Athletics

European Tour of Sports – Albania

The Basics

Population: 2.8 M

Area: 28 748 km2

Capital: Tirana

Summer Olympic Medals: 0

Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular Sports and History

By virtue of its name, Albania registers at the top of the charts – right after Afghanistan – every time the countries of the World are listed, but as soon as sporting laurels are tallied up, this small nation verging the Adriatic and Ionian Seas immediate drops into the depths. Indeed, of the 71 Olympic committees that have participated in the Olympic Games, Albania is one of just five from Europe to never obtain a medal, sharing the distinction with minnows Andorra, Monaco and San Marino, the Mediterranean island of Malta and fellow Balkan nation Bosnia-Herzegovina.

A secluded, communist state for much of the post – WWII era, Albania’s international isolation only came to an end in 1991, when the Socialist Republic instituted by Enver Hoxha was dissolved. One year later, the country would return to the Olympic stage in Barcelona, resuming a story that knew its first and only episode two decades earlier, in Munich 1972.

A regular participant of the Games since then, including the Winter Olympics since an inaugural appearance at Torino 2006, Albania’s representations usually congregate up to a dozen of athletes, yet the country is still to unearth metal of any order in spite of a few honourable performances over the years, particularly from their weightlifters.

Alpine Skier Erjon Tola waves the Albanian flag at the opening ceremony of the 2014 Winter Olympics (Paul Gilham/Getty Images Europe)

The sport where Albania’s credentials at the global scale are more significant, weightlifting has made the nation proud on many occasions, with Albanian athletes racking up almost two dozens of medals between Continental and World meetings to turn into some of the most recognizable figures around. However, a veil of suspicion was thrown over the country’s success for occasion of the 2014 World Championships held in Astana (Kazakhstan), when stars Daniel Godelli and Romela Begaj, who had just become the first Albanian athletes to win World Championship gold in sports on the Olympic program, as well as teammate Hysen Pulaku, failed doping tests by accusing the presence of Stanozonol, a substance that is used to increase muscle mass in animals and humans.

Naturally, the competition’s results were erased and the athletes suspended, which hindered the strength of the Albanian team at the 2016 Rio Olympics and curbed the expectations as the group headed to Brazil featured just a pair of weightlifters alongside two swimmers and track and field participants. This was a major let-down for the country but, at least, the Albanian people could find some solace on another high point of the nation’s sports history, the qualification to the 2016 UEFA European Championships.

A football-mad country like many other continental counterparts, Albania had never reached a major men’s football tournament and their trip to France was further sweetened by their first victory, a 1-0 triumph over Romania in the final group stage match that eclipsed the previous standard set by a quarter-final appearance at the 1984 UEFA European Under-21 Championship. A nation with a large diaspora, reflected also on the number of talents of Albanian-heritage competing for other countries – Switzerland’s Xherdan Shaqiri and Granit Xhaka being prime examples – the Albanian national team has in Lorik Cana its most distinct football representative, as the former PSG, Lazio and Olympique Marseille midfielder amassed a record 93 international caps between 2003 and 2016.

Albania’s participation in the UEFA Euro 2016 was one of the greatest moments in the country’s sports history (Getty Images)

Meanwhile, domestically, the all-time dominant clubs are all from the capital city, with KF Tirana, 24-times National Champions, Dinamo Tirana (18) and Partizani (15) leading in number of trophies, but being supplanted in recent times by other organizations, including Skënderbeu Korçë, who won five consecutive titles between 2010 and 2015, and reigning Champions FK Kukësi.

Beyond football, the most popular team sports in Albania are basketball and volleyball, even if the country is far removed from the continental elite. The men’s national basketball team was invited to early editions of the EuroBasket, but couldn’t do better than last place in 1947 and 1957, while the women can boast a Mediterranean Games gold medal in 1987. At the club level, BC Partizani Tirana, 33-times Champions, hold the record of men’s national honours, while KB Tirana, the basketball branch of KF Tirana, is historically dominant on the women’s side (40 national titles).

In respect to volleyball, Albania’s peak dates back to the Communist period, especially the 70’s and 80’s, when Dinamo Tirana’s women’s team reached the Final Four of the Women’s CEV Champions Cup in two instances (1979/1980 and 1989/1990). On the men’s side, Dinamo was equally dominant until 1996, conquering 25 titles, before ceding the stage to KS Studenti, the team representing the University of Tirana who has collected 14 of the last 18 editions of the national league.

The Albanian women’s volleyball team during a match against Finland in Tirana (cev.lu)

Moreover, in international competitions from sports such as athletics, swimming, wrestling and shooting, Albanian athletes have also enjoyed some degree of success, especially in secondary events like the Mediterranean Games, whereas in snow and ice disciplines Albania’s tradition is virtually non-existent outside of the odd representation sent to the Winter Olympics, where alpine skiers Erjon Tola and Suela Mëhilli have worn the red and black of the Albanian flag.

Star Athletes

Luiza Gega (Athletics)

The Albanian flag bearer at the 2016 Summer Olympics, Luiza Gega is the best middle-distance runner in the country’s history, holding the national records in four separate distances (800m, 1500m, 3000m, 3000m steeplechase).

A medal winner in several international meetings, including the 2013 Summer Universiade (bronze), the 2013 Mediterranean Games (silver) – both in the 1500m – and the 2015 European Games (gold in the 1500m, silver in the 800m), the 29-year-old’s most important result is, however, the silver medal in the 3000m steeplechase of the 2016 European Championships, where she only trailed 2015 World Championships bronze medallist Gesa Felicitas Krause of Germany.

Luiza Gega in action at the 2016 Athletics World Championships (Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images Europe)

Elseid Hysaj (Football)

Before developing into the standout right back of Italian powerhouse SSC Napoli, Elseid Hysaj was a shy, 15-year-old boy crossing the Adriatic Sea to join his father, an emigrant in Tuscany, and pursue the dream of a professional footballing career. Accepted at Empoli’s academy, the youngster rose through the ranks and amassed over 100 appearances for the first team until 2015, when he caught the eye of Napoli, moving south alongside coach Maurizio Sarri to assume a key role for the Serie A runner-up in 2015-16.

Also a bulwark for the national team, which he represented at the historical Euro 2016 campaign, Hysaj is, at age 23, one of the most sought-after full backs in the game, and he is destined to take over every Albanian record currently held by the retired Lorik Cana.

Evagjelia Veli (Weightlifting)

One of the few top-level Albanian weightlifters that has not run into trouble with the anti-doping authorities, Evagjelia Veli parlayed her breakthrough 5th position in the 2016 European Championships into a finalist place at the Rio Olympics, coming out eight in the Women’s 53 Kg, one of the best Albanian results ever at that level of competition.

Albanian Weightlifter Evagjelia Veli prepares to lift at an international competition

The 26-year-old then confirmed her status as one of the best in the world the following season, placing 4th at the continental event and 8th at the World Championships in a heavier category (58 kg), and a final step into medal territory is expected by the local fans of this battered sport.

Other Athletes: Izmir Smajlaj (Athletics), Sidni Hoxha (Swimming), Etrit Berisha (Football), Eugert Zhupa (Cycling), Briken Calja (Weightlifting)

Venues

In just a few months (June 2018), Albania will open the new pearl of their sporting infrastructure, the Arena Kombëtare. Being erected on the same site of the former national stadium, the Qemal Stafa, the new, fully covered facility with capacity for 22,500 spectators will receive the Albanian Cup Final, house the national football team, and be the main getaway for concerts. Unfortunately, contrary to its predecessor, which stood for seven decades, the arena won’t possess an athletics track, which means any track and field meetings from now on must be hosted at the Elbasan Arena.

This is what Albania’s new national stadium, the Arena Kombëtare, will look like when it opens in a few months (FOTO: Anadolija)

The home ground of KF Elbasan, this venue reconstructed in 2014 hosted the national football team over the last few years, and the 12,800 fervent fans in attendance were always a menace for opposing teams, yet, even with construction going in Tirana, the biggest stadium in the country is not the Elbasan Arena, but Shkodër’s Loro Boriçi Stadium, which has accommodated up to 16,000 KF Vllaznia fans since 1980 and was used by the Kosovo National football team during the 2018 World Cup qualifying. Furthermore, another important venue, the Selman Stërmasi Stadium, has capacity for 9,500 spectators and regularly welcomes the games of the capital’s most important club, KF Tirana.

An Albanian national basketball team match at the Asllan Rusi Sports Palace (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/KB_Tirana)

In terms of indoor venues, Albania’s main facility is still the old Asllan Rusi Sports Palace, a 3,000-seats building named after a former volleyball player. Opened in the 1950’s, this place hosted the 2013 Weightlifting European Championships, one of the most important events ever organized in Albania, and it houses the basketball sections of Partizani and Dinamo Tirana.

As for SK Tirana’s basketball and volleyball teams, they play at the Farie Hoti Sports Palace, whereas the Albanian national basketball and volleyball teams are in the process of moving from the Asllan Rusi to the new Tirana Olympic Park, a recently-inaugurated, multi-purpose infrastructure that congregates all of Albania’s sports federations around several training facilities and a 1200-seats sports hall.

Yearly Events

So, we’ve already established that Albania isn’t exactly a hotbed for international sporting competitions or great sports spectacles, however, if you happen to be in town and are craving some entertainment, attending an Albanian Superliga match can make for some heated, colourful antics, particularly if teams from Tirana, Shkodër (KF Vllaznia), Elbasan or Korçë (Skënderbeu) are in action. The football league runs from August to May, and since that might prove insufficient, I also gathered a few more events that may be of interest for sports fans:

Rally Albania, Rally Racing  

Tirana, June

Tirana Half Marathon, Athletics

Tirana, October

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Uncovering trends at the Laureus World Sport Awards

Established in 1999 by the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation, an organization that aims to use “the power of sport to end violence, discrimination and disadvantage, and prove that sport has the power to change the world”, the Laureus World Sport Awards are the most renowned annual global recognition of the work of people and teams competing in the multitude of existing sporting disciplines.

Tackling on an undertaking that is both tricky and subjective, as comparing efforts and achievements between athletes that perform such different activities is bound to be, these awards are, nonetheless, an interesting proposition whose function has been successively dwarfed by fundamental biases and incongruences. And since I take this way too seriously, I sought to identify and analyse these tendencies after perusing through the bewildering lineup of contenders for the 2018 awards.

To carry this out, though, we first need to get to know the Laureus’ selection process, which in short, goes like this: first a Nomination Panel “consisting of leading sportswriters, editors and broadcasters from more than 100 countries” is polled, resulting in the group of six nominees in a variety of categories, and then another group of “experts”, the Laureus World Sports Academy, an association of 60+ retired sportspeople who volunteer their time to support the work of the Laureus Foundation, votes to decide the winners who are announced in a glitzy ceremony every February.

The Laureus World Sports Awards ceremony is always held in glamorous settings

This year’s show is scheduled for the 27th of February at the Sporting Club Monte Carlo (Monaco), but the main point to take away is that a lot of important questions about the voting process are left unanswered. For instance, who are, from where and which sports cover the members of the nomination panel? Are votes tallied one per head or do they rank athletes to allocate points and, if yes, how many? Are they allowed to select countryman/woman? Answers to these questions would provide clarity to many of the puzzling nominations and victories we’ve seen over the years, and while we do know the identity of the Academy’s membership, the voting process is similarly unknown and the results kept under wraps.

It’s quite obvious that in any award granted as a result of the opinion of a few dozens of experts, inherent preferences are accentuated by anonymity, and thus we’re left to speculate based on the information available. In this case, that would be a breakdown of the Laureus Academy current membership (list here), a decent jumping off point to shed light on the clear patterns emerging year after year.

While acknowledging that expecting a perfectly balanced group that respects the wide spectrum of sports disciplines contested around the world would be absurd, we can’t help to notice that the Laureus Foundation would be foolish to forecast some semblance of representability, diversity and, above all, sense of appreciation for the achievements in less acclaimed (pretty different from less competitive) sports when 19 of the 64 distinguished constituents are either former track and field athletes (10) or football players (9), almost 10% (6) played a “niche sport” such as cricket (!!), only 5 contended in Winter disciplines (3 in alpine skiiing), more than half (34) were born in Europe and just 14 are women.

Retired cyclists Chris Hoy and Fabian Cancellara as well as former footballer Ruud Gullit were inducted into the Laureus World Sports Academy last year [Photo/VCG]

Consequently, the history of the Laureus Sports Awards is permeated with odd selections and small idiosyncrasies, which I’ll try to underline as we preview the ceremony to come and look into the 2018 nominees in five preeminent categories: Sportsman, Sportswoman, Team, Breakthrough and Comeback of the Year.

Herewith, let’s explore the history of each award, get to know the nominees, identify relevant snubs and anticipate the winners based on past experience.

 

World Sportsman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances”

History

In the 18 previous editions, a total of 13 sports have found their way into the nominations but only 7 different men from 4 sports (tennis, golf, formula one and athletics) have hosted the trophy.

Since 2004, being the ATP World No.1 has merited an automatic spot –  the exception is 2012/13 – and between Roger Federer, who shares the record for most statuettes (4) with Usain Bolt,  Rafael Nadal (1) and Novak Djokovic (3), tennis players have won 8 of last 13 years, with the Jamaican sprinter and German driver Sebastian Vettel (2014) squeezed in between. Unsurprisingly, one track and field star is usually on the ballot (every edition but 2007) and the Formula One Champion is also a fixture (12 of the last 16 years), with the same destiny reserved to football’s FIFA World Player of the Year/Ballon D’Or Winner in every instance since Ronaldinho cracked the field in 2006.

Roger Federer and Usain Bolt (pictured) share the record for most Sportsman of the year awards with 4.

Furthermore, if you’re an NBA Champion (contenders in five of the last seven years) or Major Championship-winning golfer (Tiger Woods lifted the trophy in 2000 and 2001), you have a great chance of standing out from the pack and barge into the limelight, which, in turn, allows limited space for turnover on the six-man unit.

The 2018 nominees:

Mo Farah (United Kingdom, Athletics)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Chris Froome (United Kingdom, Cycling)
Lewis Hamilton (United Kingdom, Motor Racing)
Rafael Nadal (Spain, Tennis)
Cristiano Ronaldo (Portugal, Football)

Track and Field Star? Check. Ballon D’Or Winner? Check. Formula One Champion? Check. The two men who split the major tennis competitions in 2017? Check and check. Mo Farah, Rafael Nadal and Lewis Hamilton got summoned to attend the ceremony for a fourth time, Ronaldo for a fifth and Roger Federer for a record-tying seventh, joining Usain Bolt and Tiger Woods. It’s almost like this category is an exclusive country club that decides to admit a new member here and there. In 2018, the honour fell on Chris Froome and the four-time Tour de France winner had to pick up a second Grand Tour (Vuelta a España) on the season just to merit consideration for the first time.

Snubs:

Do the Laureus decision makers care about any team sport other than football and basketball?

If they’re giving away career shoot outs to the likes of Mo Farah, can someone introduce them to three-time World Handball Player of the Year Nikola Karabatić? The man’s incredible résumé includes, among many others, 9 major titles and 13 international medals as a leading man for the French National Team and, at age 33, he carried them to another World title in 2017 on the back of an MVP-worthy performance. Not too shabby, right?

Voted in three occasions as the best handball player in the World, France’s Nikola Karabatić has never been nominated for a Laureus award (Alex Grimm/Bongarts)

Moreover, are Formula One cars so incredibly difficult to drive that pilots from other disciplines, for instance the World Rally Championships, deserve no respect whatsoever? Sébastien Loeb, the nine-time WRC World Champion, was never elected to the Laureus and his heir, Sébastien Ogier, counting five titles already, suffers from the same stigma. In two wheels, Valentino Rossi got the call after his last five Moto GP titles (coinciding with the field’s expansion from five to six slots) but Marc Márquez can’t even secure a second after four Championships?

Alpine Skier Marcel Hirscher racked up his unprecedented sixth consecutive overall World Cup title and added two gold medals at the World Championships, yet he’s still waiting for some global recognition. Ditto for French Martin Fourcade, who upped his stratospheric credentials even more by setting a record of points (1322) and individual victories (14) in the biathlon World Cup, sweeping all five crystal globes to secure a sixth consecutive Total Score victory and seize complete domination of his sport. Still, what’s that compared with the British fella who won a 10,000 meters race in front of his compatriots, right?

Who will win the Laureus: Roger Federer (Tennis)

I reckon Federer and Nadal may split some of the tennis-inclined voters, but the Swiss is an Academy-favourite, boasts a global following that would exult with the news (gotta work those tv ratings!) and his 2017 season at the sprightly age of 35 is one for history books. Bank on Roger getting the trophy for a fifth time and a full decade (2008) after his last.

Darkhorse: Cristiano Ronaldo (Football)

Incredibly, a football player has never won this award and despite the fact that the Portuguese’s individual figures have looked far better in previous instances, he can benefit from a radical dispersal of votes to edge in front by virtue of Real Madrid’s bucket load of silverware in 2017.

Who should win: Martin Fourcade Chris Froome (Cycling)

Chris Froome races during a stage of the 2017 Vuelta a España (ALAMY LIVE NEWS)

Connect recent news with Lance Armstrong’s cautionary tale (the American won in 2003 but was stripped of the trophy years later) and it’s highly unlikely Froome climbs to the stage in Monaco. Nevertheless, for my money – and based on what has transpired, so far, about his positive doping analysis – he should, chiefly because it had been four decades since someone won the Tour and Vuelta in the same season, and many had tried and failed to complete the task since the Spanish Grand Tour moved to the current position in the calendar. Clinching victories in two Grant Tours separated by a handful of weeks is an incredible feat and I don’t see how the others top that (If you’re shouting Roger Federer’s name, please take a look at his calendar from April to June…).

 

World Sportswoman of the Year

“Awarded to the sportswoman who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement – such as consecutive or multiple world, continental, international or national and major championship titles or the establishment of world records or best performances.”

History: 

If the men have formed a secluded society, what can we say about the women’s distinction? In the same 18 years, only 9 different sports have offered candidates and two thirds of the statuettes were collected either by tennis players (5) or track and field athletes (7). Sensing a theme here?

Last year, gymnast Simone Biles went home with the Laureus figurine, capitalizing on her sport’s first ever nomination, but chances are we’ll be back to square one 12 months later based on the group announced this time, which includes two track athletes for the 13th (!!!!) consecutive year plus a pair of tennis players, notably three-time winner (and child-bearer) Serena Williams.

Serena Williams, the 2017 Australian Open Champion, has won the World Sportswoman of the Year award more times than anyone else (Source: Reuters)

The 2018 nominees:

Allyson Felix (USA, Athletics)
Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)
Garbiñe Muguruza (Spain, Tennis)
Caster Semenya (South Africa, Athletics)
Mikaela Shiffrin (USA, Alpine Skiing)
Serena Williams (USA, Tennis)

When you have an athletics quota to fill no matter what, stupid appointments are bound to happen, and for all Allyson Felix has done throughout her extraordinary career (including her previous Laureus citations in 2013 and 2017), she has no business being on this list. If you fail to collect individual gold medals at your sport’s World Championships, how on Earth are you a top-six World Sportswoman in any given year?

It’s a dismal choice, but it’s not unique in a list born out of the need to invite the same faces and deputies. I love tennis, but c’mon….Serena Williams played two tournaments in 2017, one of those in the early stages of a pregnancy, and somehow got a record fifth nomination, while Garbiñe Muguruza erupted in the summer, claiming Wimbledon and Cincinnati, yet she then failed to hold onto a WTA World No.1 that was there for the taking. None of these women deserve to be here, pure and simple.

Still, the Spaniard, at least, is a newcomer that may return in the future whereas another neophyte, Caster Semenya, gets a pass for conforming to the minimum requirements (the 800m World title), in opposition to Allyson Felix. Katie Ledecky, nominated for a third consecutive year, will someday become the second swimmer to win this award, succeeding Missy Franklin (2014), and I would wager big money that Mikaela Shiffrin, the fifth nomination in six years for a female alpine skier – the men have 0..ever – will write her name alongside Janica Kostelić (2006) and Lindsey Vonn (2011) sooner than later.

Snubs:

Scroll down this page, pick any woman that conquered gold in London and paste her name over Allyson Felix’s. Feeling helpless? I’ll pull four names that added the World title in London to the 2016 Olympic gold and boast both the pedigree and clout for such honour: 2017 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Nafissatou Thiam (Belgium, heptathlon), 2016 IAAF World Athlete of the Year Almaz Ayana (Ethiopia, 10,000 m), World Record holder Anita Włodarczyk (Poland, hammer throw) and two-time Olympic Champion Sandra Perković (Croatia, discus throw). Any of these ladies would be an infinitely better choice than Felix.

Belgium’s Nafissatou Thiam added the 2017 World title to her heptathlon Olympic Gold (Getty Images)

Since athletics and tennis have acquired multiple selections in recent times, why not swimming? Sarah Sjostrom (Sweden), who collected 3 gold medals and one silver at the FINA World Championships, and American Lilly King (4 titles, 2 of them individual) approximated Ledecky’s tally (5 golds + 1 silver) and managed to break a couple of world records each along the way…

In the winter disciplines, biathlete Laura Dahlmeier got doled out the Fourcade-treatment. Her first World Cup overall title, 2 small globes, 10 individual wins and an outstanding 4 gold medals and one silver from five events at the World Championships are laudable accomplishments that behoved full attention.

Who will win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

I mean…Serena won’t pluck a shiny new toy for her baby girl..right, RIGHT?

The 22-year-old Ledecky was pipped by tennis’ GOAT in 2016, and surrendered the stage to the captivating acrobatics of Simone Biles last year, but her path to victory looks unimpeded this time. That surprising defeat to Italy’s Federica Pellegrini in the 200m freestyle – her first in an individual event internationally – and the lack of new world records are small knocks on her application, yet she put her own marks and expectations at such a preposterous level that it might not really matter. Adding the five golds and one silver amassed in Budapest, the 20-year-old has already broken the World Aquatics Championships’ all-time female gold medal (14) and that really says it all.

All Katie Ledecky does is collect medals at the major swimming meetings. In Budapest, at the 2017 World Championships, she added 6 more to her mantle (SIPA USA)

Underdog: Mikaela Shiffrin (Alpine Skiing)

Compatriot Lindsey Vonn had to endure two disappointments before earning the award, and Shiffrin might follow a similar path after securing a maiden nomination for her first overall World Cup title in 2016-17. The main difference lies in the fact that, if everything goes according to plan, the Slalom Queen will crush the PyeongChang Olympics next month, bag a whole lot of gold, and stake an early pole-position for the 2019 Laureus.

Who should win: Katie Ledecky (Swimming)

She’s due. And if it goes any other way – except for a Shiffrin upset -, it’s a joke.

 

World Team of the Year

“Awarded to the team that best demonstrates supreme performance and achievements – such as world, continental, international or national and major championship title.”

History:

Awarded for the first time in 2000 to English football club Manchester United, treble winners (Champions League, Premier League and FA Cup) in 1998-1999, this distinction has been dominated by football teams as both domestic and international sides have collected the award nine of 18 times. As such, the UEFA Champions League winner has been nominated in every occasion since 2001 – except for the 2011-12 Chelsea FC – and the national teams that conquer the UEFA European Championships or the (Men/Women’s) FIFA World Cup are also pencilled in.

