For an introduction let's look at some facts and figures.
In Latvia there are:
781 sports organisations
1223 sports halls
92 sports schools and clubs
55 mountain skiing tracks
and 81 public swimming pools
It is pretty much for a country of 1 968 957 inhabitants!
It is true that our teams don’t always win but we always act like they do! And for a country of just around 2 million people we definitely punch above our weight on the world’s stage. Our most athletic individuals continuously reach the pedestal in practically every discipline. Winter, Summer, Spring or Fall, Latvia can do it all!
Hockey is the main and national sport in Latvia. Talented players appear every year, and a fair few of them have made it to the world’s most prominent hockey leagues, including the hockey Mecca that is the NHL.
This process dates back to the 1930s, when Latvians first began to play and love hockey. The Latvian national team soon debuted at the World Championship and the Winter Olympic Games at Garmisch-Partenkirchen in 1936, true, losing all of its games, including an 11:0 rout in the hands of Canada. Latvia’s first artificial ice rink, in turn, dates back only to 1960.
From the very beginning, one Latvian hockey team has stood out among the others – Dinamo Riga, which was established in 1946 after World War II and was one of 12 team that took part in the first Soviet Championship. The team was disbanded in 1995, but then re-established in 2008 with Slovakian coach Julius Supler at its helm. Since then Dinamo has been part of the Continental Hockey League (KHL), which is widely considered to be the second best hockey league in the world after the NHL.
Latvians are proud of their hockey players. Sandis Ozoliņš is the only Latvian to ever hold the Stanley Cup, which is the champion’s trophy in the NHL. Kārlis Skrastiņš (1974-2011) was known as the iron man of the NHL. Zemgus Girgensons was voted into the NHL All Star Game in 2014. Many other talented players have attracted worldwide attention and prestige to our country.
Basketball has always been a big part of sports culture in Latvia. Latvia was one of the eight founding members of the International Basketball Federation (FIBA), and its national team won the first FIBA championship in 1935. Rīga is the only European city in which both of the main trophies from European club tournaments have been held simultaneously – the one received by the women of TTT Rīga and the one received by the men of the ASK team in 1960.
Latvians are proud of their basketball stars, particularly the great Uljana Semjonova (b 1952), who is one of the most successful female basketball players in history – twice Olympic champion, three times world champion and ten times European champion. Standing at 2 metres 10, Semjonova was a global phenomenon during her career and has been enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame (1993) and the FIBA Hall of Fame (2007).
A very visible player is Andris Biedriņš, who was drafted by the Golden State Warriors in 2004 as the 11th draft pick. The next year he became one of the youngest players in NBA history, taking on a stable role in his team and in the Latvian national team. True, Biedriņš has been plagued with injuries and retired from professional basketball in 2014.
The 4th pick for the New York Knicks in the 2015 NBA draft was Kristaps Porziņģis, who quickly became an overnight and international sensation. Since his very first game at Madison Square Garden, Kristaps has been one of the most admired players on the team. This autumn, shortly before his second NBA season, he signed a huge footwear deal with Adidas, which was the biggest deal for a European player ever in history.
Another Latvian joined the NBA in the summer of 2016 – Dāvis Bertāns, who was taken on by the 2014 NBA champions, the San Antonio Spurs. He debuted on October 25, 2016.
Despite Latvia’s northern climate and history, football has long since been a part of the country’s sporting culture. Football was introduced by Englishmen who travelled to Latvia by sea more than a century ago.
A key achievement for Latvia’s national team was to qualify for the 2004 UEFA European Championship final tournament in Portugal for the very first time, with a particularly memorable moment coming when the team held Germany’s mighty side to a nil-nil draw. Football isn’t Latvia’s most widely watched sort, but it does attract many spectators when Latvian teams play against one another or when the national team competes in international friendlies or tournaments.
Many gifted and successful football players from Latvia have played in top leagues in the world, including the Barclays Premier League in the UK. One was Marians Pahars, who was one of the most successful players for the Southampton team in England and now manages Latvia’s national team. Māris Verpakovskis is another magnificent player as the top scorer for the national team and as Latvia’s most recognisable and popular footballer.
Winter sports such as skeleton, bobsleigh and luge are a matter of great pride in Latvia. Latvian athletes have been in leading positions in these sports, with Martins Dukurs (skeleton) being at the top of the game for quite a few years, with only a few others who can compete with him. Martins is the reigning four-time world champion, a twofold Olympic silver medallist at Vancouver in 2010 and Sochi in 2014, as well as a seven-time holder of the World Cup title. Martins’ brother Tomass is also ranked among the world’s top skeleton racers.
Latvians also have done very well with the bobsleigh, a technically complicated sport that was first adapted in 1980. Our athletes have done magnificently, with Jānis Ķipurs winning Olympic gold under the last time that the Latvian team competed under the Soviet flag, in 1988 in Calgary. Sandis Prūsis, Jānis Miņins and their teams have done well in the international arena, and Oskars Melbārdis and his fantastic team took silver at Sochi in 2014. The team has also won gold medals in the European championship in 2008 and 2015, as well as gold medals in the FIBT World Championship in Igls, Austria, in 2016.
