The immense impact of Czech sports heroes on a global level has left us with top 10 list that is cutthroat in its standards and is sure to leave many greats left standing on the sidelines. Regardless, let the countdown begin:
10) Václav Nedomanský
You might think that the title of all-time leading goal scorer in hockey for the Czech national team would belong to a name like Jágr, Eliaš or perhaps Ivan Hlinka, but this honor actually belongs to Václav Nedomanský. He is best known for being the first player to defect to North America in 1974, but the prime of his career was spent behind the iron curtain tearing up the Czechoslovak Extraliga (369 goals in 419 games) and leading the impressive yet perennially #2-ranked Czech National Team to two Olympic podium finishes.
At the 1972 World Championships, at home in Prague, Nedomanský was the offensive catalyst in a thrilling gold medal victory that snapped the Soviet string of 9 straight championships, which was especially sweet considering the current Soviet occupation. Following his performance as Best Forward at the ‘74 World’s, he defected to Toronto and after three outstanding seasons in the WHA (the rival league of the NHL that had HOFers like Gretzky and Hull), Nedomanský capped his career off with a pair of 35-goal seasons for the Detroit Red Wings at the ripe old age of 36. For a player described as “Phil Esposito, if Phil had a 90 MPH wrist shot,” one can only wonder how much greater his impact could have been if the NHL was graced with his prime.
9) Jan Železný
The greatest javelin thrower of all-time. Iron Jan owns all five of the top five javelin performances ever including the world record set in 1996, which still stands. He won Olympic gold in 1992, 1996, and 2000, which is even more impressive when you consider the frequency with which top javelin throwers are disqualified. Out of the 84 throws which have cracked the elusive 90m barrier in the history of javelin, Železný has made 52 of them. His three world championship golds fill out his decade of dominance.
It has been said that his modesty and admirable opinions won him almost as many fans as his athletic achievements, which is saying a lot when you’re talking about the winner of the 1996 and 2000 European Athlete of the Year and the 2000 IAAF World Athlete of the Year. Although many of his victories seemed almost too easy, Železný displayed his resiliency after breaking two vertebrae in 1989, eventually losing his world record and then returning to take it back 12 days after it was lost.
8) Ivan Lendl
The reign of Ivan the Terrible as the #1 player in tennis lasted a remarkable five years from 1985-90, which puts him into select company with Connors, McEnroe, Federer and Sampras for longevity at the top spot and also earned him a spot on Tennis magazine’s list of the top 10 greatest tennis players of the last 40 years. Lendl’s career accomplishments are exceptional (8 grand slams and a then-record 19 grand slam finals), but his role in ushering in the modern era of “Power Tennis” through his relentless baseline game which set the template for future domination in the sport was his most meaningful contribution.
Lendl started his career proudly, leading the Czech team to their only Davis Cup victory in 1980, but he was expelled from the team and fined $150,000 by the communist-controlled Czechoslovak Sports Federation in 1983 after playing in 3 exhibition matches in the apartheid-era Bantustan of Bophuthatswana. He took extreme exception to being labeled a traitor to socialism simply for making a stand against racism. A permanent move to the U.S. followed shortly after, as did a Hall-of-Fame career containing 1071 ATP wins (2nd all-time).
7) Pavel Nedvěd
Widely regarded as one of the finest midfielders of the modern era, “The Czech Fury” is well-known for his tireless runs and clutch scoring ability. After starting his career with two league titles for Sparta Prague, Nedvěd burst onto to the international scene by leading an upstart Czech team to the final of Euro ’96. This performance led to him being snapped up by Lazio in Italy, which resulted in two Italian Cups, the ’00 Serie A title, and the last-ever Cup Winner’s Cup, which Nedvěd clinched with a goal in the 81st minute of a 2-1 win.
His biggest career challenge came in 2001, when he was tabbed to replace the legendary Zinedine Zidane in the Juventus midfield. After two Serie A titles in his first two years and an epic run to the ’03 Champions League final it was clear that Zidane’s shoes had been filled. Nedvěd was awarded European Footballer of the Year later that year.
The latter part of his career was highlighted by captaining the National team to the semifinals of the ’04 Euros, where they lost to Greece (ouch!), and in helping Juventus gain promotion back to Serie A after their forced relegation due to the Italian refereeing scandal. Wherever he went, the golden mane of this Czech lion was front and center.