With 15 appearances in 17 years since the category was expanded from 3 to 5 (later 6) spots, the F1 Constructors World Champions are also virtual locks every season and possible winners (2x) when their hopes don’t clash with sure-fire victors coming from the Men’s FIFA World Cup (5 wins in 5 opportunities) and Rugby World Cup (3 of 4). With no Championship side spurned since 2008 (the 2007 San Antonio Spurs), NBA representatives are also on a long run of appearances but have yet to collect the statuette.

New Zealand’s All Blacks won the World Team of the Year award in 2016 (Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

France Davis Cup Team (France, Tennis)
Golden State Warriors (USA, Basketball)
Mercedes-AMG Petronas (Germany, Motor Racing)
New England Patriots (USA, American Football)
New Zealand America’s Cup (New Zealand, Sailing)
Real Madrid CF (Spain, Football)

NBA Champions Golden State Warriors, Formula One Champions Mercedes and Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid, who added the La Liga title to a second consecutive Champions League badge, were the obvious choices, and the rest benefitted from 2017 being neither an Olympic year nor host to a major football or rugby competition.

Therefore, the French tennis team is the fifth Davis Cup-winning squad to merit a call, sailing is represented by the America’s Cup holder for a first time since the Team Alinghy in 2004, and the only true stunner are the Super Bowl winners New England Patriots, the first NFL team to earn a nomination.

Emirates Team New Zealand and helmsman Peter Burling conquered the 35th America’s Cup (ACEA 2017 / Photo Ricardo Pinto)

Snubs:

Since 2006, the Men’s French National handball team has collected three European Championships, two Olympic titles and four World Championships. In 2017, despite being mired in the middle of a generational transition, they cruised to another World title by defeating all their opponents. Evidently, the Laureus Academy thinks winning the Davis Cup, a discredited competition ignored by many of the World’s elite, is a more impressive feat…

With the Patriots inclusion coming one year after the MLB’s Chicago Cubs became the first team from a North American professional league to win a Laureus, time was right to recognize the forgotten NHL (0 nominations), but ice hockey was once again shut out of the awards. Tough break for the Pittsburgh Penguins, the first back-to-back Stanley Cup Champions in 19 years.

Who will win: Real Madrid (Football)

Barring a triumph for the Davis Cup winners, any other result would fall short of the “upset” moniker, nonetheless I would say Real Madrid’s time has come.

Spanish side Real Madrid won the UEFA Champions League for the second consecutive year in 2016-17 (AFP)

European Champions on five occasions in the XXI century, they’ve always taken a step back to others at the Laureus, but I have a hard time believing their 5-spot combo (Champions League, La Liga, European SuperCup, Spanish SuperCup, FIFA Club World Cup) won’t do the job in similar fashion to FC Barcelona’s haul in 2011. Although Barça’s perfect 2009, six trophies out of six, went unrewarded….

Darkhorse: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Thwarted by New Zealand’s All-Blacks in 2016, the Warriors return two years later with an even more robust body of work. A similar regular season record (67-15) amassed in casual fashion, a fabulous playoff term (16-1) culminated with a dominant performance (4-1) against the team (Cleveland Cavaliers) that spoiled their back-to-back challenge the previous season, and a cadre of pundits pondering whether they had just witnessed the greatest NBA team ever.

If a basketball team is going to steal the show, better be this one.

Who should win: Golden State Warriors (Basketball)

Going 16-1 in a salary-capped league postseason is ridiculous, though I wouldn’t exactly oppose appreciation for New Zealand America’s Cup team’s history. Exacting revenge in commanding fashion (7-1) from the same US Oracle Team against whom they blew a 8-1 lead four years earlier must have made for a riveting spectacle.

 

World Breakthrough of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team whose performance as a newcomer suggests the greatest potential for an outstanding career or to an established sportsman or sportswoman who produces a significant step-up in class to a considerably higher level of sporting achievement.”

Handed out until 2007 to the newcomer of the year, this distinction features the most distinct range of potential candidates, and that is expressed on both the diversity of origins from the nominees (18 different sports since 2000) and the notion that no one has repeated victory (though some have broken through more than once…).

Fifteen men and only three women have been rewarded for substantial improvements in their performances over the previous 12 months, however a few teams have also made appearances amongst the nominees, for example Leicester City for their English Premier League triumph in 2016-17. Still, in 14 of 18 instances, the winner was a golfer (5), a Formula One driver (5) or a tennis player (4) and those three sports, alongside football (0 wins of 14 nominations!), also monopolize the history of this award, hence we can’t really say it is divorced from the palpable biases of the Academy.

German Formula One driver Nico Rosberg received the Breakthrough of the Year award in 2017 (Eamonn M. McCormack/Getty Images)

The 2018 nominees:

Giannis Antetokounmpo (Greece, Basketball)
Caeleb Dressel (USA, Swimming)
Sergio Garcia (Spain, Golf)
Anthony Joshua (United Kingdom, Boxing)
Kylian Mbappé (France, Soccer)
Jelena Ostapenko (Latvia, Tennis)

The very inaugural winner of the award, back in 2000, Sergio García can become the first man to repeat if his much-anticipated, maiden Major Championship victory at The Masters of Augusta is enough to sway the jury. Moreover, the 37-year-old is also the old soul on this group, with Anthony Joshua counting 28 years of age, and the rest hovering in the late teens/early 20’s.

The world heavyweight champion is the third boxer to warrant consideration, following on the footsteps of fellow Brits Amir Khan (2005) and Tyson Fury (2016), while Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jelena Ostapenko are the first Greek and Latvian sports people to be nominated for this Laureus award. American Caeleb Dressel, the new face of men’s swimming, can achieve something Michael Phelps never did – Brit Rebecca Adlington is the only swimmer to have won the award – while football’s teenage sensation Kylian Mbappé will try to avoid the same fate of Lionel Messi (2006) and Neymar (2013), both bested by tennis players (Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray, respectively).

Jelena Ostapenko’s triumph on the clay of Roland Garros earned her a Laureus nomination (Reuters)

Snubs:

A first-time Grand Tour winner in 2017, Dutch cyclist Tom Dumoulin wouldn’t look out of place in this category. Particularly because the Giro d’Italia triumph (and the victory at the Worlds individual Time Trial race) may well be a glimpse of more to come from the man many believe to be uniquely qualified to end Chris Froome’s reign in the Tour de France.

As with the other individual classes, it’s quite unusual that the nominations in this category are stripped of a track and field star in the making. We’re not complaining about it, however the World Championships in London could have sanctioned the likes of 21-year-old Karsten Warholm, the Norwegian who stunned the field to take the 400m hurdles title in convincing fashion, or Venezuelan triple jumper Yulimar Rojas, the talented 22-year-old who outlasted reigning Olympic Champion Catherine Ibargüen in an epic South-American duel.

As far as up-and-coming teams, the Dutch Women’s National Football Team, European Champions for the first time to put an end to Germany’s 22-year hegemony, and the NHL’s Nashville Predators, maiden Stanley Cup Finalists in a campaign that showcased their players, city and fans like never before, would have been worthy contenders.

Who will win: Kylian Mbappé (Football)

There’s not a lot on the history of this award that helps underscore many tendencies, but we know Ostapenko, as a woman – albeit a tennis player – may be at a disadvantage, and no Formula One driver made the cut this time, so let’s simply push the cards into Kylian Mbappé’s corner and cross fingers.

Those ten ex-footballers on the Academy board have to be worth for something, and I believe they can rally around the exciting French striker, an 18-year-old superstar that will set football fields ablaze for the next 15 years.

Paris St. Germain forward Kylian Mbappé is recognized for his breakout season in 2017.

Darkhorse: Sergio García (Golf)

I may be terribly wrong, but I struggle to contemplate enough support for a Greek player that hasn’t won a playoff round in the NBA – no matter how freakishly athletic he looks -, a bubbly teenager from a small Baltic nation, a boxer (no disrespect intended) or even a (still) under-the-radar American swimmer (maybe at the ESPY’s, kid). Which leaves us with Sergio García, one of the most beloved golfers of all-time, a veteran primed for a late career accolade after a revered milestone, and a man who will, definitely, earn an invitation to join the Laureus Academy as soon as his playing days are over.

Who should win: Caeleb Dressel (Swimming)

When you thought it would take an entire lifetime to spawn someone that could draw comparisons to Michael Phelps, out of nowhere materializes another arresting combination of slender frame/fulminant turns/amazing underwater shifts that hoards medals at the World Championships to leave swimming fans agape.

Three gold medals in the same session (actually, in a 98-min spam), something never accomplished before, a total of seven World titles in the same meeting (even if 4 of them courtesy of the relay events), tying the World Championships record of Phelps and the merits of another swimming legend, Mark Spitz. This is the breakthrough of 2017.

American swimmer Caeleb Dressel reacts after winning one of his races at the Swimming World Championships in Budapest last July (Patrick B. Kraemer)

 

World Comeback of the Year

“Awarded to the sportsperson or team who has overcome injury, illness, adversity, disappointment or failure and risen back to triumph in the sporting arena. The Award may also mark a historic fightback by an individual or a team in a sporting event or series of sports events.”

A category that allows for multiple premises and motivations, this award has contained nominees from a lot of different disciplines (23) over the years, helping to spread the reach of the Laureus “brand” to sports largely ignored for the other prizes (ice hockey, triathlon, equestrian, rowing…) but, in the end, the same dominate as far as most nominations (athletics, golf) and winners (tennis – 6, athletics – 2). Without two-time victors on the board of honour after 18 editions, the first man to receive this award was former cyclist Lance Armstrong by virtue of his recovery from testicular cancer and eventual triumph at the Tour de France yet, as happened with the rest of his laurels, the American’s name has been expunged following his doping admission.

The 2018 nominees:

FC Barcelona (Spain, Football)
Chapecoense (Brazil, Football)
Roger Federer (Switzerland, Tennis)
Justin Gatlin (USA, Athletics)
Sally Pearson (Australia, Athletics)
Valentino Rossi (Italy, Motor Racing)

Associação Chapecoense de Futebol’s rehabilitation after a tragic plane crash and the return to football of the only three players (Alan Ruschel, Neto and Jakson Follmann) that survived couldn’t have been forgotten, and neither could Roger Federer’s odyssey back to the top of his game, as the Swiss scored, perhaps, the most breath-taking injury comeback in tennis history.

Chapecoense’s Alan Ruschel waves to the crowd at Camp Nou before a friendly match between the Brazilian team and FC Barcelona (Toni Albir, EFE)

Paula Radcliffe (2008) and Felix Sanchez (2013) were the two track and field athletes to win this award, but it’s unlikely Justin Gatlin, who found public redemption on the track by beating Usain Bolt on the legend’s last individual race, or Sally Pearson, once again the 100m hurdles World Champion after three years marred by multiple injury setbacks, add their names to the list. FC Barcelona’s frantic comeback against PSG in the last minutes of their round of 16 Champions League tie is, arguably, one of the most memorable in football history, while Valentino Rossi is up for a second victory (2011) for taking less than a month to make another swift recovery from displaced fractures on his right leg’s tibia and fibula.

Snubs:

It’s harsh to hold a grudge against any of the six nominees, but I might have bumped out Justin Gatlin (who played a major role in his demise) for Petra Kvitová. Assaulted at home in late 2016 by a knife-wielding robber, the Czech’s left hand tendons and nerves were severely damaged, putting her career at risk, but she was still able to return to the WTA Tour in less than 6 months and eventually collect her first title following the recovery at Birmingham last June.

Petra Kvitová triumphed in Birmingham on her second tournament back from a severe hand injury (Photo by Ben Hoskins/Getty Images for LTA)

The New England Patriots’ comeback from 28-3 down on Super Bowl LI to claim a fifth title this century could have also featured in this category, but Bil Bellichick and Tom Brady ain’t Roger Federer to get two swings at the piñata in the same year.

Who will win: Chapecoense (Football)

I just can’t anticipate a different scenario.

Darkhorse: Roger Federer (Tennis)

Picks up the record-extending Majors No. 18 (Australian Open) and No. 19 (Wimbledon) to end a four-year Slam drought, and reclaim the throne in his mid-thirties after six months on the shelf for a freak injury? In any other year, this is a slam dunk choice.

Who should win: Chapecoense (Football)

C’mon, what type of person do you think I am?

 

As part of their World Sports Awards, the Laureus Foundation also presents a few discretionary distinctions and three other regular statuettes: for Action Sportsperson of the Year, rewarding who best demonstrates supreme athletic performance and achievement in action sports, Sportsperson of the Year with a Disability, for those who best demonstrate excellent athletic achievement and strong leadership qualities in a sport in the Paralympic programme, and Best Sporting Moment, introduced last year and voted by the public.

I’ve grandstanded enough already, so I’m not going to opine on awards I know nothing about, but can’t finish this article without praising the Laureus Foundation for calling “alternative” sports stars and disabled athletes to the limelight, rubbing shoulders with the “mainstream” sporting heroes followed by millions around the world.

Weekend Roundup (September, 24th): Peter Sagan writes history at the 2017 UCI World Championships

It took 84 editions of the Cycling Road World Championships for a man to win the road race three consecutive times. That man wasn’t supposed to be a Slovak. Not when the Italians, the Belgians and the French have dominated the sport and the event since the beginnings back in the 1920’s. Not when the ten major nations are able to field rosters of 9 riders, giving them ample resources to control and mould the race to their liking, and to isolate a guy like Sagan with dozens of miles to spare. Yet, somehow, the 27-year-old is a three-time World Champion – something only four other men had done before – by adding the gold obtained in Bergen to the 2015 title in Richmond, when he launched a daring solo attack to ride to victory in the final kilometres, and last year’s triumph in Doha, wrestled at the sprint.

Yesterday, in Norway, it all suggested a return to his old days at Cannondale, before he had a team set up to cater to his needs, a target on his back and a distinctive rainbow jersey gleaming everywhere he went. In a discreet, blue and white Slovakian jersey that blended inside the peloton seamlessly, Sagan ghosted through the race. Definitely through the first 200kms riddled with doomed breakaways, but also during Tom Dumoulin’s attack on the penultimate passage in Salmon Hill, and the short spurts of action that followed as the powerhouses looked ready to actually trim the pack.

The peloton rode near the fjords of Bergen during the first hours of the Worlds men’s elite road race (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

Still, an inordinate bunch of 80 riders would make it back one final time to the key climb of the circuit, and someone had to break the race apart. It was France’s Julian Alaphilippe, who sinuously wheeled up the hill to peel away from everyone except Italy’s Gianni Moscon. At the time, it felt like the day’s decisive moment had come and gone, and Sagan was still to show his cards, uncharacteristically inconspicuous among the 25 cyclists that chased the front duo standing 15 seconds adrift on the crest of Salmon Hill.

Under the circumstances of such a long race, that advantage might have been enough for a proven rouleur, but the skinny Alaphilippe committed the tactical error of discarding Moscon too early, and he would pay for it when the bunch caught up to him inside the last two kilometres, ushering in a final sprint and Sagan’s opportunity for a “Three-Pete”.

As the group buzzed to the finish line, home favourite Alexander Kristoff jumped ahead by exploding off the final curve with 300m to go, but the Slovak was, as usual, in the right spot, slipping out of the Norwegian’s wheel to gobble up the deficit, and then thrusting his bike forward to edge Kristoff in a photo-finish by all of 20cm. Euphoria ensued for the Slovakian fans in attendance, disappointment transpired from the majority in Bergen, and bronze medallist Michael Matthews (Australia) got caught on camera punishing his bike while crossing the end line. So close, yet so far from his dreams.

A third gold medal and a brand-new rainbow for the Slovak superstar (Tim de Waele/TDWSport.com)

The men’s Under-23 road race, contested on Friday, was won by France’s Benoit Cosnefroy, who beat Germany’s Lennard Kämna in a two-man sprint, with Michael Svendgaard, of Denmark, securing the bronze by finishing top of the peloton. Meanwhile, on Saturday’s women’s elite road race, the sun shined on Dutch Chantal Blaak, who kicked off from the front group on the flat 9 km run-in to the line, and ended up 28 second ahead and flapping her arms on the air. Australia’s Katrin Garfoot leaped the rest of the field for silver, while the 2016 World Champion, Denmark’s Amalie Dideriksen, completed the podium.

Tennis: Rookie joy at the ATP Tour

On the eve of a mass migration to Asia for an important three week swing, the last seven days felt very much like a transitional period in the ATP Tour before things get serious again. Consequently, while many of the top players had fun in an exhibition tournament, two ATP 250 tournaments were available for the lower rungs scalping for points ahead of the home stretch of the season. It was in this scenario that something rare happened: two first time ATP Tour Champions in the same week.

In St. Petersburg, with defending Champion Alexander Zverev absent, the trophy fell into the hands of Damir Džumhur, who not only conquered his maiden trophy at this level, but also became the first player representing the Bosnia-Herzegovina to hold an ATP Tour title. In the Final, the 25-year-old from Sarajevo fended off third seed Fabio Fognini in three sets (4-6, 6-4,6-2) taking advantage of the Italian’s fatigue after a tough, come-from-behind semi-final triumph versus top-seed Roberto Bautista Agut.

A delighted Damir Džumhur kisses his maiden ATP trophy in St. Petersburg (AP)

Meanwhile, in Metz, a deflated crowd watched as German qualifier Peter Gojowczyk ousted home favourite Benoît Paire, the 7th seed, in two sets (7-5, 6-2), to capture his first ATP Tour trophy and secure a new career-best singles ranking of #66. Devilish stuff, no doubt about it.

Nonetheless, most tennis fans spent this weekend not with their eyes in France and Russia, but glued to the action in Prague, where the inaugural Laver Cup took place. Named after the Australian legend, this tournament pitted Team Europe and Team World in a Ryder-Cup style event where players squared off on a series of singles and doubles matches over three days.

Team Europe, containing five top-ten players, including Rafael Nadal (ATP No.1) and Roger Federer (No.2), was the overwhelming choice heading into the series, however the winners only emerged on the last of 12 scheduled matches. And not without some heroics from Roger Federer, who needed to save a match point against Nick Kyrgios (4-6, 7-6, [11-9)) to clinch the trophy for Team Europe by a final tally of 15-9.

While the men are still boarding planes to Asia, the WTA Tour is already entering the second fortnight of action in the Far East. On Sunday, three tournaments met their new holders and the highlight was the victory of Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki on the Pan Pacific Open, a WTA Premier Event that gathered most of the top-ten women taking the courts this week.

Wozniacki, the World No.6, was defending her title in Tokyo and she signed off in style for a second consecutive year, clobbering newly-minted World No.1 Garbiñe Muguruza (6-2, 6-0) in the semi-finals before sweeping past Russia’s Anastasia Pavlyuchekova in the Final (6-0, 7-5).

Denmark’s Caroline Wozniacki poses with the Championship trophy from the Pan Pacific Open (AFP Photo/Kazuhiro NOGI)

Across the Sea, French Open Champion Jeļena Ostapenko confirmed her top seed status in Seoul by overpowering first-time finalist Beatriz Haddad Maia (6-7, 6-1, 6-4) to collect the Korea Open, while, four years after winning her first WTA title in Guangzhou, Zhang Shuai found bliss at home soil again. The 28-year-old Chinese beat Serbia’s Aleksandra Krunić by 6-2, 3-6 and 6-2 in the decisive match to hold the trophy aloft in front of her compatriots.

Athletics: Eliud Kipchoge wins Berlin Marathon but misses out on World Record

Many hailed it as the greatest men’s marathon lineup of all-time, and for good reason. After all, taking part were the reigning Olympic Champion and 2015 winner Eliud Kipchoge (Kenya) – who raced in a blistering 2:00:25 in May at Nike’s Breaking2 project, an event which took place in Monza, Italy, under controlled (and non-conforming) conditions – , the 2013 Champion and former world record holder Wilson Kipsang (Kenya), and the defending Champion, track legend and 5000m/10000m world record holder Kenenisa Bekele (Ethiopia).

Three athletes with personal bests below two hours and four minutes running together, in Berlin, where flat roads, a fast surface and mild temperatures collude to power the elite to record breaking performances. Three men bidding to smash Dennis Kimetto’s marathon world record of 2:02:57 (Berlin, 2014) and fantasizing with a sub-two hour time.

And then, when the day came, it brought the rain with it. And Bekele going empty shortly past the midway mark. And Kipsang suddenly dropping out at the 30kms. The blockbuster showdown for history up in smoke and drizzle.

Kenya’s Eliud Kipchoge crosses the line to win the 44th Berlin marathon on Sunday. (Michael Sohn/The Associated Press)

Nevertheless, there was still a race to be won, and Kipchoge ended up crossing the finish line in 2:03:32, just 35 seconds off the fancied mark after being pushed by a neophyte, 26-year-old Guye Adola (Ethiopia), whose 2:03:46 now stand as the best marathon debut ever. Far behind, Mosinet Geremew, also of Ethiopia, clocked 2:06:09 to claim third.

In the woman’s event, Gladys Cherono imitated her compatriot to repeat the 2015 triumph in 2:20:23. She was flanked in the podium by Ethiopia’s Ruti Aga (second) and fellow Kenyan Valary Ayabei (third).

Football: Juventus and Napoli remain perfect

Serie A

Another week, another victory for the duo of leaders, as Juventus and Napoli made it 6 out of 6 to maintain the pace at the top of the table. The Neapolitans suffered to overcome a feisty SPAL 2013 in Ferrara, yet a goal from left back Faouzi Ghoulam 7 minutes from time secured the 3-2 triumph. Meanwhile, Juventus throttled rivals Torino with another inspired performance from Paulo Dybala, who netted twice in their 4-0 romp.

Juventus forward Paulo Dybala starred at the Derby della Mole on Saturday (EPA)

Internazionale fans had to wait until the 87th minute for Danilo D’Ambrosio’s lone tally against Genoa at San Siro, but the victory maintains Luciano Spalleti’s side just two points behind the leaders. In the nation’s capital, AS Roma comfortably beat Udinese (3-1) and are now at 12 points with a game in hand, nipping at the heels of heart rivals Lazio, who capitalized on Ciro Immobile’s superb run of form (9 goals in the last 6 matches) to win in Verona. Conversely, the new look AC Milan couldn’t negotiate the difficult trip to the Luigi Ferraris, losing 2-0 to Sampdoria to fall six points back of the leaders.

Finally, in a game between newly-promoted sides, Crotone defeated Benevento 2-0 to escape the relegation zone, and guarantee the debutants will continue to wait for their first Serie A points.

Bundesliga

Dortmund increased their lead at the top of the table with an impressive 6-1 drubbing of Moenchengladbach in a battle of Borussias. Recruited from SC Freiburg in the offseason, Maximilian Phillip tallied the first two at the Signal Iduna Arena before Pierre-Emerick Aubameyang notched a hat-trick in a smashing evening.

BVB are now three points up on Bayern Munich, who allowed Wolfsburg to steal a point at the Allianz Arena in the round’s opener. Robert Lewandowski and Arjen Robben scored in the first half, but Maximilian Arnold cut one back with some help from Bayern goalkeeper Sven Ulreich, and Daniel Didavi completed the shocker four minutes from time.

