An Englishman in Latvia

On sport

December 04, 2023 Alan Anstead Season 1 Episode 27
On sport
An Englishman in Latvia
More Info
An Englishman in Latvia
On sport
Dec 04, 2023 Season 1 Episode 27
Alan Anstead

Latvia is a nation that loves sport. it has achieved outstanding sporting success. We will examine that success. We will look at the most popular sports in Latvia, some Latvian sporting heroes, and share some of the proud glory from 2023’s success in ice hockey and basketball. Above all, I wanted to discover why this small country was so good at certain sports. 

Thanks for listening!

Show Notes Transcript

Latvia is a nation that loves sport. it has achieved outstanding sporting success. We will examine that success. We will look at the most popular sports in Latvia, some Latvian sporting heroes, and share some of the proud glory from 2023’s success in ice hockey and basketball. Above all, I wanted to discover why this small country was so good at certain sports. 

Thanks for listening!

On sport

Latvia is a nation that loves sport. That isn’t dissimilar to other European countries. However, for a small country of just 1.8 million people, it has achieved outstanding sporting success. We will examine that success - from the country’s first independence, then during Soviet times, and finally, since independence was regained in 1991. We will look at the most popular sports in Latvia, some Latvian sporting heroes, and share some of the proud glory from 2023’s success in ice hockey and basketball. Above all, I wanted to discover why this small country was so good at certain sports. I had a great conversation about this at the Latvian Sports Museum.

Let’s start with a contested issue. What is the most popular sport in Latvia? Many people will say that it is basketball, followed by ice hockey. Others will have ice hockey as the national sport of Latvia, followed by basketball. A sports marketing study conducted by international company Mediacom concluded that football is Latvia’s most popular sport. As a former diplomat, I will take the diplomatic option and say they are all hugely popular sports in Latvia. Ice hockey and basketball saw incredible results at the international level in 2023. But they aren’t the only sports Latvia has excelled in. Track athletics, BMX and road cycling, and tennis. Although many Latvians are very cagey about the present state of football, it is the biggest participation sport in Latvia.
Ice hockey

Ice hockey has been played in Latvia since 1929, and the professional league - the Latvian Hockey Higher League - has been held since 1931. There are also several amateur hockey leagues. Latvia is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation, and its national team participated in several World Championships in the 1930s and the 1936 Winter Olympic Games. After Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, its membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation was interrupted. Still, Latvians had a significant ice hockey role in the Soviet Union. Latvia's Dinamo Rīga team was one of eleven teams which played in the first Soviet championship tournament in the winter of 1946/47. The Latvian Harijs Mellups was the goaltender for the Soviet Union National team during its first international game in 1948.

Latvian hockey experienced a decline in the 1960s, with Dinamo Rīga being relegated from the Soviet High League to the first league and then even to the second league. But it came back in the 1970s under coach Viktor Tikhonov, who would later coach the Soviet national team. During the 1973/1974 season, Dinamo Rīga returned to the Elite League, where it stayed until the end of the Soviet Union in 1991.

Several Latvian ice hockey players achieved success during the Soviet era. In 1975, Viktor Hatulev of Dinamo Rīga became the first ice hockey player from the Soviet Union to be chosen for the North American National Hockey League, but never had a chance to play as people from the Soviet Union were not allowed to compete for foreign teams. Helmuts Balderis was the brightest Latvian hockey forward of the 1970s and 1980s, with an all-time scoring record. He played for the Soviet national team, winning the World Championships in 1978, 1979 and 1983. Despite being the best forward, he was not selected for the Soviet national team for the 1984 Winter Olympics for political reasons, as the Soviet team consisted only of players from Moscow ice hockey teams. He never got that Olympic gold medal. But he played for Minnesota North Stars at age 36 in the 1989-90 season. Goaltenders Vitālijs Samoilovs and Artūrs Irbe starred for the Soviet team in the 1980s. 

