Petr Koukal: “When I think back to carrying the flag in London, I still get goosebumps.”
Czech badminton player Petr Koukal competed at three editions of the Olympic Games: 2008, 2012 and 2016. And in London in 2012, after winning a battle with cancer, he was entrusted with the role of carrying his nation’s flag at the Opening Ceremony.
Beijing in 2008 was my first Olympic Games and walking into the Bird’s Nest stadium at the Opening Ceremony was an incredible experience. I was very young and I could never have imagined how big everything would be. It was such an exciting moment for me - to be at the Games and with badminton being such a big sport in China, it was just amazing. I remember thinking that nothing could ever beat that feeling.
My second Olympic Games were London 2012, where I was selected to be the Czech flag-bearer at the Opening Ceremony. Even now, when I think back to carrying the flag in London, I still get goosebumps. It was like a dream coming true - it was incredible. Although, as much as it was an amazing thing to be chosen to be flag-bearer, there was part of me that wished I had been selected due to my results on the badminton court rather than what I was actually chosen for.
I was selected as flag-bearer because the London Olympics were just after my recovery from testicular cancer. I was diagnosed with cancer in September 2010 and so qualifying for the 2012 Olympics was really tough. I had recovered from cancer after a series of strong chemotherapies and came back to sport and so the Czech Olympic Committee gave me the honour of carrying the flag in an attempt to make people more aware of health issues and also to encourage others to believe in their dreams. It was an amazing time and my family and a lot of my friends were so happy, so it was fantastic.
What’s so strange about being nominated as flag-bearer is that in my home country, a film was being made about my attempt to qualify for London 2012 and about six months before the Games, I didn’t know if I was going to make it into the team or not. And I remember that someone said to me: “You will qualify and you’ll even carry the flag at the Opening Ceremony.” So, six months later, when I got a call saying that I had been selected to carry the flag, I thought it was a joke because we’d been talking about it a few months before but I could never have imagined this coming true. But when I realised it was for real, it was an amazing feeling.
The Olympic Committee wanted to check I was happy to carry the flag because I was competing on day one of the Games. But I couldn’t say no and it was a good choice, I’ll never regret it.
On the evening of the Opening Ceremony, I remember feeling quite overwhelmed by it all. It was a great night and there were so many emotions, it was quite amazing. I remember telling myself not to drop the flag and I was quite nervous because I knew that everyone around the globe would be watching so if I dropped the flag - the whole world would see.
I felt so many emotions during the Opening Ceremony because it had been so tough to get to that point. And the following morning, I didn’t feel tired physically but emotionally, I felt so full and also so empty at the same time. It was a unique feeling.
I have 37 people who have come to me and told me that me speaking up about my story saved their life. That if they hadn’t heard my story, they would never have gone to their doctor but hearing about me encouraged them to visit the doctorPetr Koukal
When I was recovering from cancer and coming back to elite sport, it was a fairly big story in the Czech Republic. But then when I was selected to carry the flag, it became a crazily big story. Being famous like that was very new to me, but it was also very exciting. And the support I got from the international badminton community was fantastic - during my recovery from cancer, I received so many messages wishing me well and then when I was announced as flag-bearer, the badminton community was so happy for me, which was amazing and made me really happy.
I think one of the best things that happened was that, as a result of being flag-bearer, my story became very well-known. So in the aftermath of London 2012, I got so many letters and emails saying ‘thank you for talking about testicular cancer and men’s health in general and raising awareness of it’. Often, testicular cancer and other issues aren’t spoken about and so many men go to the doctor too late because they are embarrassed to talk about it. But so many people said that because I’d spoken about it and I’d made it more commonplace to talk about testicular cancer, they went to see their doctor and they were found to have cancer too. So many people sent me messages telling me they had had surgery and were recovering because they caught it early enough that they could be treated.
I have 37 people who have come to me and told me that me speaking up about my story saved their life. That if they hadn’t heard my story, they would never have gone to their doctor but hearing about me encouraged them to visit the doctor and they were diagnosed with cancer but because it was caught in time, they were now recovering. It’s pretty amazing to think that I’ve helped save people’s life and so much of that is down to being a flag-bearer at the Olympic Games.