The shuttler who has suffered a series of professional and personal battles in the last two years was chosen ahead of household names such as Petra Kvitova (tennis) to carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony on 27 July in London.
It has been a rollercoaster ride for the 26-year-old from Horovice over the past two years after he received the devastating news that he had been diagnosed with testicular cancer. This was particularly tough for Koukal as he was forced to watch his home tournament, the Czech International in the autumn of 2010, from the sidelines while undergoing cancer treatment.
Little did he know but this was the start of a demanding journey which would lead to him being chosen for one of the greatest roles in any professional athlete’s career – that of carrying one’s national flag in the Olympics’ Opening Ceremony.
After competing in Beijing in 2008, Koukal (pictured right) was fully aware that qualification for London would have to line up with his recovery from cancer. The qualification process was torturous for Koukal as he struggled mentally with a dramatic loss of form during the qualification quest. After the 2011 world championships in London, Koukal hit an all-time low.
“I did all I could to get ready for the worlds in London last year especially since I knew this was where the Olympic tournament was to be held, but I suffered a very heavy defeat to Ukrainian No. 1 Zavadsky in the first round and it was clear my body and my mental state of mind were nowhere near good enough to compete.”
However, for every low point there has to be a high and that came a few months later for Koukal as he returned to action in his home event, the Czech International, after a missing the previous year. This was the turning point in his season as he started to show signs of regaining his old form, finishing the runner-up and securing a good haul of points in the race to London.
“I was very nervous ahead of the Czech International last year. But having missed it in 2010, I was determined to perform well in front of my home supporters. I beat some good players that week like Brice Leverdez (France), Ville Lang (Finland), and Jen Hao Hsu (Taipai) the current world No. 27 and that run of wins and points was crucial in my qualification.”
The rest of qualification proved difficult for Koukal who endured a three-month drought in early 2012, not registering a single win in any tournament. Again his mental resolve was tested.
“It was such a hard season. I had no power and I was feeling tired all the time but I knew I had to keep going if I wanted to qualify.”
When qualification closed in May the majority of athletes knew their fate but, for a handful of shuttlers, there was further agony. Failing to make the initial qualification list based on world rankings, Koukal could not celebrate with friends who had earned their tickets to London. He could only sit by, watch and wait for the second draft of Olympic qualifiers. He spent a long month continuing to train while wondering if thecall would come. Finally, while at the European club championships in Hungary, Koukal got confirmation that he had qualified as a reserve.
“That month was probably the worst period of the whole year. Seeing others qualify and knowing it would be some more weeks and that it was in the hands of others if I would go or not. There is no explaining the relief when I found out.”
Koukal’s fairytale about-turn was by no means complete as he was accorded the distinction of leading the Czech competitors in the traditional parade of nations. This signal tribute was bestowed on him by President of the Czech Olympic Committee, Mr Milan Jirasek as recognition of Koukal’s immense bravery in battling cancer to represent his country in sport’s premier global showpiece.
“This honour completely took me by surprise and I found out at the presentation of the official Olympic uniform that I was the lucky athlete chosen to carry the flag. There was intense speculation in the media about others and nobody expected it to be me. The media interest has been huge and I hope this might go some way to promoting badminton in the Czech Republic and Europe. It’s been a crazy two years but it is times and experiences like this that make it all worth it,” he reflected.
A buoyant Koukal now heads to London bolstered by his compatriots’ support and well wishes and, no doubt, with the same focus and determination that brought him through tense qualifications and an even more critical battle with cancer.