After Latvia regained independence in 1991, Latvia restored its membership in the International Ice Hockey Federation, and the Latvian national team returned to international competition. Their best results were three 7th place finishes in 1997, 2004 and 2009 before winning their first medal as joint hosts with Finland in the 2023 tournament, where Latvia finished 3rd. The Latvian team defeated big countries in the qualifying stages, eventually losing 4:2 to Canada in the semi-finals. I know of a few Latvians who jumped in their cars when Latvia qualified for the semi-finals and drove straight to Tampere for the match. One young relative on my wife’s side slept in the car he borrowed from his mother! Mad enthusiasm! A day later, Latvia secured the bronze medal by beating the USA. A public holiday was declared in Latvia.

My only foray into a type of ice hockey was playing broomball for the British Embassy in Moscow team in the 1980s. A winter sport, broomball is played by binding an old-style Russian twig broom with tape to shape it like an ice hockey stick. The tennis court is flooded, and the water is allowed to freeze. Ice hockey goals are placed at either end of the court, and rather than a puck, one had a frozen tennis ball-sized rubber ball. One wore ice hockey clothes except for baseball shoes with round sucker-like holes in the sole to give a little grip on the ice. The rest was a bit brutal, especially when playing the US Marines who guarded the American Embassy. Yes, we had an international competition. Australian Embassy, the Pitts (foreign journalists’ team), a couple of US teams, Kiwis, Canadians and others. No Russians, though! My brother did play ice hockey and still plays roller hockey.


Another important sport in Latvia is basketball. I’m still taking that diplomatic line of not declaring the most popular sport! Latvia won the first International Basketball Federation European Championship in 1935 in Geneva. A 2012 Latvian film, ‘Dream Team 1935’, told the story of the success of this Latvian national basketball team. Latvia got to host the second championship in 1937. But then came the Second World War and Soviet occupation.

In the Soviet period, the Latvian men's basketball team, Rīgas ASK, dominated the Soviet League in the 1950s and early 1960s. In the 1960 Summer Olympics, four Latvians, Jānis Krūmiņš, Valdis Muižnieks, Cēzars Ozers and Maigonis Valdmanis were part of the silver-medal winning Soviet team. The Soviet Olympic teams in the 1956 and 1964 Summer Olympics had three Latvian players each. The women's team, TTT Riga, was very successful in the 1970s and 1980s, winning the European Champion's Cup 18 times, more than any other team in any team sport. The women's key player in this period was 2.12 m (7 ft) tall Uljana Semjonova. She was also dominant in the Soviet national team in international games, winning two Olympic and three World Championships. We will talk more about Uljana in a few minutes.

The guard Valdis Valters was the most highly acclaimed player of the 1980s for men's basketball. He won the European Championship with the Soviet team in 1981 but did not get a chance to play in the Olympics because of the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles. Another Latvian, Igors Miglinieks, won gold with the Soviet team four years later in the 1988 Summer Olympics.

Latvia returned to international competition as an independent country in 1992. The qualification stages of the 1992 Summer Olympics were the first tournament for Latvia's team. Two Latvian players, Igors Miglinieks and Gundars Vētra, chose to play for the Russia Reunified Team, which was sure to qualify, rather than the Latvian team. Bad choice! Their decision caused a lot of resentment in Latvia, and they never played for Latvia again. 

After Latvia regained independence, Latvia’s national basketball league was dominated by the Brocēni team in the 1990s and the Ventspils team in the 2000s. The Latvian men's basketball team finished 8th place in the 2001 European Championships, and the women’s team reached the semi-finals at the 2007 European Championships. Then came the FIBA World Cup in 2023, Latvia’s World Cup debut. Before the tournament, Latvia was ranked in 29th place. During the contest, the Latvian men’s team defeated a few pre-tournament favourites in France, Brazil, Italy, and the reigning champion, Spain. Latvia finished in 5th place. And the quarter-finals were a very close match against Germany. But what a result - from 29th to 5th! 

Two of my Latvian sporting heroes.