6) Roman Šebrle
In 2008, the Wall Street Journal commissioned a study to determine the world’s greatest athlete. They factored in speed, vision and reflex, stamina and recovery, coordination and flexibility, power, strength and size, success, and competitiveness of the sport. Atop the list and ahead of the likes of Lebron James, Roger Federer and Ronaldinho was decathlete Roman Šebrle.
Šebrle battled countryman Tomáš Dvořak for the title of top decathlete for many years with his first breakthrough coming at the 2000 Olympics where only an overruled judge’s decision kept him clutching silver instead of gold. In 2001, he broke the world record, which still stands today at 9,026 points, and he remains the only decathlete to ever top 9,000. He reeled off three more golds at major international competitions before capturing the Olympic gold that had so narrowly eluded him four years earlier and he did so by smashing the 20-yr old Olympic record. The only man to ever hold the season’s best score in 4 straight years was finally derailed, not by a fellow decathlete, but by an errant 55m javelin toss by a practicing female javelin thrower which sunk 12cm into Šebrle’s right shoulder. Nevertheless, he returned later that year to capture his final world championship gold and cap off his run of five straight Czech Athlete of the Year awards.
5) Dominik Hašek
The Dominator earned his nickname and thrust himself into the conversation for the greatest goaltender in NHL history via his unparalleled run from 1994 through 2002. During that time, he won 6 Vezina Trophies as the league’s top goalie (2nd all-time to Jacques Plante’s 7, who won all his at a time when the award was given to the goalie on the best defensive team and not necessarily the best goalie) and became the only goalie to ever win 2 Hart Trophies (MVP) when he won back-to-back in ’97 and ’98. At the 1998 Nagano Olympics, in what was called the “Tournament of the Century” because it included NHL players for the first time, he backstopped the Czech team to a gold medal and held pre-tournament favorites Canada and Russia to a combined one goal in the semis and finals, leading Wayne Gretzky to call him “the best player in the game.” His Stanley Cup victory in 2002 with Detroit made him the first European starting goalie to win hockey’s top prize.
Although his apparent trepidation for signing autographs (even for young children), as well as a brutal attack on another player in a 2003 in-line hockey game, have exposed Hašek’s notoriously surly temperament, it does not mitigate the impact his outstanding play had in opening the door for European goaltenders in the NHL.
After debuting for Pardubice at the age of 16 as the youngest player in professional hockey history, his career came full circle in 2009 when he returned to his hometown team at the age of 44 and led them to the Czech Extraliga title.
4) Martina Navrátilová
Former world #1 Billie Jean King famously said about Navrátilová, “she’s the greatest singles, doubles and mixed doubles player who’s ever lived.” Check out the numbers that back up her case: 167 singles titles (1st all-time), 177 doubles titles (1st all-time), 20 Wimbledon titles (1st all-time), 74-match winning streak in singles (longest ever), 109-match winning streak in doubles (longest ever), 86-1 in ’83 (best season ever) and an astonishing 59 grand slams! She was truly dominant over both the short and long haul.
After making it to the final in her first two grand slams, she asked for political asylum while in New York after the 1975 U.S. Open at the age of 18 following the Czechoslovak Sports Federation’s insistence that she was too Americanized and should go back to school and make tennis secondary. Less than three years later she was #1 in the world and well on her way to the most career victories the sport had ever seen. In the midst of her record winning streak, having steamrolled her way to a record 6 straight grand slam singles titles, she ran into fellow Czech Helena Suková. Ironically, the longest run of perfection ever unleashed on the sport was both accomplished and halted by a Czech.
Navrátilová’s success continued well past the expected retirement age as she won her final Wimbledon singles title at 33, reached the Wimbledon finals at 37 and captured her final grand slam a month shy of her 50th birthday! More than 30 years after her citizenship was revoked she was welcomed back with open arms and became a Czech citizen again in 2008.
3) Věra Čáslavská
The cheerful and outspoken Čáslavska began her dominant run through the world of women’s gymnastics by doing something no other gymnast had ever been able to do, which was defeat Soviet Larisa Latynina, the most decorated female gymnast of all-time. Her all-around gold medal at the 1964 Olympics started a streak that saw her claim the all-around gold at every Olympics, World championships, and European championships from one Olympiad through the next, something that no other female gymnast has ever done. She is also the only gymnast, male or female, who has won an Olympic gold on every individual event. Her 7 Olympic golds in individual events is a record for female gymnasts and her 1.4 point margin of victory at the 1968 Olympics remains the largest for any major championship all-around title.