Standing in for the injured Manuel Neuer, Sven Ulreich’s howler cost Bayern Munich two points against Wolfsburg (Getty Images)

Sandwiched between the two giants is now Hoffenheim, who hosted and beat (2-0) Schalke 04, while fourth-placed Hannover 96 welcomed bottom side FC Koln and couldn’t get off the 0-0 to collect a second consecutive draw.

Ligue 1

On the strength of another brace from Radamel Falcao, Monaco waltzed in Lille (4-0) on Friday – pushing their opponent into the relegation zone – and then took a seat to watch as Paris St. Germain got swamped at Montpellier (0-0) without Neymar. After a tumultuous summer, where half of their team was swarmed with offers from greener pastures, the defending Champions proved they won’t relinquish the title easily and cut the deficit at the top to one point.

The red-hot Falcao is already up to 11 goals in 7 Ligue 1 matches this season (AFP / Denis Charlet)

After the top two, the battle for third position is also shaping up nicely. The still-undefeated Bordeaux took the mantle from St. Etiénne (2-2 against Rennes) after brushing past Guingamp (3-1), while Marseille (2-0 vs Toulouse) and Nantes (1-2 at Strasbourg) stand two points behind. On the other hand, Lyon (3-3, Dijon) and Nice (2-2, Angers) dropped points at home in entertaining affairs to lose ground on their adversaries.

La Liga

It wasn’t supposed to be that difficult, but Real Madrid eventually held on (1-2) to leave the home of bottom-feeders Alavés with the three points. Newly-recruited midfielder Dani Ceballos scored the two goals for the struggling behemoths, and the distance to the top remains at seven points after Barcelona made the best out of the short trip to Girona. The “Blaugrana” manufactured a relaxing 3-0 victory with the help of two own-goals and Lionel Messi could even afford to take a night off in that department.

On his first start for Real Madrid, Dani Ceballos tallied twice to save his team at Alavés (AP)

In Madrid, in a fight between La Liga’s best supporting actors, Yannick Ferreira Carrasco and Antoine Griezmann helped Atlético upend Sevilla (2-0) to climb to second, four points off Barcelona, whilst Valencia confirmed their good season start by snatching a precious 3 points away to Real Sociedad in a thrilling five-goal game (2-3). It wasn’t the only high-scoring affair of round 6, though, as Celta de Vigo triumphed 4-0 at Eibar, Espanyol beat Deportivo 4-1, Málaga picked up their first point of the campaign after drawing 3-3 to Athletic Bilbao, and Getafe crushed Villareal (4-0) to send the visitors coach, Fran Escribá, packing.

Premier League

We’ve reached the end of round six and most of the cream has already risen to the top of the Premier League table, particularly after a pair of vital 3-2 away victories for Tottenham and Liverpool this week.

Visiting Leicester for the second time in a matter of days, Jurgen Klopp’s side avenged the League Cup elimination on the return to grace of Philippe Coutinho (goal and assist), while the Spurs edged city rivals West Ham at the London Olympic Stadium with a two-goal performance from Harry Kane. Tottenham and Liverpool are now fourth and fifth, respectively, with 11 points each.

The front trio of City, United and Chelsea all won, even if the Red Devils had to suffer to preserve Romelu Lukaku’s winner at Southampton (0-1). Meanwhile, to the blue side of Manchester, the weekend reserved a routine 5-0 thrashing of Crystal Palace, which Chelsea almost matched (4-0) in the usually tricky confines of the Britannia Stadium. The (London) Blues vanquished Stoke City and the four goals originated from Spain: three belonged to striker Álvaro Morata and the other to Pedro Rodríguez.

Elsewhere, Everton claimed an important victory over Bournemouth (2-1), dodging the last places for now, while Watford triumphed at Swansea to cling to sixth (1-2).

Moment of the weekend:

The gripping finale to the men’s road race of the World Championships in Bergen, obviously.

While technical problems with the broadcast meant TV viewers around the World were unable to watch most of the final three kilometres, fixed cameras still managed to pick up the riders in the final 900m to complete the job. Hence, revel on the fleeting seconds of the titanic sprint between Sagan and Kristoff as commentated in the Slovak television, and then check the replay (2:30m) from an overhead view.

 

European Tour of Sports – Finland

The Basics

Population: 5.5 M

Area: 338 424 km2

Capital: Helsinki

Summer Olympic Medals: 303 (101 G – 85 S – 117 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 161 (42 G – 62 S – 57 B)

Popular Sports and History

Host of the 1952 Summer Olympics in Helsinki, Finland is a nation with a proud and decorated sports history despite its scant population. Having gathered 464 Olympic medals – 16th best all-time –, this vast Northern European country sits at the very top of the rankings in terms of medals and gold medals won per capita, edging neighbours Sweden and Hungary.

For geographic reasons an innate world power in many winter activities, Suomi’s No.1 sport in terms of spectators is ice hockey, where the Finns usually punch well above their weight to regularly upset much bigger luminaries such as Canada, Russia and the USA. Hence, two World championship titles (1995, 2011) and six Olympic medals – including silver in 1988 and 2006 – are part of the men’s national team trophy cabinet in large part due to the efforts of some of the game’s all-time greats, including defensemen Kimmo Timonen and Teppo Numinen, five-time Stanley Cup Champion Jari Kurri, and the legendary Teemu Selänne, the Olympic record holder for most participations (6) and most points (43) in ice hockey. On the women’s side, Finland only lags behind the titanic American and Canadian teams, having finished third or fourth in every World Championships, and attained two Olympic bronze medals (1998, 2010).

Finland was crowned ice hockey World Champion for the second time in 2011

Furthermore, Finland’s top flight, the SM-liiga, is one of the strongest hockey leagues in Europe, with Tappara Tampere and TPS (Turun Palloseura) Turku collecting 10 titles each since 1975, when professionalism arrived. In total, Tappara has conquered a record 17 National Championships, usurping city rivals Ilves, who count 16 (the last in 1985), by capturing the last two titles (2016, 2017). Seven-time Champions Kärpät Oulu and Jokerit Helsinki, who celebrated six times before opting to join the pan-European Kontinental Hockey League (KHL) in 2014, are also historical clubs of note.

Besting ice hockey in registered players and as a popular pastime, football enjoys significant popularity in Finland even if the country is far from a major international player. For instance, the men’s national team has never qualified for a finals tournament of the World Cup or European Championships, although it took part in four Olympic tournaments, whilst the women’s squad peaked by reaching the semi-finals of the 2005 European Championships exactly four years before hosting the competition. Nevertheless, names like former Liverpool FC captain Sami Hyypiä (105 caps) and Jari Litmanen, a UEFA Champions League winner with Ajax in 1994-95 who amassed a record  137 caps and 32 goals for the national team, achieved international recognition.

Jari Litmanen, the greatest Finnish footballer of all-time

At the club level, Finland’s football royalty is Helsingin Jalkapalloklubi, or HJK Helsinki, which counts 27 men’s national championships and 22 women’s titles, both records, and holds the distinction as the only Finnish club to ever qualify for the UEFA Champions League group stage, in 1998.

Not as ubiquitous, yet perhaps more relevant are Finland’s exceptional credentials in Athletics, corroborated on the two World Championships they organized in 1983 and 2005 and a stack of honours. In this sense, many of the 48 golds and 114 total medals hoarded by the sport at the Olympics date back to the beginning of the XX century, when Hannes Kolehmainen conquered three titles in 1912 to emerge as the original “Flying Finn” and dawn a period of excellence for Finnish athletics, especially in medium and long-distance running, that extended until World War II.

The likes of Paavo Nurmi, a nine-time Olympic gold medallist between 1920 and 1928 who set 22 world records on his career, Ville Ritola, who amassed six medals in Paris 1924, and Lasse Virén, who stormed to victory in the 5000m and 10.000m races of the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, left an indelible mark in history to transform into icons for the Finnish people. A similar fate destined to the nation’s finest in javelin throw, a wildly popular event where Finland has enjoyed steady success for more than 100 years, from the eight Olympic gold medals and five world championships to the dozens of world records set by their men and women.

Lasse Virén, the last of the “Flying Finns”, captured moments after winning the 5000m at the 1976 Olympic Games

Trending up, but still a ways to go to reach similar notoriety, Finnish basketball’s profile has increased significantly over the last decade, highlighted by an unexpected debut appearance at the 2014 FIBA World Cup, and four consecutive EuroBasket participations since 2011. Finland ranked sixth on home soil in 1967, and that mark may soon be surpassed as more youngsters take on the sport and follow the footsteps of Hanno Möttölä, the first and most notable Finnish man to play in the NBA (2000-2002). Meanwhile, in volleyball, the Finnish national team is also enjoying a renaissance of sorts, returning to the World Championships in 2014 – after a 32-year absence – to place ninth, their best result ever.

Nevertheless, the country’s third team sport in terms of registered players is still floorball. A powerhouse only rivalled by Sweden, Finland’s national team has won the World Championships three times (2008, 2010 and 2016) and placed on the podium in every occasion.

The Finnish floorball team is one of the best in the world

Incidentally, this is a situation resembling what happens in another offshoot of hockey, bandy, where the Finns snatched the World title in 2004 and perennially butt heads with Russia and Sweden for the top-three positions.

Known as the “land of the thousand lakes”, no sport makes better use of Finland’s breath-taking scenery than rally driving. Rally Finland is one of the most cherished events in the World Rally Championship calendar, and Finnish drivers have dominated the overall competition for large stretches over the last decades. Juha Kankkunen and Tommi Mäkinen, both four-time winners of the World Rally Championship, are the main reason Finland has celebrated a total of 14 times, tied with France for the most titles, while Keke Rosberg, Mika Häkkinen and Kimi Räikkönen, the three Finnish Formula One World Driver’s champions, have also elevated the white and blue, Nordic-crossed flag in another of motorsports queen disciplines.

Mika Häkkinen, Formula 1 World Champion in 1998 and 1999

Since 1908, when Finland first sent a delegation to the Summer Olympic Games, the country has never failed to medal and, consequently, many sports have scored a healthy dose of silverware.

Wrestling, with 83 OIympic medals (26 golds), has picked up, by far, the 2nd largest share (Athletics), but a few others have cracked the two digits, including canoeing, shooting, sailing, boxing – which accounted for the only medal at Rio de Janeiro (Mira Potkonen) – and gymnastics, whose tally of 25 owes much to Hall of Famer Heikki Savoilainen. Medalling, at least, once in five consecutive Olympics (1928 to 1952), Savoilainen bagged the last of his nine awards on the team all-around event at Helsinki 1952 to become the oldest gymnastics medallist at the age of 44.

Lacking any international recognition whatsoever, but with a firm spot in the heart of many Finns, Pesäpallo, a bat-and-ball activity with obvious similarities to baseball, is often referred as the national sport of Finland. Also played in countries such as Germany, Sweden, Switzerland, Australia, Japan and Canada, Pesäpallo was a demonstration sport at the 1952 Olympic Games.

In the Winter Olympics, Finland’s debut was in 1924 and they’ve also never returned home empty-handed. As the most successful nation in ski jumping history, Finland’s row of legends is headlined by Janne Ahonen, who never captured Olympic gold despite winning five World Championship golds, two overall World Cups (2004, 2005), and a record five Four Hills Tournaments, and Matti Nykänen, the only ski jumper in history to emerge victorious at all five of the sport’s major events. Besides three gold medals at the Winter Olympics, he secured the Ski Jumping World Championships, the Ski Flying World Championships, four World Cup titles and two Four Hills Tournaments.

Matti Nykänen, probably the greatest ski jumper ever, competing at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games in Calgary

Moreover, in cross-country skiing, Finland’s 76 Olympic medals only trail Norway’s total, and they can thank the brilliance of multiple Olympic, World Championships or World Cup Champions such as Veli Saarinen (1926-1934), Veikko Hakulinen (1952-60), Marjo Matikainen-Kallström (1984-89) and Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi (1982-1993) for that. As a combination of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, Finland has also produced world class athletes in nordic combined, with Olympic Champions Heikki Hasu, Eero Mäntyranta and Samppa Lajunen preceding Hannu Manninen, World Cup winner four consecutive times from 2003 to 2007.

In alpine skiing and biathlon, the country’s accomplishments straggle way behind their neighbours, yet it’s still worth mentioning that alpine skiers Kalle Palander and Tanja Poutiainen combined to take four discipline World Cup titles in the first decade of this century, while biathlon’s Heikki Ikola and Juhani Suutarinen claimed a total of seven World Championships titles in the 1970s. Furthermore, Finland has also amassed many international honours in figure skating and speed skating, even if they haven’t secured an Olympic medal in the latter since 1968.

Star Athletes

Tero Pitkämäki (Athletics)

The 34-year-old Pitkämäki has been Finland’s leading javelin thrower over the last decade and a half, collecting several medals in international meetings in the process. A World Champion in 2007, the native of Ilmajoki enjoyed his best seasons from 2005 to 2007, the three years in which he tossed the spear over 90m, however he’s maintained a high level of performance since then. For instance, Pitkämäki threw a world-leading mark of 89.03m in 2013, which is just 2.5m short of his career-best (91.53m) set in 2005 and still the tenth best mark of all-time.

Finnish javelin thrower Tero Pitkämäki prepares for another attempt at the 2011 World Athletics Championships

Bronze medallist at the 2008 Olympic Games, Tero Pitkämäki also ascended to the podium in three European Championships (2006, 2010, 2014) and, most recently, at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, results that merited his last two selections as the Finnish Sports Personality of the Year (he first received the award in 2007). Closing in on the end of his illustrious career, Pitkämäki probably won’t realize the dream of becoming an Olympic Champion, but he’s done more than enough to guarantee a spot on the pantheon of Finland’s greatest javelin throwers.

Kaisa Mäkäräinen (Biathlon)

A cross country skier growing up, Mäkäräinen picked up the rifle for the first time at age twenty and it wouldn’t be long before she cracked the Finnish biathlon national team. Progressing steadily up the ranks from 2004 to 2010, she finally broke out in the 2010-11 season, taking gold in the 10km pursuit and silver in the 7.5km sprint of the 2011 World Championships, and, a few weeks later, securing the triumphs in the overall classification and pursuit discipline of the World Cup circuit.

Those achievements warranted the 2011 Finnish Sports Personality of the Year award, and Mäkäräinen has since grown into one of the biathlon’s most reliable competitors, collecting four more discipline titles, divided by the individual (2015), sprint (2014) and pursuit (2014, 2015) classifications, and locking down a second overall title in 2014.

Finland’s biathlon star Kaisa Mäkäräinen in action during a World Cup race

With 6 medals obtained at World Championships, 21 individual victories in World Cup races and 70 podiums, what’s missing from her résumé is Olympic success. In two previous participations (2010, 2014), the 34-year-old’s best result is the sixth place on the Mass start in 2014, therefore she will arrive in Pyeongchang for the 2018 Winter Olympics hungry to take advantage of what promises to be her swan song.

Kimi Räikkönen (Formula One Racing)

Showing signs of prodigious driving talent from early on, Kimi Räikkönen entered the Formula One in 2001, at age 22, through the door of the modest Sauber-Petronas scuderia. A single season would be enough to convince the higher-profile McLaren Mercedes to take a chance on him, and Räikkönen soon began fighting for victories, winning his first race in Malaysia in 2003, and finishing as the runner up in the overall classification in 2003 and 2005.

Kimi Raikkonen holds aloft the trophy destined to the Formula One Driver’s World Champion in 2007

Nonetheless, annoyed by the Mclaren cars’ unreliability, the Finn accepted the invitation from the emblematic Ferrari before the 2007 season, and he promptly secured his first Formula One World Drivers’ Championship after a nail-biting season finale in Brazil.

Many though that would be the first of a few to come for the “Ice Man”, but the Espoo-native never reached the same highs again, concluding third in the overall classification in 2008 and 2012. In fact, the latter performance came at the wheel of a Lotus on the year of his return to the Formula One after an unremarkable two-year stint in the World Rally Championship (2010 and 2011) and a short detour into NASCAR racing.

Back at Ferrari since 2014, the 37-year-old has amassed, to date, 20 race victories, 88 podiums and 17 pole positions on the Formula One. A solid career indeed, but short of what his talent demanded.

Other Athletes: Petteri Koponen (Basketball), Antti Ruuskanen (Athletics), Valtteri Bottas (Formula One Racing), Mira Potkonen (Boxing), Enni Rukajärvi (Snowboard), Iivo Niskanen, Matti Heikkinen, Kerttu Niskanen, Krista Pärmäkoski, Aino-Kaisa Saarinen (Cross-country skiing), Mikko Koivu, Tuukka Rask, Noora Räty (ice hockey), Tuuli Petäjä-Sirén (Sailing), Satu Mäkelä-Nummela (Shooting), Minna Kauppi (Orienteering), Roman Eremenko (Football)

Venues

The most iconic sports location in Finland is, undoubtedly, the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, the central venue for the 1952 Summer Olympics and many other international events hosted by the country, including the 1957 Bandy World Championships, the 1983 and 2005 Athletics World Championships, three European Athletics Championships (1971, 1994, 2012), the 2009 UEFA Women’s European Championships Final, and plenty of concerts.

Opened in 1938 with his distinctive contiguous tower, the stadium welcomed 70 000 during the Olympic Games, but his capacity has significantly decreased with the successive renovations, the last one scheduled to end in 2019, when the currently closed stadium will reopen with 36 000 seats, covered stands, a new track and fresh grass field.

A panorama of the Helsinki Olympic Stadium, currently closed for renovation.

In the meantime, the Finnish men’s football team, the main tenant, sometimes utilizes the adjacent Telia 5G –areena, or Sonera Stadium, inaugurated in 2000 with a capacity for 10 770 spectators. Host of the 2003 FIFA U-17 World Championship Final, the Sonera Stadium’s artificial turf is usually operated by Helsinki’s football clubs HJK and HIFK. Also welcoming the national team in occasion, the Ratina Stadion is Tampere’s main stadium since 1965, a multi-purpose facility that seats 16 800 in sports events, including regular motorcycle speedway competitions.

Conversely, the Paavo Nurmi Stadium, named after the athletics’ legend, is, essentially, a track and field venue, bringing some of the sports’ best to the city of Turku for the Paavo Nurmi Games, a renowned annual meet where many world records have been set. Consequently, Turku’s clubs, FC Inter and Turun Palloseura (TPS), play in the Veritas Stadium, with capacity for 9 372 fans.

Meanwhile, the Lahti Stadium, which holds 14 500, is not only a football venue for FC Lahti, but also doubles, in the winter, as the setting for many international cross-country and biathlon competitions. The diverse FIS World Cups make regular stops in Lahti, and three FIS Biathlon World Championships (1981, 1991 and 2000) were held here, as well as three FIS Nordic Ski World Championships (1989, 2001 and 2017). In this case, the stadium is complemented with the nearby Salpausselkä ski jumping venue, which accommodates up to 60 000.

Lahti’s winter sports structure, including the Lahti stadium, in the background, as viewed from the ski jumping complex.

Moreover, Levi, in Finnish Lapland – deep into the Arctic circle -, hosts slalom competitions of the FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup, while Ruka, in Kuusamo (Northern Ostrobothnia), is a popular resort for cross country skiing, Nordic combined and ski jumping competitions on his Rukatunturi ski jumping hill, the largest in Finland.

Regarding indoor venues, Finland’s main amphitheatre is the Hartwall Arena, in Helsinki, built in 1997 for the Ice Hockey World Championships. Located next to a busy railway station, this functional, elliptical structure sits 13 349 for hockey, usually fans from local team Jokerit, and can be easily converted for basketball or entertainment shows. The Hartwall Arena was, once again, a venue for the Ice Hockey World Championships in 2012 and 2013, and also hosted games of the 2004 World Cup of Hockey, the World Figure Skating Championships (1999 and 2017), the 2007 Eurovision Song Contest and group stage matches of the 2017 EuroBasket.

Inside Helsinki’s Hartwall Arena during an ice hockey match

Located in Turku, on the Southwest coast, Turkuhalli, currently Gatorade Center due to sponsorship reasons, is Finland’s second biggest indoor arena. Opened in 1990 to function as the main building for the 1991 men’s Ice Hockey World Championships, it also played a part in the 1997 and 2003 editions of the tournament. With 11 820 seats, it is the home of HC TPS (hockey), TPS (floorball) and Turun NMKY (Basketball).

Tampereen jäähalli, or Tampere Ice Stadium, is the main venue in the country’s second city, welcoming up to 7300 spectators for the games of Ilves and Tappara, of the Finnish Liiga. The first and oldest ice hockey arena in the country, this hall was erected for the 1965 Ice Hockey World Championships, and has received the competition a few more times since then, as well as European and World Championships of boxing, wrestling, judo, and karate. As for the fledging national basketball team, it calls home the Energia Areena, in Vantaa, with capacity for 3500 fans.

Finally, any inventory like this wouldn’t be complete without a mention to the gravel roads over which the cars of the World Rally Championship fly during Rally Finland. Full of jumps and blind crests, the paths around Jyväskylä, in Finnish Lakeland, make for a thrilling motorsport spectacle in spectacular scenery.

A car soars through the air during a stage of the Rally Finland

Yearly Events

If you find yourself in Finland, don’t miss the chance to catch some live sports action, especially if you’re not accustomed to low temperatures and the complementary sports disciplines.

The exciting ice hockey season runs from September to March, with playoffs until late April, and develops concurrently with floorball’s Salibandyliiga, whose final is contested at the Hartwall Arena. The bandy national championship (Bandyliiga) is scheduled from November to February, while football matches dot the calendar from April to the end of October. For motorsport fans and outdoors lovers, attending the competitive Finnish Rally Championship is a great option. It starts in late January, with the Artic Lapland Rally, and ends in late September.

For other yearly sporting events, including an abundance of various winter sports World Cup stages, peruse the list below:

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Lahti, December/January/February

Artic Lapland Rally, Rally Racing

Rovaniemi, January

Lahti FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Lahti, February

Kontiolahti FIS World Cup event, Biathlon

Kontiolahti, March

The FIS Biathlon World Cup makes a stop in Kontiolahti every March

Paavo Nurmi Games, Athletics

Turku, June

Rally Finland (WRC event), Rally Racing

Jyväskylä, Late July/early August

Helsinki City Marathon, Athletics

Helsinki, August

Helsinki Tallinna Race, Sailing

Helsinki – Tallinn (Estonia), August

Helsinki International Horse Show (FEI World Cup), Horse Jumping

Helsinki, October

Karjala Cup, Ice hockey

Helsinki, November

Levi FIS World Cup event, Alpine Skiing

Levi Ski Resort (Kittilä), November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Ski jumping

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Nordic Combined

Kuusamo, November

Ruka FIS World Cup event, Cross country Skiing

Kuusamo, November

European Tour of Sports – Estonia

The Basics

 Population: 1.3 M

Area: 45 339 km2

Capital: Tallinn

Summer Olympic Medals: 34 (9 G-9 S-16 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 7 (4 G-2 S-1 B)

Popular Sports and History

The Northernmost of the Baltic countries, Estonia, first secured independence from Russia in 1918 and soon started participating under the blue, black and white flag in sports competitions, with the first Olympic appearance occurring in 1920. Occupied by the Soviet Union at the onset of World War II in 1940, it would take more than five decades until Estonian-born athletes could compete for their independent nation internationally, returning for the 1992 Winter Olympics in Albertville. However, 12 years before, Tallinn had actually welcomed the Olympic movement when the sailing competitions of Moscow’s Summer Olympics were held off the city’s coast.