Māris Štrombergs was born in Valmiera, Latvia, on 10 March 1987. Maris began riding when he was five years old. Riding was only a hobby for him back then.“It was a great after-school activity — like a hangout with buddies,” Strombergs explains. He learned that BMX would be included in the Olympic Games when he was fourteen. He thought it was fantastic then, but it was not something he could accomplish. Although he was a bright pupil at school, he did not complete his education as he competed in professional BMX contests worldwide. 

Strombergs had already won two world championships before competing in the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Even so, the twenty-one-year-old racer wasn’t considered one of the favourites. The media wrote off the young racer even in Latvia because they didn’t think he could manage the strain. Strombergs, on the other hand, found it to be a pleasurable experience: “I just went out there and had fun and liked it,” he recalled in an interview. The Latvian racer was in Lane 1, gaining a clear lead and crossed the finish line in 36.19 seconds—the first person to win the BMX Cycling Championship at the Olympics. Maris Strombergs struggled to remain anonymous in his home country of Latvia after winning his maiden Olympic gold medal. 

In 2012, London hosted the second BMX Cycling Olympic Games. The pressure of defending his championship title was palpable. He said, “Defending the title is more difficult than winning it”. Still, he took the lead when another rider stumbled on the first turn. After victory in Beijing, Strombergs lifted his hands, but in London, the first thing he did was yell! His hard work over the previous four years had paid off, and the pressure to keep the championship title for another 4 years seemed to fade away. He said, “All I wanted to do was let it all out. I had a pretty rough year leading up to the Olympics, you know, with all the pressure and everything”. Upon returning from the 2012 Olympics, he was greeted by thousands of fans in his hometown of Valmiera. In 2018, Māris announced his retirement, and now coaches younger riders, runs a profitable merchandise business, and spends lots of time with his family.

My first serious sport was cycling. I used to race at the Crystal Palace circuit for Velo Club de Londres. It was run for disadvantaged London youth in Brixton and Peckham, where I was born. I had a junior and then a Cat III racing license but never achieved much success. I bought a motorbike when I started working! However, a relative on my wife’s side competed in the European Junior BMX Championships and then the World Championships in America and did really well. A fantastic achievement for a young Latvian girl from Jelgava.

Uļjana Larionovna Semjonova was born on 9 March 1952 in Zarasai in Lithuania - the closest hospital to where her parents lived near Daugavpils in Latvia. She is a Latvian basketball player of Russian descent who competed for the Soviet Union.

Standing at least 2.13 m (7 ft 0 in), Semjonova was the world's leading women's basketball player in the 1970s and 1980s. Wearing a men's size 58 (EU) shoe, she was known for having the largest feet ever in women's basketball.[ You can see her personally-made Adidas basketball shoes in the Latvian Sports Museum, which I will discuss soon. For almost all of her playing career, she played for TTT Riga, part of the Daugava Voluntary Sports Society. With TTT, she won 15 championships in the Soviet Union and the European Champion's Cup 15 times. Semjonova was also dominant internationally, winning two Olympic Gold medals while playing for the Soviet Union in 1976 and 1980 and never losing a game in an international competition. That is some achievement!

She was awarded the Soviet Order of the Red Banner of Labour in 1976,[ and in 1993, she became the first non-US woman enshrined in the Basketball Hall of Fame. In 2007, she was enshrined in the FIBA Hall of Fame. During the 2007 Latvian Sports Personality of the Year award ceremony, Semjonova received the Lifetime Contribution to Sport award. Honestly, you can’t get much better than that.


Sledging first took place in Sigulda in 1887. Several alpine skiing venues were built around the sledging track following the Second World War. By the late 1960s, the city authorities of Sigulda approved the construction of a new track designed by the Leipzig Sports Facilities Scientific and Technical Centre in East Germany. Construction was completed in 1986. It was built primarily for the needs of Soviet bobsledders and lugers. Still, after the restoration of independence in Latvia, the track became the training centre for Latvian winter sports athletes.

