These past Olympics have been mind-blowing for the Latvians. A very small country, with the third most medals per capita of all participating countries, Latvia also managed to induce partial heart attacks to 35million Canadians with the show-stopping Canada vs. Latvia hockey game, drawing all eyes on Latvia (similarly to the last summer Olympics when Latvia won bronze in men’s beach volleyball – “Wait, do they even have summer?”)

A satisfying end to the Olympic run was when team Latvia’s bobsleigh team nabbed Silver on the last day. The bobsleighists had been a favourite and everyone had hopes for the team. They didn’t let us down, and just missed gold by a sliver.

But my rooting for the Latvian Bobsleigh team has a backstory, and I was extremely emotionally invested in their success. Because I had the honour to give my input on the symbols that were included in the bobsleigh design. The goal – not just to make it pretty, but to create such a strong string of Latvian ornaments, that the underlying strength and meaning of the symbols would guarantee a win (combined, obviously, with the talent and hard work of the Olympians).

Since I had already worked with the Latvian Olympic Committee and Latvijas Gāze (enthusiastic supporters of the Latvian Olympic Team) during the previous Olympics with the friendship bracelet project, we already had the opportunity to discuss Latvian symbols, their meanings, and how they can be applied to these Olympic souvenirs with a deeper meaning.

I was absolutely dumbstruck when I was asked to do some sketches for what would later be painted onto the Latvian team’s Olympic bobsleighs.

So I went to the drawing board. My first sketch was done on a piece of scrap paper, quickly drawn up with the first blue pen I could find. I simply put down all of the symbols that in my opinion would have to be in the design to portray the right meaning.

“Laimas Slotiņa” - for luck – Laima is the patroness of fate. This is her broom. It protects and brushes away all that’s bad.

“Zalktis” – the grass snake – is known as the keeper of wisdom. I figured our Bobsleighists needed some wisdom go do well.

“Māras Krusts” – Māra is something like Mother Nature. She’s responsible for everything in the physical world. So you want mother nature on your side when you sliding on frozen water.

“Dievs” – the ancient Latvian pagan word for meaning God, not be confused with the Christian God. This symbol is the “roof” of the world, and attracts the protection of the “higher powers”.

“Jumis” – the god of fertility, prosperous results (in the ancient Latvian sense that was more meant in terms of their fields). I thought our bobsleigh team needed prosperous results, as well.

Once I had an idea of which symbols should be included and why, I went back to the drawing board to think up a nicer, more symmetrical design. The designs were then promptly sent over to the very knowledgeable Janīna Kursīte – who is the authority on all that is Latvian folklore. With her suggestions, it was back to the drawing board for a redesign, this time including “sun” symbols on either side for positivity, happiness, smiles and success, “Ūsiņš” as a symbol of strength (two in one – the bobsleigh and the athlete).

The final result was the beautiful, sleek, and meaningful design that we all saw at the Olympics. So really the bobsleigh team should just hand those medals over, because now we really know what was behind those medals! (joking! Sort of…) 

Jūlija Gifford, 04.06.2014