The brothers Andris and Juris Šics won the men’s double’s bronze in luge at the Sochi Olympics in 2014, with team Latvia winning bronze in the mixed team relay. Latvia’s bronze medal winners were the brothers, along with Mārtiņš Rubenis and Elīza Tīruma. Mārtiņš Rubenis deserves all of his success, because he has always built his own luge sleds. He was, in fact, the first Latvian medal winner for independent Latvia in the Winter Olympic Games.
Māris Štrombergs is a name worth remembering. He won the gold medal in BMX racing the very first time that that was an Olympic sport in Beijing in 2008, after winning the world championship that year and so offering high hopes for fellow Latvians. During the period between the Beijing Olympics and the London Olympics, Štrombergs won the world champion’s title in 2010 and the European championship in 2013 and 2014. In London, he repeated his victory for a second gold medal, but did not medal in Rio four years later.
Javelin throwers are Latvia’s pride and joy in athletics. Inese Jaunzeme won the first Olympic gold medal in Melbourne in 1956, under the Soviet flag. Vadims Vasiļevskis and Ainars Kovals won silver medals at the Athens Olympics in 2004 and the Beijing Olympics in 2008 respectively. Zigismunds Sirmais is a javelinist to watch, setting a world junior record in 2011 and being the reigning European champion. Also worth mentioning is Madara Palameika, who is the Latvian record holder and won the 2016 Diamond League series, the highest title for a Latvian athlete in this competition. True, Madara only came in 10th at the Rio Olympics in 2016.
Latvians also compete in the long jump, and Ineta Radeviča is a star, setting the Latvian record, winning the 2010 European championship and finishing 4th in the 2010 London Olympics, just 1 centimetre behind the bronze medal winner.
Beach volleyball, of course, is played during the summer or at summer-like locations, and even though Latvian summers only last for a couple of months, Latvians have done very well in this sport, indeed. Mārtiņš Pļaviņš and Jānis Smēdiņš won the bronze at the London Olympics in 2012, after which Šmēdiņš changed partners to team up with Aleksandrs Samoilovs. This is a very successful duet, winning the Men’s FIVB Beach Volley World Tour in the 2013/14 season, and becoming the “Team of the Year” in the tour. There were big hopes for the duo at the Rio Olympics, but they rather sensationally lost in the second round. Still, Aleksandrs Samoilovs attracted great attention from female members in the audience because of his hairstyle, which reminded people of that of the great Brazilian football player Biru.
Mārtiņš Pļaviņš, Jānis Šmēdiņš
Mikhail Tal (1936-1992) – creative genius, a grandmaster, the Magician of Rīga and a world champion in chess. Mikhail began his career at age 14 and developed a powerful and creative playing style. He holds the record for the longest and second longest unbeaten streak in the history of competitive chess.
In 2016, Latvian Finance Minister Dana Reizniece-Ozola beat the World chess champion from China at the World Chess Olympiad in Azerbaijan, much to her own surprise. This made Latvians particularly proud in the holder of their country’s financial portfolio.
Athletes from Latvia have competed in the Olympics since 1912. Jānis Daliņš achieved the first medal for Latvia in Los Angeles 1932 by winning the 50 km walk. Latvia was one of eight founding members of International Basketball Federation (FIBA) in 1932. Not long after the Latvian „Dream Team” won the first European basketball championship in 1935.
Inese Jaunzeme was the first Latvian to win an Olympic gold, persevering in javelin throwing in Melbourne 1956. Another distinguished javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis won medals in Tokyo 1964, Mexico City 1968 and Munich 1972.
The legendary basketball player Uljana Semjonova is a twofold Olympic champion, threefold world champion, and tenfold European champion. She represented the famous Rīga team “TTT”.
Latvians follow ice hockey with a near-religious fervour thanks to all the national stars reaching the sky of success. Helmuts Balderis became a triple World and European champion. He was recognized the best forward player in the World Championship 1977. Artūrs Irbe was recognized the best goal keeper in the World Championship 1990 and played in the NHL for 13 years. The long standing ice hockey tradition made Rīga an ideal host for the World Championship in 2006.
Latvians can be proud of their professional athletes, but also of themselves for taking part in sports, as well. Latvians are active and love to compete in sports such as orienteering. In orienteering, people gather in groups to navigate from point to point and to strategize the way in which they can move forward as quickly as possible to reach the finish line first. Latvians also enjoy marathons such as the Lattelecom Riga marathon that attracts local and international runners from all around the world. Latvians also love their bikes, with races organised all around the country. The Unity Ride is beloved by thousands of cyclists every year, with adults, teens and families with small kids gathering together to enjoy a fine day with fellow cycling enthusiasts.
The Latvian Institute, 2016. Photos: Ilmārs Znotiņš/ LOK