Although the skeleton wasn't initially in the building plan, Sigulda has hosted World Cup races in skeleton since the 2000s. Luge competitions are held in Sigulda each year, and although the track isn’t certified to host four-person bobsleigh races, some international competitions cannot be staged there. Zintis Ekmanis and the original track builders designed a new layout which changed two curves and made four-person bobsleigh races possible. However, some lugers were unhappy with this idea because it might render the track unusable for women's singles and men's doubles lugers. Dainis Dukurs - the now former track manager and bobsleigh brakeman, said in an interview for Sporta Avīze that there was an experiment involving Juris Šics, Andris Šics, Tomass Dukurs and Martins Dukurs (the last two are his sons), in which the quartet drove a four-person bobsleigh down the track without crashing. Dukurs stated that this proves that the track is, in fact, suitable for four-person teams, but to make it perfect for bobsleigh, most of the track should be rebuilt. The track underwent a major renovation.  

I’ve been down the bobsleigh at Sigulda in a bob with my brother Brian, two British Marines and a Latvian professional. It was so scary! Although we were wearing crash helmets, I’m tall, and my helmet was scrapping on the ice wall on bends. Due to a little ‘lost in translation,’ we put a hole in the bob by not pulling on the brake hard enough at the finish. We had a whip round to give the unfortunate Latvian woman money to repair her fibreglass bob. There went our lunch. And there began the start of a week of headaches for me!

A British connection. After retiring as an athlete, Martins Dukurs was appointed a performance coach to the British national team in 2022. He is a six-time world champion, a double Olympic silver winner and the athlete with the most World Cup titles, with a total of 11. In an interview with Inside The Games, Martins said:

"Retiring wasn't a one-day decision. I’m 38 now so, although I was always taught to never give up, maybe now it’s smarter to do that! And the opportunity to join such a great team came at the perfect time. If I look simply at history of results, no one has achieved what Great Britain has, even a big nation like Germany. They've achieved this without a track, too. That means that the system is a good one.

There is some great potential with the athletes and I like everything that I’ve seen so far and how things are done. I can see the structure and all the planning and I can see that it isn’t just guesswork."

No country has won more Olympic skeleton medals than Britain, and much of that success has been attributed to training at a push-start track in Bath. No snow or ice in Bath, by the way! Dukurs' appointment comes with UK Sport having included a skeleton in its funding plan for Milan Cortina 2026 but still needs to be assigned a precise amount. UK Sport estimates an investment of up to £4.8 million (€5.7 million) in the skeleton. A mixed-gender team skeleton event has been added to the Olympic programme for Milan Cortina 2026. 

British Skeleton performance director Natalie Dunman said, ”It's a huge boost to have Martins on board for the new Olympic cycle. Martins is widely regarded as the greatest slider the world has ever seen, and his achievements in the sport are nothing short of incredible. He was understandably in high demand so we are absolutely delighted that he has chosen to buy into what we are trying to achieve and begin his coaching career with us. I know that his experience and expertise will rub off on our athletes and our staff and we’ve already seen aspects of that in the time he’s spent with us so far in Bath. The start of a new Olympic cycle is always exciting but there is no doubt that bringing Martins into our team is adding to the buzz about what lies ahead this winter and on the road to Milan Cortina.”

Viva the next Winter Olympics!

Latvian Sports Museum

I visited the Latvian Sports Museum on Ratslaukums 1 in the old town of Riga. This small museum has some lovely exhibits. Some things I enjoyed. First, the sledges and bobs. There is a red two-person (like) bob you can get in (easier to get in than get out). Among the collection of sledges, I found a bobsleigh sledge built in Cesis in the 1920s. This was found in the 70s by the engineer Jãnis Lamaks in a building near the town of Cēsis, which was planned to be pulled down. The sledge could seat four riders and was steered with hand-operated levers that moved cables connected to the sledge-runners. Aigars, the son of Jãnis Lamaks, a Latvia USSR team cyclist from 1982-1986, used 'the huge sledge' in winter to train in Valmiera on Baili Hill with some cycling colleagues. The heavy sledge had to be pulled up the hill after every ride - that was good physical training. In December 2006, the sledge was presented to the Latvia Sports Museum by the Latvia Cycling Federation, Latvia BMX Association, Valmiera Elementary School and a Valmiera town council deputy. Nice story about one sledge!