Estonia's delegation in Rio 2016 was the seventh at Summer Olympic Games since the country regained independence.

Estonia’s delegation in Rio 2016 was the seventh at Summer Olympic Games since the country regained independence.

Despite a population of just over one million people, Estonia is usually good for a couple of medals in every Summer Olympic Games, an expression of a country that is able to regularly yield prominent athletes, particularly in individual sports. Nonetheless, if in the early 1900’s, wrestling and weightlifting were the disciplines where Estonians excelled, recently Athletics has carried the mail, especially in technical and combined disciplines.

Estonian discus throwers stepped into the Olympic podium in three consecutive editions from 2004 to 2012, with Gerd Kanter securing gold in Beijing 2008, while javelin thrower Andrus Värnik became a world champion in 2005. Previously, Erki Nool had unlocked the door to success in track and field when he gripped the decathlon Olympic title at Sidney 2000, just the second gold in Summer Olympics for the country after regaining independence.

The first had been captured eight years before by the only woman to become Olympic Champion representing Estonia, track bicycle rider Erika Salumäe, which added the 1992 women’s sprint title to the one she collected in 1988 wearing the colours of the Soviet Union. Salumäe also boasts five medals in World Championships and fifteen World Records on her decorated résumé as the greatest female athlete in the country’s history, and her achievements were certainly influential for the following generations of Estonian cyclists, men who have left their mark on the road. From those deserve mention sprinter Jaan Kirsipuu, a four-time Tour de France stage winner who wore the iconic yellow jersey for six days in the 1999 edition, and current World Tour contestants Tanel Kangert, a five-time GC top-20 finisher in Grand Tours, and Rein Taaramäe, who captured stages in the Giro d’Italia and Vuelta a España.

Erika Salumäe, former Estonian track cycling Olympic Champion

Erika Salumäe, former Estonian track cycling Olympic Champion

Having underscored the Olympic champions of the last 25 years, it wouldn’t be fair to forget the athletes responsible for the early successes of Estonian sport, which owes 21 of 41 medals to the period between 1920 and 1936. The first ever gold medal was obtained by weightlifter Alfred Neuland in the men’s lightweight class at Antwerp 1920, and the sport accounted for six more medals until World War II erupted, yet it would take a full 80 years until Estonia was again represented in weightlifting as Mart Seim qualified for Rio 2016.

Conversely, Estonian wrestlers were even more successful than weightlifters, conquering a country-best eleven medals and five Olympic titles, with Kristian Palusalu contributing with two in unique fashion, since he became the first and only wrestler in Olympic history to win both the Greco-Roman and freestyle heavyweight events at Berlin 1936. Estonia wouldn’t medal in wrestling again until Heiki Nabi snatched silver at London 2012.

Since those achievements date from another era, Estonia’s finest have taken on different activities in the last decades and the consequence has been the emergence of other sports. In the post-1992 period, rowing has become more popular by the day and it can be traced back to Jüri Jaanson, who became World Champion for the first time in 1990 and went on to cap his illustrious career with silver medals at the 2004 (singles sculls) and 2008 (double sculls) Olympics. Jaanson won in Beijing alongside Tõnu Endrekson, who barely missed out on the podium at London 2012 as part of the same men’s quadruple sculls unit that would ultimately bring home bronze in 2016, the country’s only medal in Rio de Janeiro.

Rowers Jüri Jaanson (front) and Tõnu Endrekson (back) won silver in Beijing 2008 on the men's double sculls

Rowers Jüri Jaanson (front) and Tõnu Endrekson (back) won silver at Beijing 2008 on the men’s double sculls

Judo is another sport that has hit the headlines in Estonia this century and, beside two dozens of laurels hoarded in European and World competitions, stand out three Olympic honours: bronze medals by Aleksei Budõlin in the -81 Kg at Sidney 2000, and Indrek Pertelson in the 100+ Kg at the 2000 and 2004 editions.

Blessed with a long shoreline on the Baltic sea, Estonia has also accumulated credentials in sailing, with special notice reserved for the twin brothers Tõnu Tõniste and Toomas Tõniste, who competed in four consecutive Olympics on the Men’s 470 class and won silver in 1988 (for the URSS) and bronze in 1992.

Meanwhile, fencing seems on the cusp of Olympic glory following a terrific run of success by Estonia’s Épée fencers on the last 20 years. Oksana Jermakova kicked it off by winning the World Championship in 1993 before opting to suit up for Russia in 2000 and 2004 as she claimed Olympic gold, yet she inspired the likes of Irina Embrich, twice European Champion, Julia Beljajeva, 2013 World Champion, and Erika Kirpu, bronze medallist at the 2014 Worlds, a trio that has racked up the honours in team events recently, falling just short (fourth place) of a medal in Rio de Janeiro. On the men’s side, Nikolai Novosjolov was crowned World Champion in 2010 and 2013.

Estonia's Women's Épée team is one of the strongest in the World

Estonia’s Women’s Épée team is one of the strongest in the World

Tennis is also popular in Estonia but lacks the same level of success experienced by the sports referenced above, even if Kaia Kanepi rose to a career-best World No.15 position in 2012, collected four WTA Tour singles’ trophies and reached five Grand Slam Quarter-finals, all singular achievements in Estonian tennis history.

As stated, individual sports dominate attentions in terms of international accomplishments, but that doesn’t mean that Europe’s premium pastime is shunned. Football is still one of the most popular sports in the country even though the national team’s only international appearance was in the distant 1924 Olympic Games. Estonia has never qualified for the World Cup or European Championships, neither on the men or women side, and they’ve never been particularly close, except for a playoff defeat with the Republic of Ireland before the Euro 2012. Former goalkeeper Mart Poom, who played more than a decade in England and accumulated 120 senior caps, is widely regarded as the best Estonian footballer of all-time.

Former Arsenal FC goalkeeper Mart Poom is regarded as one of Estonia's finest footballers

Former Arsenal FC goalkeeper Mart Poom is regarded as one of Estonia’s finest footballers

The Estonian football league, the Meistriliiga, is a fringe competition in the context of the continent, and is historically dominated by Tallinn’s clubs. FC Flora Tallinn, founded in the lead up to the independence, has won a record 10 League titles while FC Levadia Tallinn has 9 Championships and a record 8 Estonian Cups. Nõmme Kalju FC (2012) and FC Infonet Tallinn (2016) have broken the duopoly recently, but face the challenge of avoiding the fate of the other three clubs that became Estonian Champions and later went extinct. On the women’s game, Pärnu Jalgpalliklubi dominates, having gathered 12 League titles, including the last seven.

Despite the proximity with basketball-mad Lithuania, Estonia is far from a powerhouse in the hoops trade, having qualified for the Eurobasket on just three occasions since the independence (1993, 2001 and 2015). Before the annexation, they participated in the 1936 Olympics and finished fifth twice in the European tournament (1937, 1939).

Estonian Power Forward Martin Müürsepp played for NBA's Dallas Mavericks in 1997-98.

Estonian Power Forward Martin Müürsepp played for NBA’s Dallas Mavericks in 1997-98.

Titt Sokk, the current national team coach, is considered the best ever Estonian basketball player as he conquered gold at the Olympics in 1988 marshalling the URSS squad, but Martin Müürsepp holds the distinction of being the only to play in the NBA, representing the Miami Heat and Dallas Mavericks from 1996 to 1998.

The Estonian national volleyball team won the European League in 2016 to substantiate a rise that was apparent with the first three qualifications to the European Championships (2009, 2011 and 2015), while the national floorball team has competed in 6 out of 11 World Championships, coming out 7th in 2010. Other team sports widely played in Europe such as handball, futsal or ice hockey, hold no preponderance in Estonia.

Finally, last but not least, an imperative remark for winter sports, especially cross-country skiing, which holds long traditions in Estonia as it contributed with all seven medals conquered at the Winter Olympic Games. Andrus Veerpalu won gold in the 15 km classical event in two consecutive Olympic Games (2002, 2006) and added silver in the 50km at Salt Lake City 2002, while Kristina Šmigun-Vähi clinched the Olympic titles in the 15 km pursuit and 10 km classic races at Torino 2006, and returned after giving birth to take silver in the 10 km freestyle at Vancouver 2010. Furthermore, Jaak Mae was third in the same 15 km classical contest of Salt Lake City, whereas Veerpalu and Šmigun-Vähi combined for a total of eight World Championships medals from 1999 to 2009, a period of tremendous success for Estonian skiing.

Nowadays, despite lacking the star power of yesteryear, Estonia still sends an average of 20 athletes to the Winter Olympics, spanning landmark sports such as Alpine skiing, biathlon, figure skating or ski jumping.

Star Athletes

Gerd Kanter (Athletics)

A three-time Estonian Sportsman of the Year (2007, 2008 and 2011), Gerd Kanter is one of the leading discus throwers of the last decade by virtue of an incredible sequence of top-level results in major competitions. After missing the final in his first Olympic appearance at Athens 2004, the Tallinn-native experienced a breakthrough 2005 season, launching for the first time past the 70m and securing silver at the World Championships. It was the first of five consecutive podium appearances at the Worlds, including a title at Osaka 2007 that set the stage for his Olympic title in Beijing 2008, the pinnacle of a period of uncontested dominance in the discipline.

The Estonian delivered the season-best mark in every year from 2006 to 2010, always throwing over 71m and peaking with the 73.38 m obtained in 2006 in Helsingborg – the third best attempt of all-time -, yet he was toppled by Robert Harting in the 2009 World Championships and the German would prove a thorn on his side for the next years.

Discus Thrower Gerd Kanter performs a victory lap after clinching the Olympic title in 2008

Discus Thrower Gerd Kanter performs a victory lap after clinching the Olympic title in 2008

Kanter was pipped in the 2011 and 2013 Worlds, plus the 2012 and 2014 European Championships, but still managed to medal, as happened in the 2012 Olympics (bronze), collecting an outstanding 10 podium appearances in major competitions from 2005 to 2014, to which should be added the 2012 and 2013 IAAF Diamond League triumphs. At age 37, he’s now on the downswing, having placed 4th at the 2015 World Championships and 5th, behind teammate Martin Kupper, at the 2016 Olympics, but his spot on Estonia’s pantheon of sporting legends has long ago been assured.

Julia Beljajeva (Fencing)

Disentangling the members of Estonia’s decorated Épée women’s national team is not easy, but Beljajeva gets the nod here because she’s got a shiny reward that her teammates lack.

Estonia's World Champion Épée fencer Julia Beljajeva

Estonia’s World Champion Épée fencer Julia Beljajeva

Born in the nation’s second city, Tartu, Beljajeva was a talented youth fencer whose first senior major result came as part of the bronze medal team at the 2012 European Championships.

However, the following year she exploded to prominence after enjoying a series of upsets in the individual competition of the 2013 World Championships, ultimately meriting the title. Ranked 69th on the FIE rankings, Beljajeva surprisingly ousted World No.1 Ana Maria Brânză by 15-14 in the QF and then edged past the World No.5 and No.4, also by the minimum margin, to take gold.

It was a stunning result that propelled her up the hierarchy, but she’s failed to follow suit since then. In 2014, her title defence was halted by teammate Erika Kirpu, who went on to claim bronze, and later Beljajeva missed the 2015 World Championships and was dumped out in the first round at the 2016 Olympics by eventual Champion Emese Szász, of Hungary, the woman she defeated at the 2013 Worlds SF.

In the meantime, the right-handed fencer has continued to be an integral part of the Estonian Team, which captured the title at the 2013 and 2016 European Championships and snagged silver at the 2015 Euros and 2014 World Championships, but the 24-year-old will need more to demonstrate that day in Budapest wasn’t just a fluke.

Heiki Nabi (Greco-Roman Wrestling)

The man responsible for rekindling Estonia’s proud wrestling history hails from Hiiumaa, an island off the country’s west coast and far from a hotbed of sport champions.

Nonetheless, the sturdy Nabi didn’t take long to prove his worth, and at the precocious age of 21 he unexpectedly emerged victorious from his debut appearance in the Greco-Roman 96 Kg competition of the 2006 World Championships, becoming the first amateur wrestling World Champion from Estonia. Given his youth, the nation expected more triumphs to follow but Nabi’s results meandered as his body developed further, eventually forcing a change of category in 2010 towards the heaviest Greco-Roman weight class, the 120 Kg (tinkered for 130Kg in 2014) .

The new challenge fuelled Heiki Nabi to new heights and he ended up as the runner up at the 2012 Olympics, winning his country’s first wrestling medal since 1936 by bowing out only to Cuba’s Mijaín López, the man who has reigned supreme in the weight class for the last decade.

Wrestler Heiki Nabi with the silver medal conquered at the 2012 Olympic Games

Wrestler Heiki Nabi with the silver medal conquered at the 2012 Olympic Games

Nabi was deservedly named Estonia’s Sportsman of the year in 2012, and later took advantage of López’s absence at the 2013 World Championships to collect a second World title, even if it came late due to Iranian Amir Aliakbari’s disqualification for doping. For good measure, he claimed bronze one year later after succumbing to López in the QF, but couldn’t do the same in the Rio Olympic Games as the Cuban wrestler once again cut short his progress.

Mijaín López is now 34, so Nabi has three years on him. Maybe he can use that to capture more hardware, padding his résumé before retiring as one of Estonia’s greats.

Other Athletes: Tanel Kangert, Rein Taaramäe  (Cycling); Margus Hunt (American Football); Ragnar Klavan (Football); Nikolai Novosjolov, Erika Kirpu (Fencing); Mait Patrail (Handball); Kaia Kanepi (Tennis); Rasmus Mägi, Martin Kupper, Ksenija Balta (Athletics); Mart Seim (Weightlifting); Tõnu Endrekson (Rowing); Epp Mäe (Wrestling, freestyle)

Venues

As a small country with a football league that attracts sparse attendances, Estonia’s stadiums are, on a whole, modest, battered and outdated, with the particular exemption of the Lilleküla Stadium – designated A. Le Coq Arena for sponsorship reasons -, the biggest football-only stadium in the country.

Opened in 2001, the national stadium seats 9,692 people but can be expanded by a few more hundreds in special occasions, be it international games of Estonia’s National Team or European matches of its regular club tenant, FC Flora Tallinn. Comprised of four separate stands (three covered) that form a rectangular-shaped venue and with a distinctive yellow cladding on the exterior, it is located between train lines in the Lilleküla district, on the South of Tallin, and part of a wider complex that also includes a 500-seat Miniarena for reserve and youth matches and a few training grounds.

A panorama of the A. Le Coq Arena, Estonia's National Stadium

A panorama of the A. Le Coq Arena, Estonia’s National Stadium

The stadium’s inaugural match was a sold-out World Cup qualifier versus the Netherlands and up to 25,000 can flock to the venue for concerts, yet the most significant event is still to come when Tallinn hosts the 2018 UEFA Super Cup.

A match of that magnitude wouldn’t have been awarded to Estonia without the erection of the A. Le Coq Arena, since the former national ground was the Kadriorg Stadium, which dates back to 1926. The relic has a 5,000-people capacity and is equipped to receive athletics competitions, something not contemplated in the Lilleküla Stadium’s project. Located on the edge of a major park east of Tallinn’s center, it suffered comprehensive renovations in 2001 to fulfil international regulations and accommodate the football matches of FC Levadia Tallinn.

Meanwhile, Kalev Tallinn plays in the Kalevi Keskstaadion, opened in 1956 and restored in 2004, which can welcome around 12,000 despite missing individual seats. Nevertheless, that capacity makes it the biggest sports venue in the country.

The rest of Estonia’s football stadiums fail to provide seating for more than 3,000 people, but there’s another outdoor venue that can, the Tehvandi Ski Stadium, located in Estonia’s “Winter Sports Capital”, the South-eastern city of Otepää. In the Tehvandi Sport Center, also composed of several skiing trails, a ski jumping hill and a biathlon shooting range, is annually held a cross-country skiing World Cup event, the only in the Baltic region.

The Tehvandi Sport Center, in Otepää, hosts anually a stage of the FIS Cross-Country skiing World Cup

The Tehvandi Sport Center, in Otepää, hosts anually a stage of the FIS Cross-Country skiing World Cup

In terms of indoor sports venues, the largest arena in Estonia is the Saku Suurhall, also named for a local sponsor. Built in 2011 on the outskirts of Tallinn, it can take 10,000 for concerts and around 7200 for basketball matches, namely of BC Kalev/Cramo, the reigning Estonian Champions. The 2010 European Figure Skating Championships were held in the Saku Suurhall, but the venue is mostly booked for conferences and concerts, with some sports competitions now diverted for Tallinn’s new multi-purpose indoor arena complex, the Tondiraba Ice Hall.

Inaugurated in 2014, the facility located in the district of Lasnamäe includes two practice rinks, a curling rink and a main Arena with a capacity for 7700 spectators, which can be used for figure skating, ice hockey, short track, volleyball, handball or gymnastics and to host international competitions and concerts. Tallinn’s basketball, ice hockey and volleyball teams call the venue home, as do the national basketball and ice hockey teams.

Outside of the capital, the biggest indoor arena is the Rakvere Spordihall, in the Northern town of Rakvere. Opened in 2004 with a capacity for 2400, the regular tenants are the city’s basketball and volleyball teams.

Yearly Events

As became evident, Estonia is far from a can’t-miss destination for top-notch sports competition, but if you’re still looking to catch some action, be advised that the national football league runs between March and the end of November, while the basketball and volleyball leagues follow the usual winter schedule.

However, you’ll be better served attending one of the multiple races and outdoor events that take advantage of the country’s stunning natural beauty. Some of them are listed below, as part of Estonia’s main yearly sporting events:

Otepää FIS World Cup event, Cross-country skiing

Otepää, February

Tartu Ski Marathon, long-distance cross-country skiing

Tartu County and Valga County, February

Võhandu Marathon, Rowing

Võru – Võõpsu, April

The Võhandu Marathon, when hundreds of canoes course down 100km of Võhandu river in one day

The Võhandu Marathon, when hundreds of canoes course down 100km of Võhandu river in one day

SUMMER CUP – International Youth Football Festival, Football

Pärnu, June

2017 World Orienteering Championships, Orienteering

Tartu, July (2017)

Rally Estonia, Motorsports rally racing

Tartu – Otepää, July

Tallinn Marathon, Athletics

Tallinn, September

Tartu Rattamaraton (Tartu Cycling Marathon), Mountain bike cycling

Otepää – Uderna küla, September

Épée World Cup “Glaive de Tallinn”, Fencing

Tallinn, October

European Tour of Sports – Belgium

The Basics

Population: 11.25 M

Area: 30 528 km2

Capital: Brussels

Summer Olympic Medals: 148 (40 G-53 S-55 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 5 (1 G-1 S-3 B)

 

Popular Sports and History

Belgium is a state culturally and linguistic divided between the Dutch-speaking region of Flanders and the French-speaking community of Wallonia and that reality naturally spills into sport, with most sport federations split into two branches overseeing the development of the games in their own backyards. Football, field hockey and basketball are some of the sports that escape that paradigm, yet many more present unified competitions at the highest level, with nationwide leagues held to sort out the Belgian finest athletes and teams.

The country’s evolvement on sports at the international stage dates back to the second Olympiad, culminating in the 1900 Games in Paris, and Belgium has the honour of having organized one edition of the Summer Games, at Antwerp, in 1920. Sending by far their largest delegation ever, the hosts tallied an incredible 36 medals, including 14 golds, to underline their most successful Olympic participation ever on an edition that comprised 28 other nations. The Olympic movement has grown immensely since those early editions and Belgium never approached the totals of 1920, however they’ve managed to regularly add a handful of honours in every appearance, coming home empty handed for the only time in Los Angeles 1936.

After the Rio de Janeiro Games, Belgium’s medal total is at 148 medals and it is symptomatic that the highest slice was provided by the nation’s number one sport, one that stretches his influence to every nook and cradle of land, uncompromised by linguistic barriers or cultural tensions. Riding bikes through the whole of Belgium, cycling’s marquee names are revered across the country and the populations flock to the roadsides to attend some of the sport’s legendary competitions.

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

Eddy Merckx riding uphill wearing the rainbow jersey as the reigning World Champion

It’s thus perfectly fitting that cycling’s greatest of all-time, Eddy Merckx, hails from Belgium, with “The Cannibal” boasting an unmatched trophy cabinet that includes, among dozens of other triumphs, five Tour de France GC wins, five Giro d’Italia, one Vuelta a España, three World Championships titles and victories in all five cycling “Monuments”. However, if no one could ever match Merckx’s achievements, Belgium boasts countless other cycling Champions, with the country amassing more Road Race World Championships titles (26) than any other nation.

Furthermore, Belgium cyclists combined to conquer 18 Tour de France and 7 Giro d’Italia, numbers only surpassed by the hosting nations despite remaining stagnant since 1976 (Tour) and 1978 (Giro). On the other hand, Belgium’s decorated history on one-day classics is still receiving new additions, with the country dominating in accumulated triumphs at three of the Monuments (Tour of Flanders, Liège–Bastogne–Liège and Paris-Roubaix) and coming after hosts Italy on the other two.

Belgium’s cycling prowess naturally extends to the Olympics, with a total of seven gold medals in the sport, the most recent by Greg Van Avermaet at Rio on the men’s road race, yet the other disciplines shouldn’t be forgotten. In mountain biking and track cycling, Belgium athletes have achieved Olympic success in multiple occasions, while in cyclo-cross no country has matched their dominance at the World Championships and World Cup level.

Cycling is definitely the belle of the ball but football has its own predominance in terms of team sports. Two editions of the European Championships (1972 and 2000, this one in a shared organization with Netherlands) were held in Belgium, and the national team has regularly qualified for the major competitions, playing in 12 of 20 World Cups and five Euros. From 1982 to 2002, Belgium never missed the sport’s biggest competition, peaking with a fourth place in 1986, while they were runner ups in the 1980 European Championships, losing the final to West Germany.

The best period of the “Red Devils” history comprehended the 1980’s and 1990’s, with names like Jan Ceulemans – whose 96 caps are a record -, Eric Gerets, Jean-Marie Pfaff, Franky Vercauteren, Enzo Scifo, Marc Wilmots, and Michel Preud’homme deserving recognition, but a new era of glory seems in full swing, with Belgium fresh of reaching the quarter-finals of the 2014 World Cup and the 2016 Euro founded on a tremendous collection of talent that plies its trade abroad on the best European clubs. On the women’s side, the wind is also blowing favourably, as Belgium recently qualified for its first international competition, the 2017 European Championships.

