAGE

March 2001

 

"You are a small country but great at sport!" These were the words of the President of the International Olympic Committee Juan Antonio Samaranch, who visited Slovenia in 1993, describing the extremely rapid development of sport and Olympic ideas in the country. Upon becoming an individual member of the Olympic family in 1992, new horizons opened up for the development of sport and Olympic ideals in Slovenia.

 

Sport and the Olympic tradition are important parts of Slovenia's cultural heritage. In his book Slava vojvodine Kranjske ("The Glory of the Duchy of Carniola") the renowned historian Janez Vajkard Valvasor wrote about the skiers of the Bloška planota (Bloke plain) as early as 1689. The early gymnastic clubs that formed in the mid-19th century brought sports closer to people and made a significant contribution to shaping Slovenian national consciousness. The development of modern sport in Slovenia is inseparably connected to the engineer Stanko Bloudek (1890-1959), who was among the first skiers, footballers, athletes, and figure- and roller-skaters in Slovenia, as well as a constructor of aeroplanes and sports facilities. He became famous abroad as the constructor of the giant Planica ski jumps. In the valley below Ponce a man on skis first flew over 100 metres in 1936; by 1994 the 200-metre record had been broken. Bloudek was also among the most fervent advocates of the Olympic idea in Slovenia. In 1948 he was the first Slovene to become a member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

 

Among the giants of sports culture in Slovenia we must also mention the first herald of the Slovenian Olympic spirit, Rudolf Cvetko, as well as Viktor Murnik and Leon Štukelj. Cvetko lived for fencing and Murnik dedicated his life to gymnastics, while Leon Štukelj has always been the prime example of a "healthy spirit in a healthy body". From 1924 to 1936 he took part in three Olympic Games, winning three golds, one silver and one bronze. He is Slovenia's most successful Olympian ever. On 12 November 1998 his 100th birthday was celebrated in Novo Mesto, his birthplace.

 

Slovenian sportsmen began to participate in the Olympic Games in 1912. Since then they have taken part in all summer and winter Games, with the exception of the Lake Placid and Los Angeles (1932) and Squaw Valley (1960) competitions. This reflects the long tradition of top- level Slovenian sport. Today, Slovenian competitors participate in the most important European and world sporting championships. The most successful sports are Alpine and Nordic skiing, wild-water kayaking and canoeing, sculling, cycling and skydiving. Slovenian sportsmen and women have performed well at the Olympics: at the 1994 Winter Games in Lillehammer they won three bronze medals in Alpine skiing (Alenka Dovžan, Katja Koren and Jure Košir), while in Atlanta (1996) Slovenes were able to celebrate their first Olympic silver medals in athletics and wild-water kayaking, thanks to Brigita Bukovec and Andraž Vehovar respectively. The Slovenian team brought back two gold medals from the Sydney Games - an unprecedented achievement for a country with a population of two million. The two great Olympic victories - Rajmond Debevec in the men's 50-metre rifle, three-position final, and Iztok Čop and Luka Špik in the men's double sculls - took Slovenia a step further up the hierarchy of world sports. During these moments of joy, the most excited spectators at the Cecil Park shooting range and the Penrith lake couldn't avoid a witty remark or two: "What is there left for us at the next Olympics in Athens- The International Olympic Committee should start thinking about introducing platinum medals!"

 

Slovenia also has successful individuals and teams in team sports. The most popular team sports are basketball, ice hockey, football and handball. Slovenian sports fans are also very proud of successes at the summer and winter Paralympics.

