Saturday 17 February 2018

The Boy From Bratislava

In my previous article on lgbt Winter Olympic statistics I mentioned the youngest ever lgbt Olympian, Ondrej Nepela (1951-1989) who competed at the 1964 Innsbruck games the week after his 13th birthday. With the current Olympics still in progress I thought it would be good to look closer at Ondrej, a record-breaker in several other ways, not least being the only lgbt figure skater after whom an international championship is named.

Let’s start with his life story. There’s no way I can produce a better biographical portrait than the one written by Ryan Stevens of Skate Guard. His blog is the best place to go for the historical aspect of figure skating. His article “The Boy From Bratislava: The Ondrej Nepela Story”, whose title I've borrowed for today, is here.

The legacy Ondrej left behind is not as prominent as I believe it should be, especially within the lgbt community who are more interested in what the community does today rather than what the community achieved in the past.

The main legacy Ondrej left is his achievement as a record holder, not only as an lgbt skater but as a Czech national sporting hero. He inspired his nation and probably many later Czech and Slovak athletes. In 1986 he began coaching the West German skater Claudia Leistner. Claudia was the German ladies singles figure skating champion and had competed at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics finishing 9th. Ondrej only coached her for a short time before illness prevented him from continuing. His legacy in that respect is smaller than the likes of Brian Orser, who continues to coach Olympic champions.

So, how good was Ondrej Nepela compared to the other Olympic male singles figure skating champions? Up to 1st February 2018 there have been 20 of them. For the purpose of this comparison I’ve divided them into two groups. The first group consists of all champions with Olympic, World and national medals. The second group consists of all the Olympic champions and their European Championship performances.

Here’s the comparison table for the first group, listed in chronological order.
We can see that very few skaters have been Olympic champion more than once, and that Ondrej Nepela ranks equal 4th with 16 others. Taking silver and bronze medals into the count Ondrej moves down to equal 6th. These positions could possibly change after the completion of the 2018 men’s singles final which is taking place as I write.

If we add the World Championship and Olympic gold medals together Ondrej is in equal 7th place with one of the most famous skaters of more recent years, Evgeni Plushenko. Each have accumulated 4 gold medals. Adding further titles won at national championships Ondrej rises to 5th place with an accumulated 12 gold medals. Taking all gold, silver and bronze medals together Ondrej rises yet again in the medal table to 3rd place, though 6th place Dick Button won more golds.

Including the 20 Olympic champions there have also been a total of 45 skaters who have become World Champion. Ondrej’s 3 World titles put him a little lower in the rankings at equal 9th place with several others, including, again, Evgeni Plushenko.

From this we see that Ondrej Nepela was always in the top ten most successful figure skaters of all time, achieving greater success than the likes of John Curry, Scott Hamilton and Evan Lysacek. But there’s the added element of the European titles which we haven’t yet included. This is where the comparison between the skaters is slightly misleading, because several Olympic champions didn’t qualify for the European Championships. Here’s the Olympic and European comparison table, listed in order of European titles.
Again, of the Olympic champions Ondrej Nepela appears 4th on the European table. But how does he fare compared to the complete list of men’s singles figure skating European champions, including the non-Olympians? Including 2017 there have been 45 European champions. Ondrej was champion 5 times, the first time at the age of 18. He shares equal 5th position with the Frenchman Alain Giletti. The current reigning European champion, Spain’s Javier Fernandez, has won it 6 times.

No matter how you compare the figures Ondrej Nepela always appears up with the most famous and successful skaters in history. So why is he often forgotten by the general public? He is by no means the only skater who disappeared into the history books. Perhaps it was his nationality and the years during which he competed that could have been factors.

The old Communist and Soviet countries of eastern Europe were not keen on letting their athletes claim all their glory. They competed for the honour of their nation. As soon as former Communist state Slovakia achieved independence in 1992 it wasted no time in setting up a brand new international figure skating championship called the Ondrej Nepela Memorial, now called the Ondrej Nepela Trophy. This is a testament to the level of esteem Ondrej had in that country long after his death. In fact, at the end of the last millennium when many nations were voting on who were their greatest national heroes of the 20th century, Ondrej Nepela topped the Greatest Slovak Athlete list. Slovakia was ready to recognise its sporting heroes and so was the rest of the old Soviet empire. Athletes could compete for their own honour, and not for that of their government. Except, apparently, Russia. The recent state-controlled doping of its athletes is a direct result of the old Soviet machine.

The Ondrej Nepela Trophy has been held every year since 1993 in his home town of Bratislava (except for one year when it was held elsewhere). At first the event mainly attracted Czech and Slovak skaters, but as the years have progressed more nations have competed and the Trophy has grown into one of the most prestigious international titles. Among its skaters are my local ice dancers Penny Coomes and Nick Buckland who trained here in Nottingham before moving to Michigan. They have been national GB champions and are Team GB’s only figure skaters in PyeongChang. Several Ondrej Nepela Trophy champions are also competing in PyeongChang.

With the Ondrej Nepela Trophy, the Ondrej Nepela Arena in Bratislava, and many commemorative items that have honoured his achievements the legacy of the lgbt community’s most successful figure skater and its youngest Olympic competitor will surely last for a few year to come.

As a treat, here is a rare video of Ondrej Nepela at the age of 12. It’s in Czech, so I can’t tell you what they’re saying, but just think that within a few months of this being filmed Ondrej would be competing at the Olympic Games.

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