Diego Maradona's Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium's best performance in the competition

Diego Maradona’s Argentina downed the Red Devils at the 1986 World Cup semi final, Belgium’s best performance ever on the competition

From 1976 to 1988, while the National Team racked up successful campaigns, Belgium clubs took advantage of the available resources to also achieve unprecedented heights, collecting a total of seven European trophies, five of those courtesy of the nation’s most successful emblem, R.S.C. Anderlecht. The 33-times National Champions conquered the UEFA Cup Winners’ Cup in 1975–76 and 1977–78, the UEFA Cup in 1982-1983 and the European Supercup in 1976 and 1978 to tower over Belgium football, but others also left their mark. Club Brugge K.V, who holds 14 National Championships, played in the premium European Cup Final in 1977–78, something no other Belgium club can claim, and also contested the UEFA Cup Final in 1975-76, while 4-time National Champions K.V. Mechelen won the 1987–88 European Cup Winners’ Cup and the 1988 European Super Cup. With no European feats to pamper but 10 National titles and 7 National Cups laying on their museum, Standard Liège is also one of Belgium’s traditional clubs, while Royale Union Saint-Gilloise dominated the scene before World War II, amassing 11 National titles from 1903 to 1935, as of today still the third highest total.

The clout of cycling and football stars isn’t easily overshadowed, but you could make the case that two tennis players carried the Belgium flag worldwide like few others could after the turn of the century. Justine Henin and Kim Clijsters were both World No.1 in the WTA Rankings in the 2000’s and their résumés speak for the tremendous popularity both enjoyed among tennis’ fan base. The Liège-born Henin won seven Grand Slam titles, including three at Roland Garros, and the single’s tournament at the 2004 Olympics, while Clijsters, a Flanders-native, conquered four majors, including three at the US Open. The duo also led Belgium to its only Fed Cup triumph, in 2001, finishing as the runner- up in 2006 by losing the final on home soil, something emulated nine years later by the men at their maiden Davis Cup final.

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Belgium tennis stars Justine Henin (L) and Kim Clijsters (R), friends, teammates and arch rivals for much of their brilliant careers

Meanwhile, Athletics is another sport where Belgian woman have bested their male counterparts recently, accounting for the last three Olympic medals in the sport after the men bagged all previous nine. Sprinter Kim Gevaert, twice European Champion in 2006, led the 4x100m relay to silver in Beijing 2008 – in a race won by a Russian team that has recently been disqualified – while high-jumper Tia Hellebaut conquered gold in the same edition, a accomplishment matched by heptathlon’s Nafissatou Thiam in 2016.

Belgium’s track record in team sports other than football isn’t exactly striking but a few deserve further mention.

The Belgium basketball team has participated in the EuroBasket on 17 occasions, with the best result being the fourth place in 1947, yet from 1979 to 2011 they only qualified once (1993). This down period is being put to bed with a fourth consecutive participation looming in 2017, but the country is far from a contender on the continental scale, even at the club level. BC Ostende and Spirou Charleroi may have combined to take 15 of the last 16 national titles, but can’t make a dent in European Competitions.

As for volleyball, the outlook is more promising in face of both national teams’ recent progresses. The men conquered the European League in 2013, and rode the success to guarantee a spot on the World League and secure qualification for the 2014 World Championships, a competition Belgium wasn’t part of since 1978. The women’s national team contested the European Championships in 2007 for the first time in two decades, lost in the final of the 2013 European League and won bronze at the 2013 European Championships.

 The women's national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

The women’s national volleyball team of Belgium celebrates an historic bronze medal at the 2013 European Championships

At the club level, the main teams have also proved competitive internationally, since Knack Randstad Roeselare won the men’s CEV Top Teams Cup in 2002 and Asterix Kieldrecht won the same competition on the women’s side in 2001, adding the CEV Challenge Cup in 2010. Before that, men’s Noliko Maaseik reached and lost two finals of the CEV Champions League in 1997 and 1999.

In futsal, the national team appeared in the first three World Cups (1989, 1992 and 1996) but has failed to qualify ever since. A fourth place in the 1996 edition is their best outcome, while at the European Championships Belgium were third in the same year but have been ousted in the first round in every subsequent participation, including 2014, edition they organized. However, Action 21 Charleroi, 10-time National Champions since 1999, were crowned European Champions in 2005 after being runner ups in 2002 and 2003.

Another Belgian club with extensive continental pedigree is table tennis’ side Royal Villette Charleroi, which counts seven European Club Cup of Champions since 1994, including five victories in nine finals played in the European Champions League (since 1998-1999), making it the most successful club in this competition. The foundation of all those triumphs was Belgian table tennis legend Jean-Michel Saive who competed in seven Olympics from 1992 to 2012, and was the single’s European Champion in 1994 and runner up at the 1993 World Championships.

Furthermore, in the first editions of the Olympic Games, Belgium piled up medals in water polo (four silvers and one bronze) but since 1964 they haven’t been able to qualify , while the national field hockey team was a force until the 1970’s (winning bronze in 1920) before a down stretch that was only stopped at the turn of the century. The silver medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics culminated a return to form that had already delivered a third place at the 2007 European Championships and a second position on the same competition in 2013.

Belgium's field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Belgium’s field hockey national team won a silver medal at the 2016 Olympic Games

Archery is the sport in which Belgium has amassed the highest number of gold medals (11) at the Olympics, yet those achievements mainly date back to the early 1900’s, since the country broke in 2016 a period of 20 years without representation in the sport at the highest level. Moreover, after the aforementioned cycling and athletics, three other sports can brag to have secured double-digit medals at the Summer Games: Equestrian, Fencing and Judo, with the latter being the most interesting case since it’s been part of the calendar for a shorter period. Belgium judokas brought medals from every edition between 1988 and 2004, with Ingrid Berghmans and Ulla Werbrouck taking gold in 1972 and 1996, both on the -72kg category.

As for sports figures outside of the Olympic range, a shout-out to billiards player Raymond Ceulemans, who dominated several variants of his sport for most of five decades (1963 to 2001), collecting a staggering 35 World titles and 48 European Championships in the process, and motocross racer Stefan Everts, World Champion ten times from 1991 to 2006.

In the winter disciplines, the representation of Belgium is usually reduced to a handful of athletes, nevertheless the country has been able to gather five medals in the Winter Olympics: one in speed skating, two in figure skating (including gold in 1948) and two in bobsleigh. The most recent – and first in 50 years – belongs to speed skater Bart Veldkamp, who finished third in the men’s 5000m in Nagano 1998.

Star Athletes

Tom Boonen (Cycling)

As soon as he closes the book on his storied career, the best eulogy that will be given to Tom Boonen is the nationwide understanding that he undoubtedly merited his place amongst the pantheon of Belgium’s cycling Champions. After all, the three-time Sportsman of the Year (2005, 2007, 2012) provided his compatriots with so many magical journeys over the last fourteen years that they’ll miss watching him power up the hills of Flanders or turbocharge through the cobbles on the roads towards Roubaix.

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Tom Boonen took victory in the Paris-Roubaix for the fourth time in 2012

Born in Mol, Flanders, in 1980, Tom Boonen has rode all but one season of his professional career for Belgium-based Quick Step and it was draped in blue and/or black that he compiled a list of achievements few can match. The legend started taking shape in 2005, when he became the first man to win the Tour of Flanders, Paris-Roubaix and World Championships in the same year, and since then it hasn’t stopped growing. About to turn 36, he’s tied for the record of triumphs in two of cycling’s Monuments, having won the Paris-Roubaix on four occasions (2005, 2008, 2009 and 2012) – like compatriot Roger de Vlaeminkx – and the Tour of Flanders three times (2005, 2006, 2012) – similarly to five other men – yet he’s been far from just a single day specialist that hoarded classics in bunches from 2005 to 2012. At the top of his powers, Boonen was also a strong sprinter in bunch finales, tallying six Tour de France stage victories during his career and securing the green jersey in 2007, winning two National road race Championships and finishing in the podium twice at the Milan-San Remo (3rd in 2007 and 2nd in 2007).

With over 100 professional triumphs to his name, “Tornado Tom” is reaching the twilight of his career but he may have a final card up his sleeve: the one he revealed at the 2016 Paris-Roubaix, where he came so close to an unprecedented fifth triumph.

Nafissatou Thiam (Athletics)

Nafissatou Thiam may have exploded into the international scene at the Rio Olympics, but it should be attested her country had already noticed the gem in hands way before that.

The Namur-native, a daughter of a Belgian mother and a Senegalese father, entered her maiden multi-event competition at age nine and would grab the first headlines in 2013, when she broke the women’s pentathlon junior WR indoors at Ghent. The mark wouldn’t be ratified for lack of an anti-doping control, but it didn’t take long for the young Thiam to prove herself in the main senior stages, taking bronze in the heptathlon at the 2014 European Championships and ending the season as the Belgian Sportswoman of the Year.

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Nafissatou Thiam trumped a host of more experienced opponents to win gold at the 2016 Olympic Games

Still, the 22-year-old was considered an outsider heading into the 2016 Olympic Games, where a lifetime performance would deliver the Olympic title. Tapping on her superior length and power, she made ground on the throws (shot put and javelin throw), astonished on the jumps (long jump and high jump) and defended her position on the racing events to claim victory with a Belgium record of 6810 points and five new personal bests. If she keeps the upward trajectory, the charismatic and supremely talented “Nafi” has the tools to dominate the heptathlon for the next decade, and eventually became one of Belgium’s greatest athletes ever.

Eden Hazard (Football)

Picking one guy from the absolute collection of riches that forms the current Belgium football team isn’t an easy proposition, yet I deemed it necessary as a nod to the excellent work made by everyone involved with the revival of the game around the country.

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium's Red Devils

The slick Eden Hazard is one of the stars of Belgium’s Red Devils

A son of former footballers, Eden Hazard crossed the border to France at age 14 to join Lille’s youth academy and he needed just two years to guarantee a debut for the senior squad in 2007, quickly becoming a key player for the Ligue 1 outfit. Over the next five seasons, Hazard developed into one of the most vibrant players in France due to his pace and creativity, eventually leading the club to a league and cup double in 2010-11, which earned him Player of the Year honours.

After he backed up the individual performance in 2011-12, the giants of Europe lined up to sign him and it was Chelsea FC who snapped the young Belgian winger, who’s been a mainstay at the club since then. In London, Hazard conquered the 2013 Europa League, was elected Young Player of the season in 2014 and flourished during 2014-15, meriting the distinction as Best Player of the Season by powering Chelsea to victories on the League Cup and English Premier League with a bundle of devastating exhibitions.

At age 25, Hazard has already represented his country in two major competitions (2014 World Cup and Euro 2016) since his debut in 2007, and is widely considered one of the top offensive midfielders in World football, making use of his deft technique, mazy runs and clinical finishes.

Other Athletes: Thibault Courtois, Kevin de Bruyne (Football), Pieter Timmers (Swimming), Thomas Van der Plaetsen (Athletics), Charline Van Snick (Judo), Evi Van Acker (Sailing), David Goffin (Tennis), Greg Van Avermaet, Philippe Gilbert (road Cycling), Jolien D’Hoore (track Cycling), Sanne Cant (cyclo cross), Bart Swings (Speed Skating), Thomas Pieters (Golf), Jaouad Achab (Taekwondo), Delfine Persoon (Boxing)

Venues

Brussels, capital of the European Union, centre of international cooperation and major multicultural city, was the place of one of the most disgraceful events in the history of European football: the Heysel Stadium disaster, which occurred before the 1985 European Cup Final between Juventus and Liverpool and took 39 lives as fans of both sides engaged in vicious confrontations in the stands.

Such dark episode of hooliganism was possible because of the wretched conditions of Belgium’s national stadium at the time, a venue erected in 1930 which was crumbling in several sectors and in serious need of repairs by his 55th anniversary. With capacity for almost 60,000 people, the Heysel Stadium hosted 7 finals of European Club competitions and the 1972 European Championships Final until the tragic contingencies forced a shutdown only interrupted for sporadic athletics competitions.

By 1995, under the name of King Baudouin Stadium and completely renovated, the largest stadium in Belgium was reopened, in time to receive the 1996 Cup Winner’s Cup Final and  be a part of the 2000 UEFA European Championships, with the opening ceremony and one of the semi-finals taking place in Brussels. The seating capacity is now 50,000 and the infrastructure is used regularly by Belgium’s national team and for annual events such as the National Cup Final and Athletics’ Memmorial Van Damme meeting. Moreover, over the last two decades, the King Baudoin Stadium also hosted international rugby matches, a record-breaking exhibition tennis match between Kim Clijsters and Serena Williams in 2010, and several concerts from luminaries such as U2, Beyoncé and the Rolling Stones.

The King Baudouin Stadium clad in red for a game of the National Team

However, despite a fruitful second life, there are plans for a brand-new National Stadium to be built in Northern Brussels in time for the 2020 UEFA European Championships. The proposed “EuroStadium”, still without a date to break ground, should welcome more than 60,000 people and would ditch the athletics’ track, being used by the National Team and RSC Anderlecht.

Anderlecht currently plays at the Constant Vanden Stock Stadium, whose initial foundations date back to 1917 and the actual formulation from the latest major renovation in 1983, when all stands were built from scratch and covered. Situated at the border of the Astrid Park, the Stadium, which carries the name of a former Anderlecht chairman and player, hosts just 28,000, including 6,900 standing people; therefore in European matches less than 22,000 tickets can be sold.

The second stadium in Belgium is Liège’s Stade Maurice Dufrasne (or Stade de Sclessin, in honour of the district where it is located). Used by Standard Liège, the venue was opened in 1909 and revamped several times until 2000, when it hosted three games of the European Championships and the capacity was set in 30,000 seats.

Coming right behind in maximum occupation is the Jan Breydel Stadium in Brugge, home of top-flight clubs Cercle and Club Brugge. A venue opened in 1975 as “Olympiastadion” after Club Brugge won the National Championship, the stadium was renamed and expanded in 1998, before the Euro 2000, to reach the more than 29,000 fans it can welcome today.

The other two stadiums that can hold over 20,000 are still relatively new. The 25,000-seats Luminus Arena in Genk was concluded in 1999, while the impressive, state-of-the art Ghelamco Arena was inaugurated in 2013. The new home of KAA Gent counts 20,000 seats and has already been bestowed with the club’s maiden National title celebration in 2014-15, plus some UEFA Champions League action the following season.

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

The spectacular Ghelamco Arena in Gent is the new landmark of the Belgium city

Running contrary to the trend emerging in most European countries, Belgium doesn’t possess a premium indoor arena in its capital city, a big venue that can be relied upon to host big-time sporting events, instead dividing the main competitions held in the state for a handful of locations.

The largest multipurpose arena in Belgium (by seating capacity) is the Ethias Arena in Hasselt – the capital of the province of Limburg – which seats 16,000 but can hold up to 21,000. Built in 2004, is a modern hall part of a broader exposition centre that is preferably used for concerts and cultural fests rather than sports events.

In Antwerp, the Sportpaleis, opened in 1932, was originally built for sports, including a cycling track where the 1969 and 2001 World Championships were contested, but has been reshuffled to fit other purposes. The latest renovation, in 2013, increased the total capacity to over 23,000 people, but nowadays music fans are the ones entering the gates, as concerts book the place regularly, leaving other events to the odd date. Still, the Sportpaleis hosted the 2013 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships and, in early 2015, over 17,000 fans attended a record breaking basketball match.

Nonetheless, most sporting events in Antwerp are now held at the adjacent Lotto Arena, a 5,200 seats-venue opened in 2007. Basketball’s Antwerp Giants are the regular tenants of the place, with the infrastructure also used for WTA and ATP Tour tennis tournaments.

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The intimate Lotto Arena, in Antwerp, during a voleyball match

The Flanders Expo in Ghent, a convention center built in 1986, is another location that regularly hosts important sports demonstrations. The biggest hall of the complex, Hall 8, is capable of welcoming 13,000 and was the venue chosen for the Final Four of the 1988 FIBA Champions Cup as well as the 2015 Davis Cup final.

Elsewhere in the city, a smaller amphitheatre, the Flanders Sports Arena, is used primarily for indoor athletics’ competitions, with the best example being the 2000 European Athletics Indoor Championships, while the “Kuipke” is the main velodrome in Belgium. First opened in 1927 on the city’s Citadelpark, and renovated in 1965 following a destructive fire, it seats 3,000 fans during the popular Six Days of Ghent, a track cycling competition held every November.

In Wallonia, the biggest indoor arena is Charleroi’s RTL Spiroudome, inaugurated in 2006 and with capacity for 6300 people, usually the fans of basketball powerhouse Spirou Charleroi. Meanwhile,  in Liège, the Country Hall Ethias Liège is the place to go for sports presentations, as the multi-purpose arena renovated in 2005 is used by Liège Basket and received the 1973 FIBA European Champions Cup Final and the 1977 EuroBasket Final.

Also located in the French-speaking region of Belgium is one of the country’s most iconic venues, the circuit of Spa-Francorchamps, where the Formula One Belgium Grand Prix, the Spa 24 Hours, and a multitude of other motor racing competitions are held. Capable of welcoming around 70,000 fans, the racing track first used in 1922 is one of the most challenging circuits in the world, being a favourite of most drivers and fans for its hilly and twisty nature, as well as the background of the Ardennes forests.

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

An overview of the dashing Spa-Francorchamps circuit

And we couldn’t close out this section without a reference to the roads of Belgium, which are paved by cyclists competing almost on a daily basis. From the winding Flanders-based classics rich in short, cobbled hills, to the Ardennes one-day races populated with consecutive, steep climbs, the beautiful countryside of Belgium and its charming towns are part of a giant outdoor venue that showcases to the World the passion of millions of Belgians.

Yearly Events

The list of significant cycling races held in Belgium is so extensive that you can virtually attend a major sports spectacle (for free) every week, anywhere, from March to October.

However, if cycling isn’t your thing, the best option is football, with the Belgium Championship, a mid-level European league, running from late July to May. The clubs are mainly located in Flanders and the Brussels region, with Liège and Charleroi as the main exceptions.  Meanwhile, the Basketball League starts in October and ends in June, whereas Volleyball’s regular season goes from October to March, with the playoffs stretching the play to early May.

For a summary of the rest of Belgium’s main yearly sporting events, look below:

Tour of Flanders (Ronde Van Vlaanderen), Cycling

Flanders region, early April

Liège–Bastogne–Liège, Cycling

Wallonia, Ardennes region, late April

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

The peloton of the classic Liège-Bastogne-Liège is saluted by a mass of people

Spa 24h, Motorcycle Endurance Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit (near Stavelot, Liège Province), July

Belgian Grand Prix (Formula One World Championship), Automobile Racing

Spa-Francorchamps Circuit, August

Memorial Van Damme (IAAF Diamond League Meeting), Athletics

Brussels, September

Brussels Marathon, Athletics

Brussels, October

European Open (ATP Tour), Tennis

Antwerp, October

Six Days of Ghent, Track Cycling

Ghent, November

Cross Cup Brussels, Cross Country running

Laeken Park (Brussels), December

 

Rio 2016 Olympic Preview (IV): Athletics’ Finals to watch

The Rio de Janeiro Olympics have been in full swing for almost a week and it’s time for the stars of track and field to join the parade. From August 12 to August 21, the João Havelange Olympic Stadium, with an expanded capacity of 60,000 for the Games, will host the vast majority of the 47 events that comprise the Athletics’ program, with the exception being the marathon, scheduled to end at the Sambodrome, and the race walks that will take place at Pontal beach.

From the climatic sprint events to the long-distance races, the field events or the road runs, some 2000 athletes will compete in the sport of athletics, the biggest slice of Olympic populace. Every country is limited to three representatives per individual discipline and six for the relays, with 24 events planned for the men and 23 for the women, who skip the extraordinarily taxing 50 km race walk

In comparison with previous editions, the main innovation at these Games is the scheduling of eight finals in the six morning sessions (kicking off at 9:30 am local time, 13:30 BST), split evenly between men’s and women’s and spread across all days, something not seen since Seoul 1988. Naturally, the five road races (both marathons and the three race walks: 20km W, 20km M, 50km M) will also be contested in the early hours, as usual. Meanwhile, the night sessions will commence around 8:30pm local time (00:30am BST) and end, at worst, by 11pm – a much more reasonable compromise than the swimming sessions arranged in Rio -accommodating a larger percentage of fans looking to follow the proceedings across the Atlantic Ocean and cheer on Usain Bolt and company.

The Jamaican icon will say goodbye to the Olympics while looking to become the first man to win three gold medals in a trio of consecutive editions, and his alluring personality and showmanship will be deeply needed to deflect aside the dark clouds hanging over a sport plagued by claims of corruption at the highest levels and widespread doping allegations. The rampant state-run program that cost all Russian athletes the chance to compete in Rio turned away an heavyweight that won 16 medals in the sport at London 2016, but more nations are under suspicion, including long-distance powerhouse Kenya.

Usain Bolt, a global superstar summoned to rescue a sport flailing on the eye of the hurricane.

The field of candidates in some disciplines will be slightly depleted as a result of the absences, but a flurry of magnificent performances is still expected in Rio. Thus, in this article, I tried to shed some light on some of the most tension-packed events that may be carried out over the next 9 days. From the 47 sets of medals in the balance, I handpicked seven disciplines that should provide ample entertainment to the audiences and expanded on the names apt to contend for victory or honourable positions. Later, a few quick considerations were added regarding another dozen of events, which for a variety of reasons can also be considered appointment viewing for athletics’ enthusiasts.

All starting times from here onwards are BST (Rio +4)

Men’s 100m, 2:25am, August 14

Oh right, the “most electrifying 10 seconds in sports”. Where else could we start.

Usain Bolt will chase history, trying to become the first runner to win the same individual event three consecutive times, but the polarizing Justin Gatlin will again play the role of the devil, trying to squash another meeting with history. The 34-year-old American, who served a four-year doping ban from 2006 to 2010, already knows the taste of Olympic gold in the 100m – he triumphed in Athens 2004 – but his experience wasn’t enough to repel the nerves at the World Championship final last year, getting pipped by Bolt despite leaving the blocks as the favourite. Similarly to 2015, Gatlin is the fastest man in the World entering the grand stage, recording 9.80s and 9.83s this season, but Bolt has shown time and time again that he owns the big moments and battling time constraints to recover his best form –his preparation has been disrupted by a hamstring tear- isn’t anything new for him. In 2012, Yohan Blake seemed on top but Bolt charged ahead to renew his honours, and the Jamaican doesn’t get rattled that people are once again favouring another man.

Bolt’s 9.88s rank him just fourth this season, with another American, Trayvon Bromell, appearing right after Gatlin with the 9.84s posted at the US Trials. The 21-year-old Bromell, who stands at just 175 cm, held his coming out party in Beijing last season, winning bronze alongside Canada´s Andre de Grasse, who’s yet to match the 9.92s of last summer but likewise has time on his side. Yohan Blake was once Bolt’s main foe but since 2012 he has slid into the background due to several injuries, arriving in Rio settled on the second row of contenders with the 9.94s dispatched in Kingston last June, exactly the same time as teammate Nickel Ashmeade, another man looking for a final berth.

USA’s Trayvon Bromell and Canada’s Andre de Grasse have been hailed as the leaders of the generation of sprinters that will take over after Bolt and Gatlin

South Africa’s Akani Simbine (9.89s) and Qatar’s Femi Ogunude (9.91s) clocked eye-popping times this season and are definitely two names to keep under consideration, while France’s Jimmy Vicault tied the European record of 9.86s for the second consecutive year. However, the 24-year-old sprinter disappointed at the European Championships, leaving Amsterdam only with bronze (10.08) after getting edged by Dutch veteran Churandy Martina (10.07). Former World Championship medallists Asafa Powell (Jamaica) and Tyson Gay (USA) couldn’t qualify during their nations’ trials, while Saint Kitts and Nevis’ eternal speedster, Kim Collins, is still running below 10 seconds  – 9.93s in 2016 – at age 40 (!), two decades after his Olympic debut.