 

Slovenia has also won recognition in the world of sport as the host of important international competitions. In addition to Planica, where five ski-jump world cups have been held to date, Ljubljana (the capital) and Bled have so far proved themselves the best organisers. Ljubljana has twice hosted the gymnastics world cup (1992, 1970), the table tennis world championships were held in the capital in 1965, and figure skating and men's basketball world championships took place there in 1970. Weightlifters competed for the title of world champion in Ljubljana in 1932, and the world bowling championships took place in 1984. Bled has hosted three world championships in sculling (1966, 1979 and 1989), and the nearby town of Lesce has also organised three skydiving world championships. Slovenian towns have also hosted a total of seven ice hockey world championships (group A in 1966, group B in 1969 and 1974, and group C in 1991). Maribor, Planica, Kranjska Gora, Pokljuka and Bohinj are traditional organisers of skiing and biathlon world cup races as well. The south-western part of Slovenia, along with Tarvisio in Italy and Arnoldstein in Austria, stood as candidate for joint organisation of the 2002 Winter Olympics. The unique joint candidature of the three regions in three separate countries was repeated by the proposal to organise the 2006 Winter Olympics Without Boundaries, which was officially put forward by the town of Klagenfurt, Austria. Both candidatures failed to gain the support of the members of the IOC.

 

Slovenia's key goal after independence (1991) has been to develop modern organisational and legislative conditions for the development of sport. Thus, in 1994 the Slovenian Olympic Committee, established on 15 October 1991, merged with the Slovenian Sports Association, which had existed since 1945. The new joint sports association, the Slovenian Olympic Committee (SOC), brought together 54 specialised national associations and 76 local sporting organisations through more than 24 regional representatives in the assembly, representing over 3,000 clubs and 300,000 individuals. The SOC's aim is to develop both professional and mass sports. Around 40 per cent of Slovenia's population is actively involved in sports at all levels. Their basic aim is to become a sports nation, a community of sports-conscious and healthy people whose good organisational skills and results could become internationally competitive.

 

A number of Slovenian sportsmen and women have contributed considerably to recognition of Slovenia on the world stage. These are extreme Alpine climbers, extreme skiers and swimmers.

 

On 23 August 2000 ultra-marathon swimmer Martin Strel completed a 58-day, 3,004-km marathon swim, which took him from the headwaters of the Danube to its mouth on the Black Sea coast. The official goal of this arduous task, which began on 25 June 2000, was to attract the attention of the international public and reactivate international shipping traffic on the Danube. Strel thus made a significant mark on history as the first person in the world to tackle this difficult task.

 

On the 7 October 2000 Davo Karničar, a 38-year-old ski instructor, became the first person to ski non-stop, without taking his skis off, down Mt Everest (8,848 m), the world's highest mountain. The descent to base camp at 5,360 m took him five hours. This unbelievable achievement which was preceded by the 9th Slovenian climb to the "roof of the world" was broadcast live on the internet to a worldwide audience, with the help of sponsors. To a large extent the descent was made possible by a pair of purpose-made Elan skis, while the whole event was filmed by a camera attached to Karničar's helmet. Descents from Mont Blanc, the Matterhorn, the Eiger and Annapurna count as his greatest achievements. Karničar, who constantly stares death in the face during his bold adventures, said: "Extreme skiing is my kind of sport, my way of thinking and my way of life in general." The slopes of Mt Everest have so far taken 161 lives. Karničar made his first attempt to ski down Everest in 1996, but a snowstorm halted his efforts.

 

Slovenians can pride themselves on another record achievement. By climbing the south face of Dhaulagiri, Tomaž Humar opened a new chapter in Himalayan climbing ascending rock walls that were previously closed because they were too dangerous. From the first ascent of the south face of Dhaulagiri (by Slovenes in 1981), it was perfectly clear that the central part of the rock wall could only be climbed by an exceptionally skilled and trained solo climber or an equally swift roped party of two climbers; any other approach would require the climbers to stay too long on the icy rock walls. Humar succeeded by combining the first option with a very strong back-up team. This Slovenian expedition had the highest number of members ever, being such a risky venture. Karničar's solitary struggle with the highest rock wall in the Nepalese Himalayas lasted a little over a week and its every twist and turn was followed by a worldwide audience on their computer screens.