Area: 64.6 km2
Summer Olympic Medals: 19 (3G-11S-5B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 7 (0G-4S-3B)
As a former member of the Soviet Union, the achievements of Latvian athletes have to be put in contest for the period between 1940 and 1990, with twenty Latvian born athletes taking part in team and individual Olympic successes representing the former URSS on the Olympic stage. Thus, the numbers transcribed above only include the medals obtained from 1924 to 1940, and after the independence of the country, in 1991.
The sporting landscape on this Baltic country is dominated by three team sports. As in most of Europe, football ranks quite high among Latvians preferences, despite the relative obscurity of both his national team and the main clubs. The qualification of the national team for the 2004 UEFA European Championships is by far the biggest achievement in the country’s football history. Conversely, the relative importance of Latvian ice hockey on the world’s scale is much bigger. Dinamo Riga, the country’s most important team, was part of the sport’s establishment on the Soviet Union in the 1940’s, and was a runner-up for the championship title in 1988. Today, the club is the Latvian representative on the second most important league in the world, the KHL, while some of the country’s best all-time players, like Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Irbe, started their careers at Dinamo before moving to the NHL. The national team took part on the last four Olympic tournaments, and the country organized the 2006 World Championships.
Basketball is the third main sport in Latvia, with the country’s tradition expressed on the men’s European title of 1935 and the 2nd place in 1939. Several Latvian players were part of URSS teams that became European and Olympic Champions, while at the club level, teams from Riga won multiple domestic and European titles in both genders. Actually, the ladies of the TTT Riga team of the 70’s and 80’s won the European Cup an astonishing 18 times. Today, both national teams are regular participants in international competitions.
On athletics, the country has always produced excellent javelin throwers, with Janis Lusis listed as one of the best of all time in the discipline, while tennis has seen his popularity grow in the last decade due to the successes of Ernests Gulbis. Beyond ice hockey, other winter sports like luge, bobsleigh and skeleton are also recognized, with several Latvian athletes excelling at the international level. With 500 km of beaches, Latvia also produces good beach volleyballers, while names like Piotr Ugrumov and Roman Vainsteins have shined on the biggest cycling races.
Ernests Gulbis (Tennis)
Named after Ernest Hemingway, the best Latvian tennis player of all-time comes from a wealthy family and this detail has been part of his career results’ analysis since the beginning. In fact, besides being one of the funniest and more charismatic players on the ATP Tour, the uber-talented Gulbis has been accused of having too much interest in partying and not a lot in practicing, with this circumstance taking a toll on his in-court performances. Despite this, the 26-year-old has built a nice résumé since he turned professional in 2006. His first ATP title came on doubles at the 2008 Houston tournament, and two years later he collected the ATP singles tournament of Delray Beach. Today, the 26-year old Latvian holds six career ATP titles and seems to be on the verge of breaking definitely into the top 10, with the 10th position, reached in June 2014, being his all-time best ranking. A gifted offensive player with consistency problems, Gulbis reached the semi-finals at the 2014 Roland Garros tournament, attaining his best result yet on the Grand Slam stage.
Maris Strombergs (Cycling, BMX racing)
The Republic of Latvia has gained only three Olympic gold medals on his history and this man is responsible for two of them. Maris Strombergs was born in 1987 and didn’t take long to display his talent on a bike, winning his first World Championship (on his class) at the age of 9. In 2008, the cyclist achieved the pinnacle of his sport when he gathered the European, World and Olympic titles in the same season. Nicknamed “The Machine”, the Valmiera native already has his name on two World Championships and three European Championships, while also holding the honour of being the only racer with Olympic Gold medals on the sport, since he won in 2012 too. A two-time Latvian sportsperson of the year, Strombergs is one of the most popular athletes in Latvia.
Martins Dukurs (Skeleton)
Deemed the best athlete in Latvia on three separate occasions (2010, 2011 and 2013), Martins Dukurs boasts an impressive collection of accolades: five consecutive World Cup titles (2009-2014), five consecutive European titles (2010-2014), and two World Championships (2011 and 2012). However, one thing is missing: the Olympic gold medal on the Winter Olympics, something Latvia never had a chance to celebrate. Despite his domination on the skeleton over the last half decade, Dukurs was not able to surpass the home favourites in Vancouver (John Montgomery) and Sochi (Alexander Tretiakov), having to settle for silver on both occasions. Strangely, his older brother, Tomass, finished both times in…fourth place, making it seem that the Olympics are somewhat cursed for the Dukurs family. In 2018, the 30-year old has a new chance for glory and Latvia will be watching anxiously.
Others: Andris Biedrins (Basketball), Martins Plavins/Janis Smedins (Beach Volleyball), Ainars Kovals (Athletics), Andris Sics/Juris Sics (Luge)
The Arena Riga is the most important sports venue in Latvia. With a capacity of up to 12.500 spectators for basketball games, and 10.300 for ice hockey, the building was constructed in 2006 to be used as the main venue in the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championships. The arena hosts the games of the KHL’s Dinamo Riga, where the atmosphere is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe, and the basketball games of VEF Riga, the main basketball team in the city. The Skonto Hall, also in Riga, is the second biggest arena in the country, with capacity for 6500, and hosted the most important concerts and sports exhibitions in the country until the opening of the new Arena Riga.
The Skonto Stadium, in Riga, is the biggest stadium in Latvia, holding 9500 spectators. The venue is used by Skonto FC and the football National Team. FK Ventspils, the most successful Latvian club of the last decade, plays in the Ventspils Olympiskais Stadions, which holds 3200 people.
Beyond the numerous basketball and ice hockey games, both at the national and international level, occurring around the country from September to May, these are the most relevant events held annually in Latvia.
Riga Marathon (May)
FIA European Autocross Championship Event
National Motorsports Centre Musa, Bauska (May)
Speedway FIM World Championships Grand Prix
Lokomotiv Stadium, Daugavpils (August)
Luge World Cup Event
Luge and Bobsleigh Track, Sigulda (January)