Shifts in their nation's political currents leave Czechoslovakian rowers up creek

May 12, 1991|By Ron Judd | Ron Judd,Seattle Times

SEATTLE -- Sweating in Seattle's spring sunlight, eight Czech rowers slice across a 2,000-meter Montlake Cut course that is straight and clearly marked.

On a nearby dock, Czech coach Jaroslav Starosta ponders an Eastern European athletic future that is anything but.

For Czech men's and women's national crews, the recent Windermere Cup race on Lake Washington capped a weeklong dream vacation from the rowing reality of post-communist Europe.

No European rower hankers for the repression of the past. But for Czech athletes, political revolution has given new meaning to mixed blessing.

When the Iron Curtain came down last year, also severed was a communist amateur-athletic network with roots 40 years deep. State financing for international sports was cut off. Expensive, technology-dependent sports were left hanging.

Czech crew and its championship tradition still twist in the wind. Financing, now provided partly by the Czech army, has been slashed by two-thirds.

Last year, Czech rowers who took six months off work to train for the Olympics still received salaries from government-owned factories. Now they work eight hours a day.

Two years ago, young Czechs rowed to the cadence of 10 national coaches. Today there are five. Tomorrow, perhaps, two.

"Right now, we are really blindfolded in finding a way to make it all work," Starosta, himself a former Czech national crew member, said through an interpreter. "There is no experience with the way it used to be."

Speedy East German shells once distributed by the communist bloc's version of a good-old-boy athletic network now stop at the border of the reunited Germany. But the problem runs deeper. Czech crews are not linked to universities, like those in the United States. The national rowing clubs, state-financed for decades, now must seek private sponsors -- in a corporate world just beginning to spin on its own shaky, free-market axis.

"The whole system is gone," said Starosta, who coached the Czech men's crew in the 1972 Munich Olympics. "I worry now about the club system -- like the university system here. That's where the talent comes from. I am concerned with their survival."

Like other parts of life in Eastern Europe, Czech rowing has changed from a proud public tradition to a nagging private problem. Athletic leaders such as Starosta, who yearned for the end of communism, now face the dilemma of making the best of a dream situation.

It is rippled with small nightmares. The East European athletic hierarchy discovered, for example, that long-sought social and economic pluralism didn't come with a set of instructions.

"Most of the people involved in the [athletic] system don't have any experience from before the Second World War," Starosta said. "Those people are gone. We don't know how it worked before.

"The sport is supported by the factories now. Of course, the factories are struggling to survive on their own. We are trying to find a way."

Czech native Jiri Zapletal, a freshman crew coach for the University of Washington, said the Czechs should consider their new status an opportunity to go one step farther than communism permitted.

The communist athletic engine offered competitive horsepower, but it limited creative potential, said Zapletal, a former Czech national rower who emigrated to Seattle in 1981.

"The people have been brainwashed all their lives. I can see it with their behavior, and the behavior of other [communist-bloc] crews that have come here," he said.

"These people are used to dealing with whatever is handed down to them," he said. "Here, we don't know the meaning of 'no.' We need something, and we want to get something, we go out and get it. For them, they say, 'OK, this is how it is. We will get used to it.' That's the mentality, unfortunately, of the communist system."

Zapletal expects a three- to five-year adjustment period and, ultimately, a surge in Czech rowing prowess. But change could be slow.

"Communists didn't want you to think," he said. "They want you to obey and listen. It's going to take generations to change things and change people. It's like when you stop working out for a year, and it takes twice that long to get back in shape. I really think it is the same."

Meanwhile, men's and women's crews from the University of Washington, California and Cornell can expect Czech rowers to be as tough as ever, Zapletal said.

New European politics have not supplanted the old athletic toughness. "There really has been no change in our training or approach," Starosta said, smiling. "Yes, people feel good. There is freedom. Everyone hated communism.

"But there is no problem with concentration."

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