Men’s 400 m, 2:00am, August 14

Some years ago, Usain Bolt vented the possibility of making an attempt to add the 400m to his repertoire, but the Jamaican never actually raced the event at a major international meeting despite some promising returns in early 2015. His presence in Rio would have transformed what should be an explosive matchup into a full-blown supernova, but pitting the two most recent Olympic Champions and the reigning World Champion is more than enough for a lot of fireworks. In Beijing, LaShawn Merritt, Kirani James and Wayde van Niekerk broke 44 seconds, something that had never been done before in a single race by three athletes, and much of the same is expected in Rio, with Michael Johnson’s 17-year-old World record (43.18s) serving as an inspiring mirage.

With 43.48s, the fourth best mark of all-time, the South African van Niekerk took gold on that occasion and the rising superstar kept impressing this season, becoming the first sprinter to post sub-10 (100 meters), sub-20 (200 meters) and sub-44-second races in history. The 23-year-old is the favourite but the only man below 44s this season is Merritt (43.97), who has medalled in this race on the last five World Championships. The defending Olympic Champion, Grenada’s Kirani James, clocked 44.08 this season and is eager to regain the leading position he enjoyed in 2011 and 2012, when he was still a teenager.

Wayde van Niekerk beat Olympic Champion Kirani James in Beijing. Can a do over be in the cards at Rio?

Behind the Big Three, the field is stocked with young talent, from 20-year-old Machel Cedenio from Trinidad and Tobago – 44.36 last season – to Botswana’s Babolocki Thebe, the 19-year-old African Champion that has run 44.22 in altitude in 2016. Dominican Republic’s Luguelín Santos (22 years old) clocked 44.11 at Beijing to come fourth on the 2015 World final, and was the runner up to James in London 2012. From the fifteen fastest man this season, are also heading to Rio de Janeiro Bralon Taplin (23 years-old, Grenada), Steven Gardiner (22, Bahamas), Nery Brenes (Costa Rica), Gil Roberts (USA), Lalonde Gordon (Trinidad, bronze in 2012) and Javone Francis (22, Jamaica), while Europe’s finest are conspicuously missing.

Only Rabah Yousig (Great Britain, but born in Sudan) represented the continent in the 2015 final, and they can be completely shut out at Rio, even if two-time European Champion Martyn Rooney, fellow Brit Matthew Hudson-Smith, Czech Republic’s Pavel Maslák and Belgium’s Jonathan and Kévin Borlée can sneak in if they approach their personal bests.

Men’s Pole Vault, 00:35h, August 15

Rénaud Lavillenie has dominated the men’s pole vault since 2009, collecting Diamond League titles and leading the World Rankings, but he’s had a tough time extending that to most major competitions, with the Olympic title in London operating as the crucial exception. The 29-year-old French – also the WR holder since 2014 with 6.16m indoors – failed again spectacularly at the European Championships last month, declining to start before the bar was set at 5.75m, which he failed to clear. However, crucial blunders aside, the four-time World Championship medallist still wins much more than he loses, and will arrive in Rio as the clear-cut favourite, with a bevy of opponents expecting to feast if he again withers under pressure.

The reigning World Champion, Canada’s Shawnacy Barber, is one of those, having become this season the youngest ever to clear 6m. He did it indoors, but the 5.91m outdoors this summer are nothing to sneeze at, while American Champion Sam Hendricks, 23, posted a career-best 5.92m this season, placing alongside the Frenchman at the indoor World Championships podium in Portland. Brazilian Thiago Braz da Silva, 23, is yet to compete in the final of a major Championship, but the 5.93m he cleared in February are an indication that he can thrill the home crowd.

Canada’s Shawn Barber is looking to upset Renaud Lavillenie for the second consecutive summer

As for the rest of the European contingent, the main threats for Lavillenie come from the German-Polish axis. Germany’s Raphael Holzdeppe, bronze medallist in London 2012, pipped Lavillenie in the 2013 World Championships and came second last year in Beijing, but has seen his preparation hampered by an ankle injury. Nonetheless, someone with his resume can never be dismissed. The German trio is completed with National Champion Tobias Scherbarth and Karsten Dilla, while the Polish team signed up Piotr Lisek, bronze medallist in the 2015 Worlds shortly after clearing 5.90m indoors, and Paweł Wojciechowski, who tied Lisek and Lavillenie in Beijing with 5.80 m, and is a former World Champion with a career mark of 5.91m dating from 2011. The other Polish in the competition is the 2016 European Champion Robert Sobera, who claims a personal best of 5.80m outdoors, while Czech Jan Kudlica is an outsider having cleared 5.83m this season. Kévin Menaldo, Lavillenie’s teammate, jumped 5.81m last year and is one of the candidates to reach the final and eventually soar a little higher.

Rénaud Lavillenie may be the only man in the World capable of passing the 6m barrier regularly – despite having yet to do so outdoors this season – but in a potential firebrand event like this, the bar might be raised to heights he hasn’t experienced before.

Men’s Triple Jump, 13:50pm, August 16

The suspense behind this event doesn’t particularly rest on stiff competition for gold, but on the potential for a new World Record. In 1995, Great Britain’s Jonathan Edwards jumped an outstanding 18.29m in Göteborg, and since then few have even toed the 18m barrier, much else impend the mark. However, in 2015, two men posted 18+ jumps and the American Christian Taylor came within 8cm of the WR at the World Championships, returning 12 months later ready to replicate his Olympic title and take another crack at the history books.

Defending Olympic Champion Christian Taylor is eyeing a shot at the triple jump world record

Taylor’s season best is 17.78m, a bit far from the target, but the major competition environment promises to power up his attempts, something he’d probably need anyway just to solve his closest challengers. His compatriot Will Claye landed at 17.65m this season and dreams of bettering the outcome of London, when he collected silver. He also boasts bronze medals from the 2011 and 2013 World Championships, and can surely expect to surpass a personal-best of 17.75m (2014). The American pair can provide a tense finish, but Cuba’s Pedro Pablo Pichardo might join them as he seems due for an encore from last year’s breakthrough, when he led the World final until the final round. Doubling down on the 17.73m of Beijing should merit a medal, but he’s shown to be capable of more, delivering a thunderous 18.08 mark in May 2015, the fourth best jump of all-time. Pichardo has been off the grid this season but is obviously someone to keep an eye on.

The 2013 World Champion, France’s Teddy Tamgho, will be absent with a fractured leg, and the event will miss the supremely talented 27-year-old with a personal best of 18.04m, yet the depth of the field (41 men did the 16.85m necessary to qualify) guarantees that the battle for premium positions will be vibrant. The third best triple jumper this season is India’s newcomer Renjith Maheswary (17.30m), who is followed by China’s Bin Dong (17.24m) – the 2016 indoor World Champion – and the third American, Chris Bernard (17.21m). Meanwhile, Germany’s Max Heß was recently crowned European Champion with 17.20m.

The dark horses for podium positions are two men that have yet to fly past the 17m this season, the 2008 Olympic Champion Nélson Évora (Portugal), third last year at the World Championships with 17.52m, and Cuba’s Alexis Copello, a former World bronze medallist with a personal best of 17.68m from 2011.

Women’s 100m, 2:35am, 13th August

Shelly Ann Fraser-Pryce’s success has naturally been overshadowed by her compatriot’s heroics, but Jamaica’s “Pocket Rocket” is also angling for a third consecutive Olympic title in the 100m, which similarly hasn’t happened in any women’s individual event in Athletics’ Olympic history. Fraser-Pryce has dominated the field in this race over the last eight years, adding three World Championship titles, but her ascendancy may be on the tail end, as became evident at the Jamaican trials where she was outperformed by compatriot Elaine Thompson.

Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce’s 100m Olympic crown will be under fire in Rio

A 24-year-old sprinter that broke through spectacularly last season with the 200m silver medal at the World Championships, Thompson didn’t compete in the 100m at the time, but blitzed to 10.70s in July to tie the national record and set the world lead, in the process climbing to the top of the pile on this event. Jamaica boasts two leading candidates for the 100m, but the USA banks an equally impressive pool hoping to recapture a title that has escaped since 1996, showcasing three athletes that have run below 10.80 this season. Tori Bowie, bronze medallist in Beijing, put 10.78 at the American trials in Eugene, but that wasn’t enough to win or even settle for silver by her own, since English Gardner crossed the line in 10.74, and Tianna Bartoletta, the reigning long jump World Champion, tied Bowie for second.

Cote d’Ivoire’s Murielle Ahouré is the other woman that has posted in the 10.7s range this season, and at age 28 seems more than capable of snatching the first medal on major international competitions. However, on the pre-race pecking order, she’s also squarely behind Fraser-Pryce – 10.93s as season best while bothered by persistent toe pain – and Dafne Schippers, the surprising silver medallist in Beijing. The Dutch (10.83 in 2016) sprinter skipped this event at the European Championships to focus on the 200m, but will be on the blocks at Rio, looking to be a thorn on the Jamaica-USA Cold War as soon as she reaches top speed.

Daphne Schippers (L) and Elaine Thompson (R) are two women expected to make some on the 100m in Rio

The three medals should be allotted to some combination of the seven women referred, but if the race isn’t as fast as expected, a few more faces can butt in, including Trinidad and Tobago’s Kelly Ann-Baptiste (bronze in the 2011 Worlds) and Michelle-Lee-Ahye (10.96s in 2016), Ahouré’s teammate Marie-Josee Ta Lou (10.96s), and Nigeria’s Blessing Okagbare, a former Olympic medallist in the long jump (Beijing, 2008). The veteran Veronica Campbell-Brown, the two time 200m Olympic Champion (2004, 2008) and twice bronze medallist in the 100m (2004, 2012), missed out on a 100m spot during Jamaica’s trials.

The 2012 London Final saw first and last separated at the finish line by 0.26 seconds, and in Rio things could get even tighter.

Women’s Heptathlon, August 12 and 13*

*First event (100m hurdles) at 13:35 on the inaugural day of the meeting, the last heat of the final event (800m) starts at 3:18 am on the following day

The competition that crowns the more well-rounded female (track and field) athlete was a highly-prized showdown heading into the Beijing World Championships, but it ended up well short of expectations. The three ”double-barrelled” contenders are back in the fold and Rio can finally feature a two-day bloodbath for gold between Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill and Katarina Johnson-Thompson, and Canada’s Brianne Theisen-Eaton.

Ennis-Hill returns to the Olympic stage four year after charming her way to the title as the poster girl of the London Olympics, and in that period she gave birth and regained form in time to stun Theisen-Eaton at the 2015 Worlds. Now 30 years old, Ennis-Hill recently achieved a personal-best on the long-jump, an indication that she’s still improving even if matching the 6995 points of London can prove tricky. The Sheffield-native posted 6669 to win in Beijing and has already improved to 6733 in 2016, yet those marks have been bested by Theisen-Eaton over both seasons. However, the Canadian finished just second at the Worlds and will have to cope better with the pressure to seize her first major international triumph, emulating her husband, USA’s Ashton Eaton, the prohibitive favourite to win the decathlon in Rio.

Great Britain’s Jessica Ennis-Hill is poised to take a run at a second Olympic title

The 23-year-old Katarina Johnson-Thompson possesses the raw potential to aspire victory, but inconsistency and an inability to stay fit has ruined some of her opportunities. In Beijing, she was right in the tick of the action before three fouls on the long jump – by far her best event – ended her chances. She has already improved several personal records this season, and if Johnson-Thompson can put it all together in Rio, watch out.

Latvia’s Laura Ikauniece-Admidina, who secured bronze in Beijing, has already posted a personal best of 6622 this season and may again leave with some silverware, while Netherland’s Anouk Vetter amassed 6626 points to triumph at the European Championships, her first major result. Fellow Dutch Nadine Broersen was fourth at the 2015 Worlds coming within a whisker of 6500 points, a barrier Germany’s Carolin Schäfer cleared last May. The 21-year-old Nafissatou Thiam, of Belgium, is a youngster poised for a breakout, while the 2013 World Champion, Ukraine’s Hanna Melnychenko, has been toiling away in the last couple of years.  France’s Antoinette Nana Djimou was fifth in London 2012 and boasts two European titles in her résumé, thus she’s expected to fight for a top eight position.

Women’s 800m, 1:15am, August 20

An event expected to deliver a mesmerizing one-woman show is indelibly coated with a storyline impossible to ignore: Caster Semenya’s controversial return to the spotlight.

The South African rose to prominence in 2009 after taking the 800m at the World Championships as an 18-year-old, and that victory attracted a whirlwind of questions about her genre, which ultimately forced the IAAF to command testing to determine her sex. The outcome is well-documented, with Semenya’s body found responsible for producing high levels of testosterone, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport responded by mandating that she needed to undergo regular hormonal therapy to adjust her levels back to “normal”.

Semenya’s performances suffered after the verdict, especially following the 2012 Olympics where she took silver, but last summer the “female hyperandrogenism” policy was suspended and his form shot up, with the 25-year-old breaking her personal best  – without even unleashing her blazing closing speed – to become the 12th best of all-time (1:55.33) on the 800m. She became virtually invincible in international meetings and at the South African Nationals Semenya actually bagged the 400m, 800m and 1500m in a single afternoon.  She ditched the other events ahead of the Olympics to focus on the two-lap race in Rio, but there’s no doubt she’s in the shape of her life.

Caster Semenya’s imperious form is about to make resurface old naysayers.

Semenya’s languishing times may be a thing of the past, but her recent renaissance is bound to ruffle some feathers as she’s expected to claim the 800m title in imposing fashion, possibly smashing the 33-year-old World Record to boot. Many in the Athletics world believe she benefits from an unfair advantage, and controversy will once again break in full force when she dazzles at the Olympic stage.

With all eyes cropped on Semenya, the fight for the lower podium positions is spearheaded by Burundi’s Francine Niyonsaba, the only other woman to run sub -1:57 this season. Four years after finishing sixth in London, the 23-year-old is widely regarded to become his country’s maiden female Olympic medallist in any sport,.

Kenya’s Eunice Sum, the 2013 World Champion, is the fourth fastest woman this season, with her teammate Margaret Wambui, just 20 years old, placing right behind. The reigning World Champion, Belarus’ Maryna Arzamasava, should also contend, while Canada´s Melissa Bishop, silver in Beijing, posted a career-best 1:57.43 last month to ascend to third in the World Rankings. Nataliya Pryshchepa, the 2016 European Champion, is one to watch as she navigates her first senior world competition, while the British and American delegations can use the strength in numbers to disturb strategies and define the rhythm of the competition.

 

The best of the rest:

Usain Bolt’s path for a triple three-peat will be equally tortuous on his favourite race, the Men’s 200m (August 18, 02:30am), despite his ambition to go out with a new World Record in the 18 seconds range. Yohan Blake and Justin Gatlin will also compete on this race but don’t sleep on LaShawn Merritt (a WL PB of 19:74 this season) and 21-year-old Miguel Francis (19.88) of Antigua and Barbuda.

Bolt’s last Olympic appearance is scheduled to be on the Men’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:35am), where the USA and Jamaica (who took gold in 2008 and 2012) will renew hostilities if the American’s manage to keep hold of the baton and not bomb out. Both teams clocked 37.3 seconds last year and look evenly matched, therefore it may all come down to the Bolt-Gatlin (Bromell) final dash.  Great Britain has the two best times this season at around 37.8, but is also known to regularly drop out of contention.

On Usain Bolt’s era, Jamaica’s 4x100m relay has pounded rivals USA

On the Women’s 4 x 100m relay (August 19, 02:15am), the USA ladies are the defending Champions and favoured to repeat, but a group with Elaine Thompson, Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce and Veronica Campbell-Brown won’t surrender easily. Trinidad and Tobago, Great Britain and a Dutch squad anchored by Dafne Schippers should contend for bronze.

Before that, the Netherland’s difference-maker will try to add the Olympic title to her World crown in the Women’s 200m (August 17, 02:30am). Schippers has edged her rivals so far this season with a WL 21.93s, but can’t rest against the American trio headlined by Tori Bowie (21.99s) and the Jamaicans Thompson and Campbell-Brown.

Allyson Felix edged Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller at the 2015 World Championships

Allyson Felix, the reigning 200m Olympic Champion, missed out on a spot for that race and will have to settle for the Women’s 400m (August 15, 02:45am), where she’ll try to become the first woman in athletics history to win five Olympic gold medals. However, Felix will be pushed to the brink by Bahamas’ Shaunae Miller, the world leader in 49.55s, with Phyllis Francis and Natasha Hastings also threatening her compatriot.

The always volatile Women’s 100m hurdles (August 17, 02:55am) will miss the last two Olympic Champions (Australia’s Sally Pearson and USA’s Dawn Harper Nelson), the reigning World Champion Danielle Williams (Jamaica) and the new World record (12.20) holder, Kendra Harrison (USA), who shattered the mark just days after being supplanted at the US trials. The Americans could comfortably fill the eight final spots  – the seven fastest women this season hail from the USA – but are limited to three participants, with Brianna Rollins (12.34) as the athlete to beat.

On the mid-distance races deserve recognition the Men’s 800m (August 15, 02:25am) and the women’s 1500m (August 16, 02:30am), where two WR holders are seemingly in danger of being upstaged. Genzebe Dibaba (Ethiopia), the 1500m World Champion, is nursing a toe injury and has been overshadowed by Kenya’s Faith Kipyegon, the world leader who’s yet to be defeated this season. Meanwhile, David Rudisha (Kenya), who authored a masterpiece on the 800m at the London Games, is being pressured like never before by compatriots Alfred Kipketer and Ferguson Rotich, 1-2 at the National trials in front of Rudisha. Botswana’s Nijel Amos, silver in 2012, is also a contender.

Four years after lighting up the Olympic stadium in London, Mo Farah is widely expected to collect another double triumph in the Men’s 10 000m (August 13, 01:27am) and  Men’s 5000m (August 20, 01:30am), something only the “Flying Finn” Lasse Viren manage to complete in consecutive editions (1972 and 1976). Farah also picked up both victories at the 2013 and 2015 World Championships, and his rivals should be growing beyond annoyed of having to witness his mighty final sprint followed up by the iconic “Mobot” celebration. The prole of Ethiopians and Kenyans getting used to aspirate the sole of Farah’s shoes has the word once again.

Mo Farah leaving his rivals in the dust. An image replicated a lot since London 2012

Amongst the bevy of throw events, the major attentions befall on both shot put contests. On the Women’s Shot Put (August 12, 02:00am), New Zealand’s Valerie Adams is charging for an unmatched third consecutive individual title. However, her once unimpeachable place on top of the pedestal is a thing of the past, with reigning World Champion Christina Schwanitz (Germany) and world leader Gong Lijiao posing serious challenges. On the Men’s Shot Put (August 18, 00:30am), the 2015 World Champion Joe Kovacs is the front-runner, having consistently thrown above 22 meters, but he will be pushed by fellow American Ryan Crouser, Germany’s David Storl, a consistent top-2 performer in major competitions, and the trio of Polish heavyweights: 2008 and 2012 Olympic champion Tomasz Majewski, 19-year-old phenomenon Konrad Bukowiecki and 24-year-old Michal Haratyk.

The Men’s discus throw (August 13, 14:50) is one of the most unpredictable events in the calendar, with defending champion Robert Harting (Germany) fighting to regain the supremacy.  The world leader is the reigning World champion Piotr Malachowski (Poland) and the younger Harting brother, Christoph, comes next, with the two other podium finishers from Beijing, Philip Milanov (Belgium) and Robert Urbanek (Poland), also craving an Olympic medal.

The last event of the Athletics Olympic program, the Men’s Marathon (August 21, 13:30pm) is known to deliver surprising winners, with the defending Olympic champion Stephen Kiprotich (Uganda) functioning has a ready-made example. Kiprotich isn´t expected to repeat in Rio since world-leader (2:03:05) – and London Marathon winner – Eliud Kipchoge and fellow Kenyan Stanley Biwott appear on the pole position. On the contrary, Dennis Kimetto, the world record holder (2:02:57) since Berlin 2014, was left out of the Kenyan squad.

 

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Rio 2016 Olympic preview (I): A (personal) list of athletes to follow

The world’s quadrennial sports smörgåsbord is about to get underway in Rio de Janeiro – well, technically as I write this, it has already started – as over 10 000 athletes have descended on the first South American host city looking to extol the virtues of four years (or a lifetime) of intense, unappreciated preparation. Seven years after the so-called “Cidade Maravilhosa” was selected to welcome the world’s fittest individuals, the novel tradition of derogatory buzz about the conditions waiting the delegations is already surfacing in every media outlet, yet (hopefully) just a few hours remain for everyone to focus on the spirit of this incomparable event.

The Olympics. A communal celebration of the World we live in, its outstanding diversity and history, but also an expression of global unity as representations from 206 countries /nations converge to compete for eternal glory and national pride through the pursuit of athletic excellence, expressed on one of Humanity’s most powerful drivers, sports. Or simply, borrowing the London 2012 motto: The Olympics. Inspire a Generation (too corny?).

During 19 days of competition, not only 306 new Olympic Champions will be crowned, but countless stories will arise, get shared, debated and imprinted on the collective memory, iconic images and heroes will be shot and etched, humans will sense unbridled joy and despair, succumb to sadness and anger or soar to touch the paradise. The Olympic Games should be about this for a fortnight and not the financial, social and political hardships of the hosts, the environmental missteps, the administrative shortcomings, the health concerns that significantly depleted the field of competitors on disciplines like tennis and golf, Russia’s appalling doping issues or even the undercurrent allegations of corruption and fraud that plague the Olympic movement.

For a few weeks every four years, exceptional individuals get to showcase their abilities in front of a global audience that reaches 3 650 million, and we get a front row seat into their life, to experience their victories and the crushing weight of their failures. Heck, at the opening ceremony, entering the Olympic Stadium shortly after the legendary Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt, will be 10 athletes with refugee status, courageous men and women who will compete in Rio under the Olympic flag, a redeeming story with so much of unique and inspirational and that still shouldn’t have ever come to life.

This time Brazilian athletes will be the last to touch the Olympic Stadium

Anyway, time to drop the babbles of someone way-too-excited and finally getting to the gist of this article, the first part of the Olympic preview, which will focus on the athletes I’ll keep my eye on during the Olympic Games.

With 42 sport disciplines represented in the Games, it goes without saying that it’s impossible to grasp and highlight every notable athlete (well, they are all notable, actually, since they got to this distinctive stage) while getting a clear picture of what they represent to their sport. Yet, tapping into my knowledge and a bit of research, I compiled a list of eight names (or seven plus a team) that I’m keen to see perform at Rio de Janeiro, based on factors like the personal stakes in the game, the relevancy of their performances at the national level, the worldwide visibility of their results, or simply my own preferences, quirks and interests.

In short, if you’re expecting weightlifters, wrestlers, boxers (sensing a theme here?), diving competitors, synchronized swimmers, rhythmic gymnasts or guys that stroll mounted on horses, you’re out of luck.

