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Jan Zelezny - Champion Javelin Thrower from the Czech Republic

  • Jeremy Bransten

Prague, July 9 (RFE/RL) -- The Czech Republic's most famous sportsman says his athletic career was all but pre-determined.

Born into a family of javelin throwers and inheriting a surname which means "iron" in his native Czech, Jan Zelezny began as a child by throwing wooden javelins carved from tree branches.

Zelezny spent his school years playing soccer, ice hockey, and later handball. But by the age of 15, he knew team sports were not his calling and he returned to the family passion - the javelin.

By now, most sports writers have run out of superlatives for Jan Zelezny: gold medal Olympic Champion, World Champion, and since 1993, world record holder in the javelin, with an unequaled throw of 95.65 meters.

But Zelezny has not run out of goals. He is training hard for the Atlanta Olympic games, where he hopes to become the first man since 1924 to retain an Olympic javelin title. "Many people can win a gold medal once," he says. "But the one who wins it twice is exceptional." Standing 1.86 meters tall and weighing just 77 kilograms, Zelezny is much slighter than his fellow competitors, in a sport where physical bulk has been traditionally viewed as a prerequisite for success.

But Zelezny, being the exceptional athlete that he is, continues to prove that speed and technique, as well as iron-like determination are more than equal matches to simple mass.

The 30-year-old Zelezny spends a good part of the year training south of the equator, to avoid Europe's long winters. He and his coach, Jan Pospisil, recently returned from a three month stint in South Africa - with high praise for the balmy climate and superlative facilities.

Pospisil first started working with Zelezny in 1990 and the two are now close, though Zelezny says he retains an individualist streak. When it comes to practicing his javelin throws, he prefers to train alone.

In the four years since the Barcelona Olympics, Zelezny has become a household name in the Czech Republic. Thanks to a contract with the food manufacturer Mars, money is no longer a worry.

But the man whose boyish grin is known to practically everyone across the Czech Republic remains modest and philosophical. Says Zelezny "In sports, one day you're famous, and the next day you're cursed. You can't think about that." Zelezny competes for the personal challenge, for the stadiums packed with fans and for his country.

The pressure is often great, and his schedule leaves Zelezny little time for friends and family. He smiles and admits, "Sometimes, I would rather take off for the mountains and leave the constant practice sessions behind."

In May, Zelezny travels to Japan for more training and more competition. He has his sights set on Atlanta and cannot afford to let up.

There is one more personal reason why Zelezny often thinks about Atlanta. The Atlanta Braves baseball team, winners of the 1995 World Series, have invited Zelezny to come try his hand at pitching with the team after the games end this August.

Zelezny isn't seriously contemplating a career change just yet - it's the challange he can't resist.