Sports and the Olympic Tradition - An Important Part of Slovenia's Cultural Heritage
"You are a small country but great at sport," 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.
Slovenian sportsmen began to participate in the Olympic Games in 1912. 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 help suggesting: "What is there left for us at the next Olympics in Athens - The International Olympic Committee should start thinking about introducing platinum medals!" The 2004 season will enter the annals of Slovenian sports as yet another superb year. The main event of the season was the 28th Summer Olympic Games, held in Athens, the birthplace of the modern Olympics. Having won a total of four medals, Slovenian athletes exceeded expectations. The most pleasant surprise came from Urška Žolnir in judo: she took the first Olympic medal for Slovenia in 2004. Besides judo, competition sailing has also become a "national sport", following Vasilij Žbogar's bronze medal in the Laser Class, and the Slovenian sailor was also a serious contender for the top two places. The silver medal won by the men's double sculls team of Iztok Čop and Luka Špik, which was "expected", and the bronze medal in the women's 800m race by Jolanda Čeplak, were both somehow less surprising.
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. 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 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.
Slovenia's qualifying campaign for the Football World Cup has undoubtedly received more media attention than any other Slovenian sporting endeavour. However, very few sports lovers know that in this nation of two million there are exceptional sportsmen who have made it into the halls of fame of extreme sports achievements, including the Guinness Book of Records. Among Slovenia's greatest sportsmen are Davo Karničar, the first person to achieve an uninterrupted descent of Mt. Everest on skis; Martin Strel, the absolute world record holder in uninterrupted swimming and the first to swim the length of the Danube; and Tomaž Humar, the only climber who has scaled the exceptionally challenging South face of Daulaghiri. These are just a few among many.
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.
Slovenes 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.
Gymnastics is another sport that Slovenian athletes have been good at, winning medals at the most important events. And 2005 proved to be yet another successful year, thanks entirely to the aces Mitja Petkovšek and Aljaž Pegan, who have ranked among the world's top gymnasts throughout the past decade. The rowing team also managed an extraordinary feat. At the World Championship in Gifu, Japan, Slovenian rowers won two medals. Iztok Čop and Luka Špik, both from Bled, first took the gold in the men's double sculls, then secured the silver medal the very next day, when they rowed in a quad scull with Matej Prelog and Davor Mizerit. The Slovenian team were serious contenders up until the last metres of the course. Matic Osovnikar of Škofja Loka (a member of Mass Ljubljana Club), who took two individual gold medals (winning the Men's 100m and 200m sprints) at the Mediterranean Games in Almeria, Spain, and Alenka Bikar of Vrhnika (member of Olimpija Club), Mediterranean Champion in the Women's 200m run, were honoured as Slovenia's best track and field athletes for the 2005 season.
Dejan Košir, Slovenia's best-ever snowboarder, won his first World Champion title on the very first day of the Championship, which was held in Kreischberg, Austria when he took the parallel giant slalom, to which he added another fine result, a fifth place in the Slalom variation of the event. But the Championship in the Austrian region of Styria had another pleasant surprise in store, which came from the Freestyle team: four Slovenian snowboarders competing in a new discipline called "big air" qualified for the finals. The best Slovene in the finals was Žiga Suša, who came in sixth.
The historic first participation of the Slovenian national football team in the World Championship, a bronze medal for Slovenia at the Winter Olympics and, to top it all off, the excellent Jolanda Čeplak's two gold medals at both European Championships, as well as her indoor 800m world record were the highlights of the 2002 season. And let us not forget the event which presented the greatest organisational challenge - the Chess Olympiad, held at Bled. Naturally, the picture would not be complete without many great performances by other Slovenian athletes, starting with Aljaž Pegan's and Mitja Petkovšek's silver medals at the World Championship, not forgetting the medals at the most prestigious events and, last but not least, even world records in swimming, competitive shooting, rowing, canoeing, judo and other sports.