Some of the names on the list already enjoy worldwide popularity, others may be on their way and in some cases that won’t ever happen, but all of them have the chance to leave Rio with silverware. I found a way to balance the genres and the athletes compete in different sports, but in terms of nationality wasn’t as successful. Meanwhile, keep in mind that in the next posts I’ll have the opportunity to sift through a bunch of other remarkable athletes.

Without further ado, here is my batch of eight.

Kevin Durant (USA, Basketball)

The main figure of the 2016 summer in USA’s sports landscape arrives in Rio with something to prove after leaving his own Ducat in Oklahoma City and taking his talents to the behemoth Golden State Warriors. An Olympic Champion in 2012, when he was still an emerging superstar fresh of an NBA Final appearance, the career of Durant peaked in 2014 with an MVP award before things sizzled due to nagging injuries.

Kevin Durant will have a chip on his shoulder in Rio

From a contender to LeBron James’ crown as the Planet’s premium basketball player, he became a second-row spectator on James’s show and surplus of Steph Curry’s meteoric rise. The decision to join Curry’s band of brothers will always be a paradigm shifting move on his life, but the start of that new chapter will only come after an attention-grabbing tournament where he’s the main lure.

Despite still being the mightiest group, the American roster in Rio will be missing so much primetime talent (LeBron James, Steph Curry, Russell Westbrook, Kawhi Leonard, Chris Paul, James Harden, Anthony Davis…) that it can quickly become Durant’s team, for better or worse. He’ll be the fulcrum of the media, the man tasked with the money balls (if they even occur) and his relationship with future teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green will be scrutinized before he even enters their own club’s locker room. The 27-year-old better make good use of his closing days as the alfa dog.

Dafne Schippers (Netherlands, Athletics)

For a long time, the sprint events at international competitions have been subjugated by athletes hailing from North and Central America – with Africans sprinkled in – but this blonde phenomenon from the Netherlands has recently pestered their safe heaven.

The 24-year-old Schippers broke into the world stage as a heptathlon competitor, even meriting the third place at the 2013 World Championships, but in 2014 decided to focus on the burgeoning sprinting chops she had been displaying since adolescence. Winning the 100m and 200m in the European Championships was just the first step on a ladder that continued with the furious late charge to take the 200m World title a year later on a national and continental record time of 21.63s, the third best mark of all-time. Additionally, in the 100m, the Utrecht-native was second despite a slow start, and thus jumped to the vanguard of contenders on both races ahead of these Olympics.

It’s entirely possible that a tall, white woman with acne marks dotted on her face will stand on top of the podium in Rio de Janeiro as the Sprint Queen, and that is really cool, no matter the callous, unproven allegations her swift ascension has brought forward.

Neymar (Brazil, football)

A 20-year-old Neymar reacts during the 2012 Olympic Final

Hailed as the poster boy of the Olympics at age 24, the Barcelona superstar is the trump card his country will play to end the chase for a gold medal in the national sport, but it’s about more than that for him. The intrepid winger has personal history to erase, from the loss to Mexico at the 2012 Final to the disappointment of being forced to the sidelines while a catastrophe submerged the “Canarinha” at the 2014 World Cup. Extremely productive for his national team (46 goals in 70 caps), no other football player competing in Rio is even remotely at the same level – the second best in Rio may be South Korea’s overaged forward Heung-min Son and some staunch football fans would be pressed to name his current club – as the third place finisher in last year’s FIFA Ballon d’Or election.

Brazil pretty much punted the 2016 Copa America to get him here and with that comes the burden of carrying the hopes of a nation of 200M, something he’s experienced before. He’ll deliver, mark it in ink (or don’t).

Simone Biles (USA, Gymnastics)

The history of the Olympic Games, whether you particularly enjoy Gymnastics or not, has been written on several occasions by the superb displays of grace, agility and balance paraded by the athletes of this sport. Nadia Comaneci is one of the most recognized Olympians of all-time and every four years female gymnasts carry on with her legacy, delighting worldwide audiences that seldom watch the sport. Some of those gymnasts have turned into fleeting darlings that never again touch the Olympic stage, but it would be a shame if that’s the destiny of Simone Biles.

The 19-year-old Simone Biles is Gymnastics undisputed Queen

The diminutive (145cm high) gymnast will make her Olympic debut after absolutely crushing her competition since 2013. A three-time all-around World Champion, Biles has already collected the most gold medals (10) of any female in World Championships history, adding multiple all-around, team, balance beam and floor triumphs due to her unmatched power and creativity. At age 19, she’s the building block on the USA’s challenge for a second consecutive team triumph, and the Texas-native can leave Rio with up to four gold medals, consolidating her case as one of the best gymnasts of all-time. Look for her face to be plastered on Rio 2016 memorabilia.

Roger Federer / Martina Hingis (Switzerland, Tennis)

Damnit. The charmed reunion of two of the craftiest players to ever grace the tennis courts – who have combined for 39 total Grand Slam wins – is not happening in Rio..or ever, for that matter. Shame. Moving on.

Mark Cavendish (Great Britain, Cycling (track))

Despite growing up as a track racer, the Manx Missile’s illustrious career has been erected on his impressive skills as a pacey finisher on the road, having amassed a plethora of stage wins in all three Grand Tours, a Monument victory in the 2009 Milan-San Remo, and the title of World Champion in 2011. All of this definitely wouldn’t have been possible without putting behind the ambitions indoors, which happened following a disappointing 2008 Olympics, but destiny has given him another opportunity.

Great Britain’s Mark Cavendish will be looking for his maiden Olympic medal

In Beijing, he and partner Bradley Wiggins, the reigning World Champions in Madison, were only ninth despite holding justified medal hopes, and Cav promised to never come back to the track. Then, in 2012, his Olympic dreams were once again ruined as the home boys fought tirelessly on the road to force a sprint finish, but were ultimately unable to control a wild competition. At age 31, the Rio de Janeiro Games presented a last chance, but the design of the course outside proved too tough for Cavendish to handle, facilitating the decision to take his word back. Having returned to the track competitions last year, he was able to narrowly obtain the passport to Rio, where he’ll compete in the omnium and the team pursuit.

If the third time’s the charm and he can add Olympic silverware to a résumé that includes an outstanding total of 30 stage wins at the Tour de France, Cavendish may force the Queen’s hand. He would surely relish the title of “Sir”, joining fellow cyclists and (multiple Olympic medallists) Bradley Wiggins and Chris Hoy.

Katie Ledecky (USA, Swimming)

While watching a 15-year-old Katie Ledecky triumph in the gruelling 800m freestyle race of the London Olympics, one couldn’t help to feel excited for what would be coming ahead. Four years later, the unassuming youngster from Washington-DC is the leading face of her entire sport, the one where a certain Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all-time, is still active.

Katie Ledecky, perhaps the greatest athlete in the World at the moment. Would you believe it?

This would only be possible because Ledecky is a once-in-a-lifetime talent, even if absolutely no one would believe it looking at her physique, distant from the broad torso, long-limbed freaks that ruled the pools before her. She doesn’t need that to demolish world record after world record, to finish race after race with ungodly advantages, to blow away the audience (and her rivals) with efficient strokes, sheer pace and unmatched stamina.

Ledecky will probably sweep the 200m, 400m and 800m freestyle races in Rio de Janeiro, and if the 1500m were part of the women’s calendar, she would win that one too, regardless of the need to get in the water three or four times per day to race heats and finals of individual and relay events. Her unprecedented range at elite level is something to behold, and every sports fan should jump at the chance to watch history. After all, she’s “better at swimming than anyone else is at anything”.

Fiji Rugby Seven’s National Team (Fiji Islands, Rugby)

Since first debuting at the Olympics in 1956, the athletes that have represented Fiji, a Pacific Ocean country of 0.9M citizens, haven’t been able to collect a single medal to warm the heart of the nation. However, at Rio de Janeiro, history can be just around the corner, as the national rugby seven’s team is the favourite to take the inaugural Olympic title.

The rugby seven’s Fiji National Team, a group hoping to reach the Olympic pinnacle and make proud an entire nation once again

On a sport that returns to the Games for the first time since 1924, this time on the quicker, more wide-open version of seven-men aside, Fiji is able to regularly beat the usual heavyweights of the rugby of 15, where they rank 10 in the World. Nations like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa are still forces to be reckoned with, but the last two HSBC World Rugby Sevens Series titles were conquered by the Fijians, who due to their consummate speed, skill and flair thrive on a full-sized field over two short seven-minute halves.

Some of the alluring members of the team already ply their trade abroad for the best European Teams, but nothing compares to the potential happy ending with Fiji standing on their maiden Olympic podium. The pursuit of glory by the Pacific minnows boasts every ingredient to develop into the feel-good story of the Olympic Games.

Majlinda Kelmendi (Kosovo, Judo)

The Olympic Committee of Kosovo was the 205th organization to become a full member of the International Olympic Committee, having joined in December 2014, thus the Rio Olympics symbolize the first opportunity for Kosovar athletes to compete under their nation’s flag. Carrying the banner on the opening ceremony will be Kelmendi, a two-time World Champion in the -52kg category, and the country’s best medal hope amongst an eight-people delegation.

Majlinda Kelmendi will return to the place of her international breakthrough

The 25-year-old Judoka represented Albania in the 2012 Olympic Games, going out in the second round, and since then has transformed into his discipline’s most feared combatant, leading the World rankings over the last while. In 2013, incidentally at Rio de Janeiro, Kelmendi beat the home favourite Erika Miranda to claim her first World title, and she repeated the feat in 2014 at Chelyabinsk, also adding two European Championships in 2014 and 2016. The weight of the expectations of 2M people hardened by the war, and still awaiting full-independence ratification, will stand on Kelmendi’s powerful shoulders, and you only need to check her “game face” to understand she’s more than ready for it.

Her aggressive, ferocious, resolute style on the tatami channels her personality, and nothing less is expected from someone born on a town, Peja, decimated during the Kosovo War in 1999.

 

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European Tour of Sports – Croatia

The Basics

Population: 4.3 M

Area: 56 594 km2

Capital: Zagreb

Summer Olympic Medals: 23 (6 G-7 S-10 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 11 (4 G-6 S-1 B)

 

Popular sports and History

One of the states that achieved independence during the desegregation of the Republic of Yugoslavia, some Croatian national teams even preceded the declaration of liberation (June 1991) for a few months, playing under their country’s flag since 1990. The Croatian Olympic Committee, though, was only founded in September of 1991 and a few weeks later the athletes were already marching in Albertville, France – on the opening ceremony of 1992 Winter Olympics – draped in red and white. Since then, for a country of four million inhabitants, Croatia has amassed an impressive collection of Olympic honours, but we’ll start our journey with a sport that hasn’t been able to compete on that iconic stage.

Despite crashing out of every Olympic qualification, football is Croatia’s most popular game and the national team, the Vatreni (“The Blazers”), have made up for it on other major events. Building on several members of the country’s Golden Generation, which had previously helped Yugoslavia to the Under-20 World Cup triumph in 1987, Croatian football reached its highest point in the 1998 World Cup, finishing in third place carried by the goals of Davor Šuker, the tournament’s top goal scorer, and the sumptuous play of the likes of Zvonimir Boban, the former AC Milan Maestro, or FC Barcelona and Real Madrid alumni Robert Prosinečki.

The Croatian squad that finished third in the 1998 World Cup

Two years before, in the 1996 European Championship, the talented squad had been ousted in the quarter-finals but Croatia’s competence hasn’t dwindled with the pass of times, since a rejuvenated group reached the same stage of the 2008 Euros. Croatia has qualified for every major tournament since 1996, except for the 2000 European Championship and the 2010 World Cup, and a new breakthrough is just around the corner for a nation that regularly churns out players destined for the continent’s top outfits.

However, at the club level, the window of success is way more limited. Dinamo Zagreb, the perennial Champions, have conquered 11 Croatian titles in a row (and 18 in total), yet have only appeared in the Champions’ League group stages in five occasions, bowing out early. Winners of the 1966-67 Inter-Cities Fairs Cup (finalists in 1963), the only European Cup conquered by a Croatian club, Dinamo dominance is only disputed by their eternal rivals, the six-time national Champions Hajduk Split. A club founded by a group of displaced students on a tavern in Prague (Czech Republic), Hajduk can hang over their foes the unmatched presence on the quarter-finals of the UEFA Champions League in 1994-95, where they were defeated by eventual Champions Ajax Amsterdam. NK Osijek and HNK Rijeka are the two other clubs that have never been relegated from Croatia’s top division, the Prva HNL, while NK Zagreb was the Champion of Croatia in 2001-2002, the only title that eluded both Dinamo and Hajduk.

Croatia has a penchant for strong efforts in team sports and football isn’t even remotely the most notable model. Take the example of the men’s national handball team, one of the finest in the World. Twice Olympic champions, in 1996 and 2004, bronze medallists in London 2012 and World Champions in 2003, the Croats are a feared power that contends for every major competition, having been defeated in the finals of 1995, 2005 and 2009 World Championships (the last one held at home), and at the 2008 and 2010 European Championship. CB Ivano Balić, the IHF World Player of the Year in 2003 and 2006, P Igor Vori, RW Mirza Džomba or GK Venio Losert were leading names on those squads and are renowned legends of the sport. Coincidentally, the women’s national team has qualified for most international tournaments organized since 1994, but is yet to reach the semi-finals and challenge for a medal.

Croatia’s Ivano Balić, for many the greatest handball player of all-time

Every edition (1992-2016) of the Croatian Handball League (plus 23 of 25 National Cups) has been secured by RK Zagreb and the club has extended the supremacy to the European stage on occasion, playing six EHF Champions League finals and winning twice, consecutively in 1992 and 1993. However, in the Yugoslavian days, the dominant force was another, RK Bjelovar, European Champions in 1972 and finalists the following season. On the women’s side, Rukometni Klub (RK) Podravka Koprivnica almost replicates the male’s panorama, having obtained the Championship in every season since 1993 save for 2003-2004. Their own European crown was achieved in 1996, a year after losing the competition’s final.

Just like their compatriots, the Croatian basketball team also boasts a decorated history, permeated with international laurels. A few months after independence, Croatia stunned the world by getting to the final of the 1992 Barcelona Olympics, where USA’s “Dream Team” was on another stratosphere, but that achievement wasn’t a fluke, as Croatia placed third on the 1993 and 1995 EuroBasket and also left with the bronze medal of the 1994 FIBA World Championship. Three-time NBA Champion Toni Kukoč, one of the first foreign players to succeed in the NBA, was an integral part of those squads, but unfortunately the same cannot be said of the late Dražen Petrović, the outstanding sharp-shooting guard that died tragically in a car accident in June 1993, at age 28, right at the peak of his career.

Dražen Petrović (red) takes on Michael Jordan during the 1992 Olympic Final between Croatia and the USA

Croatia’s results on major competitions suffered since the end of the 90’s, as the country only appeared in one the last four Olympics (2008) – before qualifying for Rio de Janeiro – and missed the 1998, 2002 and 2006 World Championships, with the only remarkable performance in the last two decades being the 4th place in the 2013 EuroBasket. The Women’s national representation qualified for the Olympics for the first time in 2012.

The heyday of Croatia’s basketball teams in Europe naturally overlapped the nation’s best talents, with five Euroleague Championships traveling to the country in less than a decade.  Košarkaški Klub (KK) Split triumphed in 1989, 1990 and 1991 with a team led by Toni Kukoč and Dino Rađa, while the KK Cibona Zagreb of Dražen Petrović snatched the trophy in 1985 and 1986, adding also the FIBA European Cup Winner’s Cup in 1982 and 1987. Cibona has a record 18 Croatian Championships but its supremacy has been challenged recently by KK Cedevita Zagreb, who won three of the last four national titles and four of five National Cups.

Completing the quartet of sports where Croatia is a prominent European nation is water polo, with the national team, nicknamed Barakude (“The Barracudas”), amassing a plethora of honours in recent years. At the top of the heap is the Gold medal conquered at the 2012 Olympic Games, but the group also came home with victory in the 2007 FINA World Championships and the 2010 European Championships, to which should be added the World League title in 2012. Croatia lost the final in this competition in 2009 and 2015, and was also runner-up in the 1996 Olympics, 2015 Worlds, and 1999 and 2003 Euros, placing third in the 2009, 2011 and 2013 Worlds. Uff…

The Croatian Water Polo National Team that won the Olympic Gold Medal in 2012

Meanwhile, at the club level, the résumé is no less impressive, with Croatian outfits collecting a total of 13 LEN EuroLeague Championships, seven of those courtesy of HAVK Mladost (in 1968, 1969, 1970, 1972, 1990, 1991 and 1996), the Zagreb-based team that was named the sport’s Best Club of the 20th century. Mladost also boasts ten Croatian titles, a number bested by Dubrovnik’s VK Jug, a twelve-time National Champion and four-time European Champion (1981, 2001, 2006 and 2016). VK Jadran, from Split, was twice European Champion in 1992 and 1993.

Far away from the importance of the four team sports described above but still worthy of a mention are futsal, volleyball and ice hockey. The Croatian Futsal Team is an emerging squad in the European scene, having qualified for the last three continental Championships and finishing fourth in 2012, on the event the country organized. They’ve only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2000, reaching the second round of the tournament held in Guatemala.

The men’s volleyball team never took part on the World League, World Championships or Olympic Games, but was the runner up on the 2006 and 2013 European League, while the women’s crew appeared on the 2000 Olympics and competed in the final of 1995, 1997 and 1999 European Championships. However, the clubs have achieved bigger heights, with HAOK Mladost Zagreb contesting the final of the CEV Champions League three times apiece on the men’s and women’s side, with the ladies winning in 1991. Moreover, OK Dubrovnik secured the women’s competition in 1998.

As for ice hockey, the game is chiefly popular in the interior regions of the country despite the national team being an afterthought at the continental level. Medveščak Zagreb won the Yugoslav Hockey League three consecutive times from 1988 to 1990, but is best known for his current involvement on the Kontinental Hockey League (KHL), the 2nd best hockey league in the World, allowing fans to watch regularly some top-level players.

Blanka Vlašić, one of Croatia’s most influencial athletes in this century

Three of the six Olympic titles achieved by Croatia on the Summer Olympics came from their team representations,  but there’s no doubt the country has also been blessed with great talents in individual competitions. One of the most recognizable faces is track-and-field star Blanka Vlašić, who excelled as the best high-jumper in the World from 2007 to 2011, winning, among others, two World Championships (2007 and 2009) and an Olympic silver medal (2008). With a personal best of 2.08m that falls just 1 cm short of the World Record, the IAAF 2010 World Athlete of the Year has seen her career hampered by injuries since 2012, as her star has been slightly overshadowed by Sandra Perković, the 2012 discus throw Olympic Champion.

Meanwhile, tennis is another sport where the country has regularly produced top players, which has contributed to three Olympic bronze medals. Goran Ivanišević collected two in Barcelona 1992, in singles and doubles (with Goran Prpić), but is main accomplishment is being the only person to win the men’s singles title at Wimbledon (2001) as a wildcard. He was also a member of the 2005 Davis Cup winning squad, even if the campaign was primarily built on the back of former World Number 3 Ivan Ljubičić and Mario Ančić, a pair that also medalled on the double’s event of the 2004 Olympics. On the women’s side, Iva Majoli triumphed at Roland Garros in 1997. Today, the country’s tennis legacy is shored up primarily by 2014 US Open Champion Marin Čilić.

Goran Ivanišević with the 2001 Wimbledon men’s singles trophy

At this point in the journey, we’ll make a brief interlude to celebrate some of the paramount athletes born in what is now Croatian soil but was for much of the 20th century part of Yugoslavia. Their feats are a bit concealed since they were obtained under another flag, but the Croatian people still revere those athletes as their own. Hailed as the Croatian sportsman of the 20th century, boxer Mate Parlov was an Olympic gold medallist in 1981, and a European and World Champion both as an amateur and a professional, while Matija Ljubek won four medals total between the 1976 and 1984 Olympics as a sprint canoeist, to which he added ten podiums in the World Championships. The case of Đurđica Bjedov is even more special, as she is the only Yugoslav Olympic champion in swimming, finishing first on the 100m breaststroke in 1968.

Table Tennis player Zoran Primorac is still representing Croatia at age 47!

Later, with a career that bridged the gap between Yugoslavia and the years after the independence, pops out the name of table tennis player Zoran Primorac, a 1988 men’s doubles silver medallist with a career that spans more than two decades (1986 to 2007) of podiums in international competitions. Primorac’s success came on the heels of the magisterial career of “the golden left hand of Croatian sport”, Antun “Tova” Stipančić, who won 27 international medals, 11 from World Championships and 16 from European Championships.

As for weightlifter Nikolaj Pešalov, he competed for Bulgaria and Croatia and added plenty of silverware for both nations’ mantle in various categories. An Olympic Champion in 2000, just a few months after obtaining the Croatian nationality, he also won silver in 2004, thus matching the number of Olympic honours he offered to the country of his birth during the 1992 and 1996 editions.

The portfolio of sports that have contributed to the 23 medals gathered in just six editions of the Summer Olympics is inspiring and demonstrates the versatility of a country that proudly boasts world-class athletes in sports such as rowing, taekwondo, swimming, sailing, wrestling and shooting, the most recent addition to the golden bliss with Giovanni Cernogoraz’s Olympic title in London.

Notwithstanding the extension of this chapter, it would be a major oversight to wrap up without touching on the country’s success at the Winter Olympic, which is almost entirely grounded on the work of the Kostelić family. In 11 medals, all but one was credited to Ivica Kostelić and his little sister, the legendary Janica Kostelić.

Former Alpine Skier Janica Kostelić holds the four medals collected at the 2002 Winter Olympics

A three time overall World Cup winner, Janica is the most successful female alpine ski racer in the history of the Winter Olympic Games, since she’s the only woman to amass four gold medals in total, and three in a single edition, taking the slalom, giant slalom and combined events of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.  Forced to retire in 2007 (at age 25) due to injuries, her adaptability resulted in a total of 30 victories in World Cup races, six Olympic medals, five World Championships medals, and the distinction as one of the handful of athletes to win World Cup events in all of the sport’s five disciplines.

As for Ivica Kostelić, a four-time Olympic silver medallist encompassing the editions of 2006, 2010 and 2014, he was the overall World Cup winner in 2011, and at age 36 is still racing. The eleventh Croatian medal in the Winter Olympics belongs to biathlete Jakov Fak, who conquered it in the Men’s sprint of the 2010 Vancouver Games just a few months before deciding to start competing for Slovenia.

Star Athletes

Josip Pavić (Water Polo)

In 1992, with Croatia’s independence still fresh in the memory of the population, VK Jadran Split won its first ever Champions League title, sending an entire city into a frenzy and remodelling the dreams of a generation of kids. One of those children was a 10-year-old Josip Pavić, whose allegiances moved on from football in a pinch, and the future has certified the choice of the former Hajduk Split novice. A “lean and lanky” boy with long arms, he was quickly put in front of the pool-stationed goal and climbed the youth ranks to debut on the senior squad as a 17-year-old.  Five years later, with an economics degree in the pocket, he left his hometown to join HAVK Mladost looking to consolidate his place on Croatia’s national team.

