In the 2010 Winter Olympics medal table, Poland was 15th, far behind Canada or the U.S. Compared to “traditional” winter nations, like Alpine or Scandinavian countries, the Polish tally (one gold, three silver and two bronze medals) is not impressive. But still the Vancouver games were by far the most successful winter games in Polish history.
Before 2010, Poland had won only eight medals, so our six new ones almost doubled our tally. (See the list below). However, five of those six medals were won by only two people: cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk and ski-jumper Adam Małysz and these two athletes account for eight out of the fourteen Polish medals Poland ever won in winter Olympic Games.
So 2010 looks like success, but is it? There were 50 athletes in the Polish team in Vancouver, but only five of them won a medal. Those 50 include four ghost-biathletes who were on the list, but did not show up. Why pretend to have more athletes than you really do? A country fielding a team of 50 or more is entitled to send 16 more officials to the Games. And officials enjoy foreign travels.
Poland owes most of its medals to two very talented people, but in general Polish winter sports are close to being pathetic. Kowalczyk and Małysz are exceptions, and are not a product of a well-designed sports school. The Polish training system failed to produce any good, or even average, winter athletes other than the very good biathlete, Sikora. The two ‘amazing’ winners are not representative; and there are no young winter athletes in the wings to follow them.
Why does Poland do so badly in winter sports? After all, winters are harsh, usually with lots of snow. The Tatras cannot be compared to the Alps but are decent enough to practise alpine skiing. One could argue that because winter sports are generally less popular, they attract less sponsorship and thus the coaching system remains underinvested. But Małysz, the only ski jumper in history to win the World Cup three times in a row, made ski-jumping extremely popular and attracted massive support from sponsors. Yet no other Polish ski jumper can match him. In team competition Poland usually ranks 5th or 6th, thanks only to the outstanding performance by Małysz. Without him Poland would probably be among the worst teams. So it is not entirely about money. That is a riddle difficult to solve.
The next winter games will be held in Sochi, Russia, in 2014. Małysz will be then 36 years old, Kowalczyk five years younger. With no other outstanding winter athlete on the horizon, Vancouver will prove to be an exception, as are Małysz and Kowalczyk. CR
1956 Cortina d’Ampezzo Franciszek Gąsienica Groń, Nordic combined, bronze medal
1960 Squaw Valley Elwira Seroczyńska, speed skating (1500 m), silver medal
1960 Squaw Valley Helena Pilejczyk, speed skating (1500 m), bronze medal
1972 Sapporo Wojciech Fortuna, ski jumping (K 90), gold medal
2002 Salt Lake City, Adam Małysz, ski jumping (K-120 and K-90), silver and bronze medals
2006 Torino Tomasz Sikora, biathlon (15 km), silver medal
2006 Justyna Kowalczyk cross-country skiing (30 km), bronze medal
2010 Vancouver Justyna Kowalczyk cross-country skiing (sprint, 15 and 30 km), gold, silver and bronze medals
2010 Vancouver Adam Małysz, ski-jumping (K-106 and K-140), two silver medals
2010 Vancouver Speed Skating, women’s team pursuit (Katarzyna Bachleda-Curuś, Katarzyna Woźniak, Luiza Złotkowska), bronze medal