Success at Sochi
March 3, 2014
Polish athletes returned from Sochi, Russia, with a bagful of medals—their biggest tally ever in the winter Olympics.
In the first week of the Sochi games alone, Poles bagged four gold medals, twice as many as in all previous winter Olympics over the past 90 years. Altogether, Poland won six medals: four gold, one silver (women’s speed skating team) and a bronze (men’s speed skating team), at Sochi and finished 11th in the overall medal count, ahead of China and South Korea and also outranking winter sports powerhouses such as Sweden, Japan and Finland.
The Polish medal spree at Sochi started with Poland’s best ski jumper Kamil Stoch. On the second day of the Olympic Games, he won the normal hill competition in fantastic style. Prior to that, Poland had only two winter Olympic gold medals—won by ski jumper Wojciech Fortuna in the large hill event at Sapporo in 1972, and by cross-country skier Justyna Kowalczyk in the 30 km classic event at Vancouver in 2010.
Entering the competition as the current World Cup leader, 27-year-old Stoch was one of the favorites. He withstood the pressure and practically knocked out his rivals in the first round by executing a technically faultless jump of 105.5 meters. It was the longest jump of the 50 competitors. In the second round, Stoch sealed his victory with another impressive jump of 103.5 meters in even better style—getting a dream score of 20 points from two of five judges. The Polish jumper outperformed Slovenia’s Peter Prevc, who finished second overall, by nearly 13 points, a gap rarely seen in ski jumping competitions.
Afterwards, Stoch told reporters that he did not know the detailed results of the first round; he only knew that he was in the lead. “Sometimes it’s better not to know things, not to do any counting or comparing, just do your job and jump away,” he said.
Stoch managed to do what another Polish ski jumper, Adam Małysz—one of the world’s best ski jumpers of all time, was unable to achieve before him. Małysz dominated the world’s ski jumping hills in the previous decade. However, the four-time world champion, four-time World Cup winner, and Four Hills Tournament winner won “only” three silver Olympic medals—one at Salt Lake City in 2002 and two at Vancouver—and a bronze at Salt Lake City.
In his first comment after Stoch’s success, 37-year-old Małysz, now a rally car driver, said that he would trade all his four medals for one Olympic gold.
Other Polish ski jumpers also did well in the normal hill competition at Sochi. 23-year-old Maciej Kot finished seventh, while Jan Ziobro was 13th. Only 24-year-old Dawid Kubacki failed to qualify for the second round, finishing 31st.
A few days after Stoch’s success the Polish national anthem was played again at Sochi. This was thanks to 31-year-old kowalczyk, the most successful Polish winter Olympian, a gold medalist from vancouver. This time, Kowalczyk—who is also a two-time 2009 world champion and four-time World Cup winner—won the 10 km classic, her favorite race. The Sochi victory was all the more valuable for Kowalczyk because she competed despite a broken bone in her foot.
After her slightly disappointing performance in the 15 km skiathlon, the first cross-country skiing event at Sochi, some fans were worried that Kowalczyk was not in good shape. Kowalczyk finished the skiathlon in sixth place, in part because she fell while exchanging her skis. The skiathlon involves a change of skis from classic to freestyle in the middle of the race. However, in the 10 km classic, Kowalczyk led from start to finish, setting a murderous pace. Her lead steadily widened along the route; 2 km before the finish line Kowalczyk was more than 20 seconds ahead of Norway’s Marit Bjorgen, winner of the skiathlon at Sochi and the Pole’s biggest rival over the past decade. Finally, Bjorgen, who was widely seen as the favorite in the race, finished only fifth. This was despite the fact that before the Olympics Bjorgen vowed to bring six gold medals from Sochi—in all the competitions she was scheduled to take part in.
Kowalczyk’s win was greeted with massive celebration in Poland. But there was more Polish success to come.
Winning by a whisker
Feb. 15 became “Polish Day” at Sochi. First, speed skater Zbigniew Bródka, after a dramatic competition, sensationally won the 1,500 m, his favorite race. Before the Olympics, 30-year-old Bródka, who lives and works in Łowicz, central Poland and is a professional firefighter, became the first Polish speed skater to win the World Cup last year. However, he was not seen as a favorite at Sochi. Speed skating competitions among both men and women were dominated by the Dutch, who took most of the gold medals. The favorite in the 1,500 m was world champion Koen Verweij of the Netherlands, who, however, lost to the Pole by a mere three-thousandths of a second. Math specialists established later that this was equivalent to a difference of 4.5 centimeters in the 1.5 km race.
The Pole was paired to race against American Shani Davis, a former world record holder, in the 17th pair of the finals. After putting in a superb performance, Bródka won and took the lead in the race with a time of 1:45.00. A nervous wait began for Bródka and Polish fans for the results of the other competitors. Emotions peaked when Verweij appeared on the ice in the last pair. The Dutchman won his race and for a moment it seemed that he would take the gold away from Bródka—an identical time appeared on the display. However, in speed skating (unlike in skiing, for example), in the event of a tie, the time is measured to thousandths of a second. It turned out that Bródka was fractionally better.
Bródka’s victory was a surprise not only for Dutch fans, but also for most experts. With disbelief, they discovered that Poland is the only European country among those represented at Sochi that does not have a professional indoor track for speed skaters to train on. Speed skaters such as Bródka either practice outdoors or travel abroad for training. Sports experts quipped that Poland has fewer soccer pitches than the Netherlands has indoor ice tracks.
Stoch does it again
A few hours after Bródka’s victory, ski jumper Stoch appeared for his second competition at Sochi, this time on the large hill. After winning the normal hill event, the Pole was widely seen as the favorite, including by bookmakers, and fans hoped he would take another gold.
Stoch did not disappoint his fans. As the World Cup leader, he was jumping last in the first round and executed a fine jump of 139 meters. 42-year-old Japanese veteran Noriaki Kasai—who was competing in his seventh winter Olympics—also landed at 139 meters, but Stoch’s score was 2.8 points better (one of the judges gave the Pole a top score of 20 points) and he took the lead after the first round.
It became clear that the final battle for victory would be fought between Stoch and Kasai. The Japanese jumper in the second round landed at 133.5 meters, while the Pole’s effort was one meter shorter—after a jump that he later described as “disastrous.” However, Stoch’s advantage from the first round combined with better marks for style were enough for the Polish ski jumper to take his second Olympic gold at Sochi, finishing 1.4 points ahead of Kasai. Stoch thus joined two ski jumping legends, Finland’s Matti Nykaenen and Switzerland’s Simon Ammann, both of whom won two competitions—the normal hill and the large hill—at one Olympics.
One fly in the ointment for Poland in the first week of the Olympics was that Polish ski jumpers failed to win a medal in the team event. After Stoch’s triumphs, the media had high hopes, but the Poles failed to live up to expectations. The Polish team, made up of Stoch, Maciej Kot, Jan Ziobro and Piotr Żyła, finished fourth Feb. 17, behind the Germans, Austrians and Japanese. While fans were disappointed, the performance was, in fact, the best team result in Olympic history by Polish ski jumpers.
Poles scored further successes on the penultimate day of the Olympics, with the women’s speed skating team taking silver in the team pursuit, and the Polish men’s team taking the bronze in the same discipline.