Koivu’s drive for five

“Sochi is a dream I’m aiming for”

29.03.2012
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Saku Koivu led Finland to Olympic silver in 2006. Will the Finn play his fifth Olympic Games in Sochi 2014? Photo: Jani Rajamaki / Europhoto

Saku Koivu has won a medal in each of the four Olympics that he has taken part in. He will be 39 when Sochi 2014 comes along. “If I stay healthy and can keep up with the younger players, it is a dream that I am aiming to achieve,” said Koivu to the IOC Athlete’s Bulletin.

The Finn is a four-time Olympian who has won one silver and three bronze medals, competing at the Lillehammer (1994), Nagano (1998), Turin (2006) and Vancouver (2010) Games.

That puts him among an exclusive group of five players. Other than Koivu, only Vladislav Tretiak (Soviet Union, 3 gold, 1 silver), Igor Kravchuk (Russia, 2 gold, 1 silver, 1 bronze), Jiri Holik (Czechoslovakia, 2 silver, 2 bronze) and Jere Lehtinen (Finland, 1 silver, 3 bronze) have won four Olympic medals.  

When he was at his best and preparing for the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City, the two-time Finnish Olympic captain (1998 and 2010) was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, a form of cancer. While his teammates were playing for medals in Utah, Koivu was fighting for his life in Montreal, going through arduous cycles of chemotherapy.

Koivu, a fighter on and off the ice, not only defeated the disease but he made a miraculous comeback two months after the Olympics and was instrumental in Montreal’s impressive playoff run that spring.

He is currently with the Anaheim Ducks in the National Hockey League, where he played his 1000th NHL game on March 12. Koivu was elected to the IOC Athletes’ Commission during the 2006 Turin Games.

The IOC Athlete’s Bulletin caught up with Saku some time ago to ask him a couple of questions.

What has it meant for you to represent Finland in four Olympic Games? Is it your goal to participate a fifth time in Sochi 2014?

The four Games and four medals have been highlights of my career. I started my Olympic career in 1994 in Lillehammer and I remember how special it felt to represent Finland. In Vancouver, 16 years later, I still felt the same overwhelming joy of being part of the Olympic Movement. At this point in my career and life, I take one year at a time, but it would be absolutely amazing to be able to compete in one more Olympic Games. If I stay healthy and can keep up with the younger players, it is a dream that I am most certainly aiming to achieve.

What inspired you to return to the ice after your recovery from non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma?

It was my way of proving to myself that I was done with treatments and we had won the battle with cancer. Everybody said that it was impossible to come back so soon but it was another challenge for me and it represented returning to normal life after the tough cycles of chemotherapy.

You have had a long and distinguished career, what do you contribute to your success?

In order to excel at anything, you obviously have to have talent and passion, but the most important quality is your character. You often hear people say that “practice makes perfect” and I do agree to some extent, but in the end it is the person’s character that will determine whether you make it or not. I always felt that I was not the most talented player but I always strived to be the best and never gave up on anything.

In your opinion, how important is the voice of the athletes within the Olympic Movement?

The Olympic Movement and the Games are continuously growing and it is vital that the athletes’ voices are heard and valued. The most important aspect for the Games is to make sure that the athletes are and remain the focal point, and that they can compete in the best possible conditions. In order to achieve this standard, the Olympic Movement will continue to embrace the athletes’ input.

The inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games was held this January. What opportunities do the YOG present for future generations?

The YOG is an amazing opportunity for our young athletes to meet other athletes, learn about different cultures and to have a first taste of international competition. But the YOG is so much more than winning a medal; it is about the Olympic spirit, making new friends and most of all, experiencing sport in its purest form.

It is still two seasons until the 2014 Olympic in Sochi and by then Saku Koivu may be retired, or he will be playing his fifth Olympics with Finland. The amazing thing is that had Koivu not missed the 2002 games, he would now be gunning to equal countryman Raimo Helminen’s record of six OIympics.

But five would be okay. Only six players in the history of hockey have taken part in five Olympic ice hockey tournaments (other than Raimo Helminen): Dieter Hegen (FRG/GER), Udo Kiessling (FRG/GER), Jere Lehtinen (FIN), Denis Perez (FRA), Teemu Selänne (FIN), Petter Thoresen (NOR).

Published with permission from the IOC Athlete’s Bulletin

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