The darling of the ’68 Olympics was very nearly denied travel clearance to attend the games due to her outspoken support for the Czechoslovak democratization movement which included her signing of Ludvík Vaculík’s protest manifesto “2,000 Words.” She was granted travel clearance at the last minute after spending the weeks leading up to the Olympics trying to avoid arrest by hiding out in the mountain town of Šumperk. As she unfurled her stunning performance at the games, she was confronted with an extremely controversial judging decision that elevated a Soviet rival into a tie for gold in the floor exercise. Fed up with the reach of Soviet corruption, she took her protest to the world stage atop the podium by quietly looking down and away during the playing of the Soviet national anthem. She repeated the protest after a similar controversy in the balance beam event. Her actions were applauded by her countrymen but they resulted in her becoming a persona non grata in the new regime. She was forced into retirement in 1968 and for many years was denied the right to travel, work and attend sporting events.
After the fall of communism her status improved dramatically as she was appointed advisor to President Havel before serving a term as President of the Czech Olympic Committee and was awarded the Czech Republic’s Medal of Merit.
2) Jaromír Jágr
The highest scoring European in NHL history and 9th-best overall could easily have seen his name rise to 2nd on the all-time list if he had been around to display his tremendous skills in the high-scoring era of the 1980’s instead of the neutral-zone trapping era of the 1990’s. His 5 Art Ross trophies as the league’s leading scorer included four straight from 1998 through 2001, a feat topped only by Wayne Gretzky. Add to that 3 Lester B. Pearson awards (MVP chosen by the players) and the 1999 Hart Trophy, which ended fellow countryman Hašek’s grip on the award, and the Hall of Fame surely has a spot reserved for this Czech icon.
Jágr endeared himself even further to his Czech fans during the 2004-05 NHL lockout when he returned to his hometown team of Kladno and incited “Jágrmania” as the team sold out every game with him in uniform. Later that year he joined the elusive triple gold club by adding world championship gold to his two Stanley Cup victories and his gold at the ’98 Olympics. As the proud bearer of the number 68 in remembrance of Prague Spring, Jágr’s immense popularity is further evident in his capturing of 10 Golden Stick awards (to Hašek’s 6) as the best Czech hockey player of the year. His role as flag bearer for the Czech Republic at the 2010 Olympics further perpetuates his image as the current face of Czech sportsmen.
1) Emil Zátopek
As the recipient of such honors as Greatest Athlete of the Twentieth Century and Olympian of the Century, Zátopek is sure to find himself at the top of more than a few lists. This 3-time winner of the poll for Best Athlete in the World arrived on the world stage at the 1948 Olympics where he won gold in the 10km in only his second ever race at that distance and also added a silver in the 5km. However, his performance at the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki is what made him a legend, as he completed a triple crown that will almost certainly never be duplicated. After capturing gold in Olympic record time in both the 5km and 10km, he decided at the last minute to run in the first marathon of his life. His simple strategy for the marathon was to race alongside WR holder Jim Peters. After a gruelling first 15km in which Peters knew he had overtaxed himself, Zátopek turned to Peters and asked him what he thought of the race. Peters replied that the pace was “too slow” at which point Zátopek simply accelerated, leaving the field and another Olympic record in his wake. Peters did not even finish the race.
“The Czech Locomotive” was beloved by fans and rivals alike as he was always willing to give advice to anyone who asked, and was awarded the Pierre de Coubertin medal posthumously in 2000 (1 of only 11 ever awarded) given only to athletes who demonstrated the true spirit of sportsmanship. He stands alone as the only Olympic athlete whose statue appears at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne.
Kateřina Neumannová – best Czech skier ever with 6 Olympic medals, she retired in 2007 as a reigning Olympic and World Champion.
Jarmila Kratochvílová – holder of the longest standing world record in track and field (800m in ’83) but was suspected of doping due to her overtly muscular appearance, lengthy injury history, her odd 1 year career peak at 32 and her obsession with topping her rival, renowned East German doper Marita Koch.
Karel Loprais – 6-time winner of Dakar Rally (2nd all-time); due to 49 competitor deaths, most are happy just to finish.
Josef Masopust – won European Footballer of the Year (1 of 2 Czechs to win it) in 1962 as he led Czechoslovakia to the World Cup final where he scored in a loss to Brazil.
Sincere apologies to Petr Čech, Tomáš Dvořak and Tomáš Kaberle.