The Czech Republic is often characterised as a snowboarding power to be reckoned with on the world stage with the country’s sole Winter Olympic gold so far confirming that label. But the early days were far from easy and there are still traces of the past Cinderella status.
Modern style snowboarding had taken off in the US around 20 years earlier and the taint of western influence and nonconformity made official acceptance difficult. But there were more basic problems as well. There were no local producers of boards in the early days so the initial versions were rather heavy, cumbersome, handmade versions heavily inspired by western magazines.
Early snowboarders back then also had a very cool welcome on the slopes. Staff were reluctant to let them on lifts or on the slopes themselves. The Czech Snowboarding Association was created in 1990 and the first domestic championships followed.
The second-class status compared with classical skiing was still difficult to shake off with the Czech ministry of education only giving official recognition to snowboard classes for school children in 1996.
Those growing pains now seem long gone with an estimated 500,000 Czechs, or around five percent of the population, estimated to be active snowboarders with the latest, modern, equipment within easy reach of most.
But a steady flow of cash and sponsorship has still been difficult for a sport which only made its full Winter Olympics debut in 1998 at the Nagano games. Snowboardcross, the discipline in which 20 year old Eva Samková has won the Czech Republic’s only gold medal at the current games, had to wait for another eight years.
One of Samková’s trainers, Marek Jelínek, has a second job as a stuntman. He grabbed headlines when he threatened six years ago to jump off Prague’s Nusle bridge, in the past a favourite location for suicides, into a box full of paper to try and attract more funds to snowboarding. The jump did not eventually take place.
Even so, Jelínek says that Samková’s Olympic gold has come fairly cheap compared with the cash lavished on top snowboard competitors from other countries. He says they probably had 10 times the cash to spend on their preparations.
Jelínek and other members of Samková’s small team pay much of the expenses of travelling to competitions out of their own pockets and get a share out of the winnings. This time they have hit the jackpot. The Olympic prize money alone will be 1.5 million crowns with Samková expected to become a hot advertising and sponsorship property thanks to her youthful good looks and outgoing personality. The first new sponsorship offers were already rolling in almost as soon as she crossed the finishing line.