Talking of cycling, you can also find the first BMX bicycle made in Latvia. Helmuts Akis produced this in the Technical Creation Exhibition and Recreation Centre Mezciems restoration workshops in 1987/1988. This bicycle model was used in the first official Latvian BMX competitions in Valmiera in September 1988. Foreign competitors greatly admired the bicycle due to its original technical solution. You can also see the road racing bicycle Concorde on which Dainis Ozols won a bronze medal in road cycling in the 194 km group ride during the Olympic Games in Barcelona in 1992. This steel bicycle was made in Holland in the late 1980s using parts from Cinelli, Campagnolo, San Marco and Mavic. As a racing cyclist at around the same time, I respect the quality of parts. My bike was hand-built by Ron Cooper and used mostly Campagnola parts. One day, I was in Ron’s workshop, a short distance from my parents’ home, and in walked the Great Train Robber, Ronnie Biggs. I was young and awestruck. Even by a gangster!

The last memory from the museum was the long-distance runner Jelena Celnova-Prokopauka's Boston Marathon and Lattelecom 2016 Riga Marathon competition sports kit and 2016 Rio Olympic Games competition shoes. Until about seven years ago, I was a competitive long-distance runner. I ran the Jūrmala half-marathon, which was a fine race. We were about to walk along the beach afterwards with my wife when we heard my name being called. I had won an age group prize and was required to be on the podium!

I am now familiar with the sporting success of this small nation. But I desperately wanted to discover why Latvia is so good at certain sports. I talked to Ieva Sniedze, Collection Keeper at the Latvian Sports Museum.

Me: For a small country, why is Latvia so good at certain sports? 

Ieva: It’s not a simple question. It's quite complicated because it's connected with our history. We were peasants for centuries and that is physically hard work. It's our genetics, may I say. It is now present in the sports. History has played a role in creating success, not just this year, but in the past years, including during the Soviet-Russian times. 

Me: Latvia in certain sports is very good. Is that from the infrastructure that supports sports or is it a natural sporting attitude, as you were saying, about people working hard and exercising? 

Ieva: First, it was just a will. There was no infrastructure for power building, for weight lifting, for Greek or Roman fighting. But these were the first sports where Latvians became professional. It was the beginning of the 20th century. The first Latvians, for example, in the Olympics in 1912 in Stockholm, were in shooting. The first bronze medal, was by Harald’s Blaus. First, it's a will. And second, it comes from physics. And the infrastructure that supports people. Yes, infrastructure, was built after the Russians came. Because there was a small infrastructure built in the Russian Empire's time. For example, one of Riga's Russian schools was a gymnastics school. The building was built in the beginning of the 20th century. But there were no football stadiums. Now, Latvia has a number of national sports. Ice hockey, basketball, football. 

Me: Which is the most popular sport? And which one has the most participation in? 

Ieva: Which is probably going to be different. The most participated sport is football, but it has very poor results. We must do something to get better results. But it's not so easy. The most loved sport in Latvia is ice hockey, of course. Bronze medals in world championships. It was really a holiday. 

Me: Yes, I know a few people who went to Turku in Finland for that match. They were hoping to get to the final. What about basketball? 

Ieva: Basketball was a great success this year. Basketball is a great success. It has deep traditions. Because the first European championship was won by Latvians in 1935. We have even made a movie about this event. It's called "Dream Team 1935". 

