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Ministry shakeup puts Liberec's ski championships in financial limbo

Mon, Oct  29, 2007 - By  František Bouc

As a counterpoint to positive FIS press releases, here's a different take from František Bouc, a staff writer with "The Prague Post Online. The original article appears titled as "Big Chill".

Four months from now, the organizers of the 2009 FIS Nordic World Ski Championships expect their first full-scale trial by fire.

This February, the championships’ venue, the north Bohemian town of Liberec, is scheduled to host its first World Cup cross-country ski races. Top competitors are expected to test both the facilities that had been built for the 2009 championships and the readiness of the event’s organizers.

However, it is now clear that the World Cup races will not unfold as planned: Instead of preparing to test their facilities, the Liberec organizers are desperately chasing the money needed to stage February’s event. And preparations for the 2009 championship are far behind schedule.

“Hopefully, we’ll receive subsidies from the state budget that will help us finance the World Cup,” said Katerina Neumannová, the Liberec organizing committee’s president. “Otherwise, we’ll have to take it from the World Championship budget.”

Recent events have left Neumannová uncertain in her position as president, a role she was appointed to in late July after former Education, Youth and Sports Minister Dana Kuchtová dismissed the previous president, Roman Kumpošt. Kuchtová herself was forced to resign from the ministry in late September, stepping down due to unrelated controversies stemming from the ministry’s laxness in drawing European Union funding.

For Neumannová, Kuchtová’s resignation was worse than painful. Not only did she receive moral support from the former minister, but she had also been promised that the government would pay a subsidy of 50 million Kc ($2.6 million) for the upcoming World Cup races. Following Kuchtová’s resignation, leadership of the ministry remains vacant and its current caretakers will not confirm the subsidy.

As it often does, the appointment of a new minister to replace Kuchtová has become bogged down in political debate, leaving Neumannová uncertain as to when talks could begin again. Should more changes take place in the ministry after the appointment of a new minister, it could bring about further delays in preparations of the championships, said Liberec mayor Jirí Kittner.

“I have to believe that the money will be ready and that the ministry will honor its previous commitments,” Neumannová said.

No matter what, February’s World Cup in Liberec will happen, she said. However, “it’s clear that the stands will be smaller and that some roads to the sporting venues will be unfinished.”

Missing managers

Delays in the championships began after Kuchtová took over the ministry in February. Previous to her accession, preparations for the 2.2 billion Kc championships had been going smoothly, with some 1.5 billion Kc invested in developing sports and accommodation facilities. Last winter, the International Skiing Federation (FIS) even declared the Liberec event the best-prepared championship of all time.

Controversy came this summer, after the organizing committee asked for an additional 700 million Kc from the state coffers, on top of 569 million Kc the government had already supplied. Kuchtová accused Kumpošt of keeping intransparent account books and refused to pay further subsidies. Later, she dismissed Kumpošt and replaced him with Neumannová, a retired Olympic champion in cross-country skiing.

Kumpošt and his team rejected any wrongdoing and the organizing committee’s entire management stepped down in protest of Kumpošt’s dismissal. Neumannová tried to convince some of the rebelling managers to stay on her team.

“I wanted all of them stay, but they decided to go,” she said. “Actually, even Mr. Kumpošt was welcome to work for us.”

Kumpošt, however, has refused to cooperate with Neumannová until the ministry clears his name.

Neumannová is struggling to build a new management team, and three months after her appointment, some roles are still vacant. Neumannová mentioned in September that she could use foreign managers to fill the void left by the departed Czech officials, but later abandoned the idea.

The organizational committee’s executive director, Marek Rejman, admitted that the issue of delayed preparations had been discussed with the FIS at a meeting in Zurich, Switzerland, in late September.

“We’ve openly talked about the difficulties and agreed on future steps [to resolve the problem],” Rejman said.

Some local skiing businesses are, however, skeptical about the supposed glamor the championships will bring to the country, even if the event is put back on firm financial footing.

“It’ll be a poor championship,” said Karel Vacek, owner of the Snowhill company, which operates ski resorts in north Bohemia.

Befitting her position, eumannová does not share Vacek’s view.

“It’s going to be a great event,” she said. “You’ll see.”