Me: In the first independence? Yes, I think Latvia is a little bit too small for team sports. For example, in the Olympic Games in 1960, in the Soviet team, there were four Latvians. For example, in 3x3 basketball, Latvians won a gold medal in the Olympics. There were four men from Latvia. So it is like a limit for us. But for football, for example, 11 players, it's too large for Latvians. In Latvia, there are 1.8 million people. 

Me: What about some of the more individual sports that Latvians had quite a lot of success in? Like BMX, rally motor racing, tennis, athletics? 

Ieva: The most successful individual sport for Latvians is javelin throwing. We have gold medalists and silver medalists in the Olympic Games, and bronze medalists as well. It's a Latvian, very Latvian sport. Old old-time champion of javelin sports is Jānis Lūsis. He won gold in Mexico, silver in Munich and bronze in Tokyo. 

Me: Wow, so for a long period. 

Ieva: He won a full range of medals in the Olympics. So, great champion. The first gold medal for Latvians in all the history of the Olympics was also in javelin throwing. It was a lady, Inese Jaunzeme, in Melbourne in 1956. 

Me: I didn't know that. You mentioned women in sports. In England, women's sports have become very popular, especially football. Because the England football team has done very well in European and World Cup competitions. Is that the same in Latvia? Has women's sport increased in popularity, either in participation or in more professional, very good amateur sport? 

Ieva: After the Second World War, in Latvia, there were few women's teams, like the basketball team TTT, who won, I think, six times the European Championship. So, women's sport was really high-level, including team sports, like basketball and volleyball as well. 

Me: Who is your sporting hero? 

Ieva: My sporting hero? It's a very good question, not easy to answer. But I think Uljana Semjonova, the basketball player, twice won a gold medal in the Olympics. She could be my hero. And she did a great job, training and in-game. She gave everything for the game. 

Me: How does the Latvian Sports Museum celebrate these great Latvian sports heroes? Ieva: We try to explore, to show their memorabilia in exhibitions. For example, travelling exhibitions for schools. About, for example, the first Olympic champion in Latvia, Inese Jaunzeme. About Uljana Semjonova as well. And we celebrate like a museum could celebrate these sports events and sports personalities. 

Me: And as you said to me, all of the exhibits here are originals, the running kit and all the other things. They're not copies but actual originals from many years ago of great achievements by Latvians in sports. It's a really interesting museum with lots of information around. 

Ieva: The first permanent exhibition was made in 2018 for the 100 years of the Latvian Republic. We have some actual information, like for example, for Beijing Olympic Games and Winter Sports. It's a little different story because we have Sigulda [winter sports centre]. 

Me: Yes, I've been down the bobsleigh run. It was an experience. 

Ieva: Not popular to say, but it's thanks to one man in Latvia for this infrastructure. It's Daumants Znatnajs. He was like a minister of sport in the 80s before the collapse of the Soviet Union. Because without infrastructure, these sports cannot exist. There is one more hero I didn't mention and one sport I didn't mention. Yes, Latvians are great at speed walking. We had our first vice-champion in the Olympics in 1932. It was Jānis Daliņš. In fact, he was the first local superstar in sports in Latvia. Everyone knew Jānis Daliņš. Even a foxtrot was made for Daliņš. If I had Daliņš's legs, I would walk very quickly. Jānis Daliņš was a really famous and very charismatic person. He comes from Valmiera. It's a funny thing because we have three Olympic medalists in speed walking. They all either came from Valmiera or lived in Valmiera. It's a small town in the centre of the Vidzeme region of Latvia. 

Me: Valmiera does have the infrastructure for sports. There's a wonderful stadium there, hotel and complex. 

Ieva: It’s called in the name and in honour of Jānis Daliņš. 

Me: I didn't know that. Thank you very much. 

In conclusion, Latvia is sports-mad! As a small nation, they have achieved so much in specific sports. Remember the stories about ice hockey, basketball and skeleton. The next time you watch summer or winter international-level sports, think about Latvia. If you are in Riga, visit the Sports Museum. An hour well spent.

Did I find out why Latvia is so good at some sports? Like the elusive grail, not really!

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