Josip Pavić celebrates Croatia’s triumph in the 2012 Water Polo Olympic tournament

His breakthrough performance came in the 2005 World Championships, where he was deemed the competition’s best goalkeeper, and for the more than a decade Pavić has been the mainstay for Croatia through thick and thin. The highs of the 2007 World title or the 2010 European success secured in front of a boisterous Zagreb audience, and the lows of a disappointing quarter-final defeat to rivals Montenegro in the 2008 Olympics. And, obviously, the enthralling experience of becoming an Olympic Champion in London 2012, where Pavić’s performance merited the 2012 FINA Water Polo Player of the Year award.

Yet, a few months after touching the sky, the Split-native was caught on a miserable situation: Mladost, the sport’s most heralded club, neared bankruptcy following the main sponsor’s loss and the whole team played virtually for free for more than a year. Even with his personal accolades, and despite conquering a single national championship in 10 years, Pavić stuck with the club until his contract expired in the summer of 2015, when he joined Olympiacos, the perpetual Greek Champions. The 34-year-old finally padded his trophy case with the national double, but the elusive Champions League sceptre was snatched in the final by his former foes of VK Jug, who conquered the first European Cup for a Croatian club in 10 years.

The charismatic 195 cm goalie is still hoping to achieve at the club level the some degree of success obtained for Croatia’s national team, but he won’t disregard the recognition he recently got news off: Josip Pavić will be Croatia’s flagbearer at the Rio de Janeiro opening ceremony.

Sandra Perković (Athletics)

The four-time Croatian sportswoman of the year (2012-2015) is just 26 years old but you wouldn’t have noticed it looking at the résumé of the Zagreb-native, a precocious winner on a discipline, the discus throw, that calls for a polished physical and technical development that takes years to master. A star in the making since the youth international meetings, Perković first major senior event were the 2009 World Championships, where the 19-year-old arrived as the youngest in the entire field. Already the Croatian national record-holder with 62.44 m, she finished in ninth and set the stage for what would happen a year later.

After pinning the world-leading mark of 66.85m earlier in the season, Perković became the youngest European Champion ever in the event at Barcelona, and only a doping suspension put the rails on her upwards trajectory since then. In 2011, she tested positive for a psychostimulant present in an American-made energy drink, and was slapped with a six-month ban, yet Perković rebounded to have a marvellous 2012 season. She surpassed the 68 meters mark, retained her European crown and threw 69.11m in London to become the first Croatian track and field athlete to guarantee an Olympic gold medal.

Discus Thrower Sandra Perković fires up the crowd during the London Olympic Games

Already at the top of her discipline, she conquered her maiden World Championships in 2013 and added a third and fourth European titles in 2014 and 2016, as she’s now just the third female athlete in history to win four back-to-back European titles. Perković personal best stands currently at 71.08 m (Zurich, 2014) and it isn’t impossible she can threat the Olympic record of 72.30 (Martina Hellmann, 1988) or even the World landmark of 76.80 (Gabriele Reinsch, 1988), two results under suspicion because of East Germany’s veiled sports methods.

The Croat icon, who’s also a member of the national parliament following the 2015 general elections, will reach the Rio de Janeiro Olympics hoping to reclaim global supremacy, having being toppled at the 2015 World Championships by Cuba’s Denia Caballero.

Domagoj Duvnjak (Handball)

The center back position is absolutely crucial on a successful handball side, essentially defining every move on attack and occupying the heart of the defensive scheme, and Croatia has been especially blessed since the turn of the century. Ivano Balić was a maestro unlike any other – being considered by many the best player in the history of the sport – but the man filling his shoes is also exceptional.

Domagoj Duvnjak was born in Đakovo in 1988 on a family of handballers, and he soon accompanied his father, the coach of RK Dakovo, to work, debuting for the senior squad at age 16. Two years later, Duvnjak was already the Croatian league’s best scorer and heavyweights RK Zagreb snapped the youngster towards the capital city, where he would win three League titles and three National Cups. Meanwhile, Duvnjak was taken under the wing of Balić on the national squad, having debuted in 2007 and been part of the roster for the 2008 European Championships, where Croatia placed second.

Domagoj Duvnjak is the leader of Croatia’s handball national team

In 2009, the 21-year-old signed for Handball-Bundesliga’s outfit HSV Hamburg for a transfer fee of €1.1 million, becoming the most expensive handball player in history, and he’s been an elite performer in Europe’s top-league since then, being awarded the player of the season award in 2013. At Hamburg, Duvnjak won the Champions League in 2013, the German Cup in 2010 and the Bundesliga in 2011, breaking the supremacy of giants THW Kiel, the club he would join in 2014 and eventually lead to the title in his first season.

For Croatia, Duvnjak assumed the reigns after the 2012 Olympics – where the country conquered a bronze medal on Balić’s farewell – and his central role on the 2013 World Championships would prove decisive to reach the summit of the sport. A member of the tournament’s All-Star Team despite Croatia’s third place, Duvnjak capped an MVP-worthy season for Hamburg by willing the club to his maiden Champions League title, which sealed his nomination as the 2013 IHF World Player of the Year.

A tenacious 1.97m mastermind with outstanding agility, flair, pace and offensive versatility, Domagoj Duvnjak is one of handball’s premium players, and someone whose career is only missing an international title with his country after many close calls. At age 28, there’s still time to tackle that void, maybe this summer at Rio de Janeiro.

Other Athletes: Luka Modrić, Ivan Perišić (Football), Ivica Kostelić (Alpine Skiing), Marin Čilić (Tennis), Blanka Vlašić (Athletics), Andrea Penezić (Handball), Bojan Bogdanović (Basketball), Filip Ude, Marijo Možnik (Gymnastics), Giovanni Cernogoraz,  Snježana Pejčić (shooting), Šime Fantela, Igor Marenić (Sailing), Lucija Zaninović and Ana Zaninović (Taekwondo), Valent Sinković /Martin Sinković (Rowing)

Venues

Despite the proliferation around Europe of brand-new national stadiums, infrastructures capable of handling all the organizational requirements (television, media/press capacity, security, VIP boxes, accessibilities, roofed seating) necessary to host events in this era, Croatia is yet to advance decisively for a substitute to the Stadion Maksimir, the long-time home of Dinamo Zagreb and the national football team.

Opened in 1912, the Maksimir – a place that also shares deep political connotations with Croatia’s struggle for independence – has undergone multiple makeovers over the decades, assuming his current layout in 1998, when the capacity for football was set at around 38,000. Long before that, one of the semi-finals and the third place match of the 1976 European Championship was held there, as also happened with the 1987 Summer Universiade, which isn’t exactly a glittering list of internationally relevant sports events for such an antique venue. But I’m sure Dinamo Zagreb fans will reminisce about countless title celebrations when the building eventually gets replaced…

An overview of the Stadion Poljud in Split

Moving on to Split, the 35,000-seats Stadion Poljud is a much more interesting setting, starting by his seashell-like design with roofed stands that allows for excellent views of the surroundings. Erected in 1979 for the Mediterranean Games, the original capacity was reduced with the introduction of seats but didn’t obscure its inherent beauty and ambience. Equipped with a tartan track, the home of football’s Hajduk Split welcomed the 1990 European Athletics Championships and the 2010 IAAF Continental Cup, as well as some matches of the national team.

The only other Croat stadium than can hold over 20,000 is the Stadion Gradski vrt in Osijek. The building’s construction started in 1949, but works were stopped several times and the stadium was only opened in 1980. Renovated and repaired twice since then, it is the home of NK Osijek and occasionally receives the national team, making use of the total capacity of 22,050, from which 19220 can be seated.

Croatia’s stadiums may be generally old and patched up, but the country’s indoor sports arenas are at a superior level, with several venues being added in the last few years, mainly due to the organization of international handball tournaments. The crown piece is the Arena Zagreb, constructed to be the main venue of the 2009 World Men’s Handball Championship. Resembling a giant rib cage, it is part of a large shopping-entertainment complex, being used for diverse sports and also hosting concerts, exhibitions, conventions and fairs.

The Arena Zagreb from the outside, a landmark of Croatia’s capital city since 2008

Opened in December 2008, the Arena can accommodate up to 15,200 for handball/ ice hockey and 16 500 for basketball. The main tenants are handballs’s RK Zagreb and Medveščak of the Kontinental Hockey League, but competitions like the 2012 UEFA Futsal Championship, the 2015 Eurobasket or the 2013 European Fencing Championships have been held there to complement regular EHF Champions League and EuroLeague (basketball) matches.

Also opened in 2008 for the same reason, the Spaladium Arena is Split’s main sports hall, offering a capacity of 10,900 for sports such as basketball, futsal, and handball, with a few more fans afforded in concerts and boxing combats. The Spaladium is regularly used by KK Split, the city’s basketball club, and in the past received a tense Davis Cup (tennis) encounter between Croatia and Serbia, and matches of the Handball World Championship and European Futsal Championship.

The Krešimir Ćosić Hall, in Zadar, can also accommodate 10,000, and was likewise built in 2008, with KK Zadar, the town’s professional basketball team, currently taking care of the facility. As for the Varaždin Arena, the 5400 seats were kept warm by handball fans in 2009, but today the region’s basketball and volleyball enthusiasts are also welcomed on a regular basis. However, in 2018, the Varaždin Arena will once again be a focus of handball’s followers, hosting the European Championships alongside the Zagreb Arena, the Spaladium Arena and the Žatika Sport Centre, in Poreč, a hall that can accommodate 3700.

The Dražen Petrović Basketball Hall at full capacity during an EuroLeague match

Anyway, rest assured that Croatia didn’t exactly shut down all the former sites in 2008, and two of the remaining venues deserve a mention. The Dražen Petrović Basketball Hall, built for the 1987 Universiade, is still Zagreb’s basketball “Meca” and both KK Cibona and KK Zagreb make use of the 5,400-seats pavilion, while their rivals KK Cedevita perform at the squeaky Dom Sportova.

Erected in 1972, this venue features six halls (the two largest holding 6500 and 3100 spectators) and walls that saw several exceptional sports’ competitions over the years, including the final tournament of the 1989 EuroBasket, the 2000 European Men’s Handball Championship, the 2003 World Women’s Handball Championship, the 2005 Women’s European Volleyball Championship, and the 2008 and 2013 European Figure Skating Championships. Currently, beyond basketball, is also the regular home of ice hockey’s Medveščak Zagreb.

The regatta path at the Jarun Lake Recreation Centre, in the Sava River

Elsewhere around the capital city, the Jarun Lake Recreation Centre is a complex worth mentioning, since the area, situated on the Sava River, was redesigned to accommodate races of the 1987 Universiade. International rowing, canoeing and kayaking contests are regularly held at the 2250 metres long regatta path, with the 2012 Canoe Sprint European Championships and the 2000 World Rowing Championships functioning as prime examples.

The Sava River’s bank is also home to another popular sports complex called “Sports Park Mladost”. Among several world-class facilities like pools, tennis courts and outdoor fields for basketball, volleyball, handball, football  and hockey, should be highlighted the stadium, which hosts an international athletics meeting every year, and the water polo venue, where the 2010 Men’s European Water Polo Championship was held.

Keeping up with the aquatic theme, we should reference Rijeka’s Bazeni Kantrida, the venue that hosted the 2008 European Short Course Swimming Championships. The capacity of the swimming complex is approximately 1,200 and water polo club VK Primorje plays its games there.

The picturesque location of the ITC Stella Maris tennis complex in Umag

The Croatia Open Umag, the ATP tournament held annually in Umag since 1990, makes use of the ITC Stella Maris tennis complex, whose stadium court has a capacity of 3,500 people, while another coastal town, Zadar, regularly welcomes international sailing championships to its harbour.

The country’s most important winter sports centre is located on the Medvednica mountain, just north of Zagreb. Sljeme, on the northern slopes, has hosted the Snow Queen Trophy, a FIS World Cup slalom skiing race, since 2005.

Yearly Events

The major teams in Croatia have adhered to the recent paradigm of club competition on Eastern Europe, and thus the powerhouses in basketball, handball and water polo participate in their sport’s version of the Adriatic League, professional leagues that pit the top clubs from the nations in the region before they join their scaled-down national championships in time for the playoffs. Basketball’s ABA League runs from October to March with the playoffs following, while handball’s SEHA League is contested between September and February, with the Final Four held in April. As for Water Polo, the Riglav Regionalna Liga is disputed from September to the end of January, with the Final Four occurring in March. In the meantime, these clubs also fight for the Continent’s major competitions.

The Croatian Football League starts in July and ends in May, enjoying a two month winter break from mid-December to mid-February.

For a summary of the rest of Croatia’s main yearly sporting events, look below:

Snow Queen Trophy (FIS Alpine Skiing World Cup Event), Alpine Skiing

Zagreb (Sljeme), January

The Snow Queen trophy course at Sljeme, near Zagreb

Tour of Croatia, Cycling

End in Zagreb, April

Artistic Gymnastics World Challenge Cup, Artistic Gymnastics

Osijek, April/May

Plitvice Lakes Marathon, Athletics

Mukinje (Plitvice Lakes National Park), June

Croatia Open (ATP Tour Tournament), Tennis

Umag, July

Divlja liga (Wild League), (Amateur) Water Polo

Dubrovnik, July/August

Hanžeković Memorial (IAAF World Challenge Meeting), Athletics

Zagreb, September

Mrduja Regatta, Sailing

Split, September/October

Seven (err…twelve) indelible sports moments in 2015

Another year has gone, which means we can now snoop over a bin full of sports memories to cherish and remember. The turn of the calendar is as good a time as any other, so I decided to empty my brain and select what sports fans will take with them from 2015, including instances when athletes overcame their physical and mental limitations, superstars were born or regained some of the respect lost along the way, history books were re-written, or stunning upsets left fans agape.

The screening process was, obviously, enormously dictated by my own preferences (read more about it on the “About” page linked above), and the reader will disagree with a lot of my choices, but I tried to instil as much diversity as possible on the final list. I touched base on a variety of sports, even if, naturally, can’t recognize them all, and searched for a balance between individual and team-based achievements (or failures). An assortment of time frames was also pursued, with the action that enveloped the “moment” being reviewed ranging from a matter of few seconds, to entire matches or even week-long struggles.

I wrote about the seven moments of 2015 that left a deeper mark on my memory and – I believe – in that of the many fans which follow the sports world on a daily basis. In addition, I later appointed five more which also stood out among the numerous monitored live throughout the year.

(By the way, absent is any reference to the heroics of a racing horse on some posh trio of events held in the Spring, or a famous defensive play that occurred with forty something seconds to go on a Championship match that enjoys an unparalleled television audience)

So, without further delay, my breakdown of the main sports moments of the year in no particular order of appearance.

Usain Bolt dodges Justin Gatlin’s challenge

There’s just no way around it. Every time Usain Bolt steps on the track for a major final, the World stops and waits to be amazed. However, before Beijing’s 2015 World Athletics Championships kicked off, the question marks surrounding the Jamaican were at an all-time high since Bolt was unable to surpass a really average (for his standards) 9.87 seconds showing obtained earlier in the year. He was definitely harassed, listening to the same type of discussion produced in 2011 and 2012, when his compatriot Yohan Blake posed a major threat, and rival Justin Gatlin, enjoying a third chance after two suspensions for doping, had been simply outstanding, putting together a 28 races unbeaten streak highlighted by a time of 9.74 seconds and several 9.8 postings.

On the Birds Nest, the American further increased is favouritism with a smashing triumph on his semi-final heat while Bolt had to cover ground on the end just to go through. However, with the stakes at the highest point, the pressure proved too much for Gatlin to handle. Bolt exited the blocks better than expected, and kept the rival in check throughout the race to narrowly defeat a stumbling Gatlin, crossing the finish line in 9.79 seconds. The winning margin was just 0.01 seconds, the tighter victory since Bolt broke through, and more than 0.2 ticks off his World Record (9.58).

Usain Bolt’s patented celebration emerged again in Beijing

The same stadium and city that 7 years ago saw the emergence of a myth wouldn’t see the start of his downfall like many expected, and some days later the 29-year-old doubled down, comfortably sweeping off the speed events with the titles on the 200-meters (with a “normal advantage” over Gatlin) and 4X100 relay. Bolt was ran over by a Segway-ridding cameraman as he was celebrating the double hectometre triumph but, just like during the competition, was able to walk away unscathed.

We’ll see if he can say the same after the Rio Olympics next year, where he’ll fight for a preposterous triple/double collection of gold medals, looking to cap off his legendary career with a third consecutive Olympic triumph on the 100m and 200m events.

Robert Lewandowski nets five goals in nine minutes

Ok, this one is a bit of a cheat, since I wasn’t actually watching the act as it occurred, but following on twitter is close enough, right? A middle-of-the-week league tie, even if contested between the German Champions and the runner-up, can’t be considered appointment viewing, and there was a reason Bayern’s spearhead was on the bench to start the match. However, the half-time disadvantage for the hosts convinced Pep Guardiola that Lewandowski had to go in and the rest is history. Actually, four fresh entries on the Guinness World Records book were added after that night on the Allianz Arena.

The Polish striker needed just five minutes to tie the contest with an opportunistic tip after a superb assist by (former) teammate Dante, and off he was. Two minutes later, and just five touches on the ball in, a creeping shot from distance gave him a brace, and the hat-trick goal soon followed after he buried an attempt that initially found the post. By this time, social media was already exploding with an incredible achievement on a top-level competition, and no one really understood what was happening after the fourth strike in seven minutes!

Pep Guardiola’s reaction to Robert Lewandowski’s wonder night was one of the images of 2015

The fifth, exactly 8:59 min after the ball first found the back of the net, came on a marvellous acrobatic volley from just inside the edge of the box, and became the cherry on top of a remarkable moment for the forward and the sport. Certainly, the type of performance for the ages football fans are lucky to watch once in a lifetime, and an impact substitution not even a master like Guardiola will be able to repeat. Eventually, his face on camera told it all.

As for the poor Wolfsburg side that was on the wrong side of the achievement, well…why did you sign Dante? (Sorry…but not really).

Roberta Vinci shocks Serena Williams at the US Open

Many, if not all, of the events on this list will linger on fans’ minds for a long time, but very few are in the running for the recognition as the greatest upset of all-time on its sport. This one happened because an “undistinguished” 32-year-old Italian decided “to play literally out of her mind” on the biggest stage and moment of them all, and thus spoil part of the legacy of one of the greatest figures in the history of tennis.

So many superlatives? Yes, it was that relevant, that unexpected and, so, so baffling. Serena Williams had already secured three quarters of a lifetime achievement, the calendar Grand Slam, adding her sixth Australian Open, third Roland Garros and sixth Wimbledon to stand on the verge of becoming the sixth human to manage something last seen in 1988. It seemed like a foregone conclusion that only Serena could stop Serena from lifting the trophy at the end of the fortnight on the Artur Ashe Stadium. Eventually, even the top players that could remotely hang on with her were on the other side of the draw (Muguruza, Kvitova, Azarenka, Halep) and dropping like flies.

Roberta Vinci reacts after the match of her life

The American was tested by Bethanie Mattek-Sands and her sister on the early rounds, but was never actually close to losing, and absolutely no one believed Roberta Vinci, the No 43 in the World, could go further than every other Grand Slam adversary in 2015. Serena breezed to take hold of the first set with a 6-2 score line and then the astonishing outcome took form. The crafty, experienced, yet Grand Slam semi-final debutant taking the 2nd set? No reason to panic, Serena had been there countless times before.

Vinci serving for the match? WHAT THE HELL IS GOING ON HERE? Can’t, won’t happen, right?

The crowd stood in disbelief as the Italian reached the 40-0 lead and the legend eyed the abyss. Serve, cross-court attack, half-volley…Veni, Vidi, Vinci. The unthinkable had materialized. The pressure weighted too much. A career dream was crushed on the finish line. Forever?

Vinci would lose the final to compatriot Flavia Pennetta the next day, on another emotional encounter, but the story was Serena’s choke. The 34-year-old undisputed Queen of women’s tennis came oh so close and blew it. She didn’t took the court again for a WTA match in 2015, and, even for someone like her, it’s tough to muster the strength to come back and push for the same feat again. If it happens, it would probably be as remarkable as whatever occurred in New York on that September evening.

Katie Ledecky obliterates the competition at the Swimming World Championships

An American dominating an edition of Swimming World Championships is far from a unique circumstance. Michael Phelps took five gold medals from the 2009 meet in Rome and Ryan Lochte equalled the feat in Shanghai 2011, while Missy Franklin stepped it up a notch in Barcelona 2013, gathering six titles. Thus, Katie Ledecky’s performance in Kazan, Russia, last August might be a bit undervalued. Don’t be fooled though.

None of her compatriots had to swim as much as the 18-year-old freestyler on a frenetic week of competitions. No less than 6.2 km, 124 laps, and 63 minutes of racing as she navigated the heats, semi-finals, and finals of four individual events, including the gruelling 800m and 1500m, with the final of the last race, the longest on the calendar, preceding by just 20 minutes a close, highly-competitive 200m semi-final.

Katie Ledecky, the podium, trophies and medals. An acquaintance process in full swing

The Washington DC native kicked off her campaign with the triumph on the 400 meters, with a 3.89-seconds advantage never seen before, but was just getting started, showing clear signs of disappointment at the end after missing out on breaking the World Record. Lauren Boyle, the runner-up on the 1500m, touched the wall almost 15(!) seconds after Ledecky set her second World Record on consecutive days at the distance, and she also smashed the 800m mark by 3.61 seconds and her competitors to the tune of a 10-second gap. Because savouring triumphs on longer events is getting boring, Ledecky has added the 200 meters to her repertoire, and she was also successful despite all the miles on her body, gathering the speed to beat the last two world champions on the race. She, thereby, finished up a sweep of the 200, 400, 800 and 15000 meters free events, or the now called “Ledecky Slam”. Amid all this, anchoring the USA’s 4×200 meters relay win was just icing on the cake.

The four individual gold medals represent a unique feat for a female swimmer on the history of the World Championships, and only trail Phelps’ record of five in Montreal 2007. Back in 2012, Ledecky caught the World by surprise winning London’s 800m as a 15-year-old, and the youngest member of the entire US Olympic squad composed of more than 500 athletes. In 2016, she may well be the singular face of the entire Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games.

Carly Lloyd erupts to take down Japan in 16 minutes

With no FIFA men’s international competition on the calendar in 2015, football’s brightest eyeballs shifted attention to the Women’s World Cup. Another stepping-stone tournament for the sport on the female side saw the USA and Japan clash for the third consecutive time in major competitions’ finals, four years after a dramatic World Cup final in Frankfurt, and three following Wembley’s Olympic decider. On the BC Place of Vancouver, the story ended up being way different from 2011, when the four goals were scored on the latter half of regulation and overtime, before the penalty shootout separated the parts.

Carly Lloyd carried out one of greatest World Cup performances ever against Japan

This time, inside just 16-minutes, the heavily-supported Americans were well on their way to victory after mounting a four-goal blitz that stunned the reigning Champions. Carly Lloyd deflected in a low corner three minutes into the game, and one hundred seconds later found the ball inside the box to chip it past the Japanese goalkeeper for the second time. With the Nadeshiko dazed, Lauren Holiday took advantage of a terrible clear on the 14th minute to dash with an over the top, classy finish, while Lloyd completed the hat-trick with an astonishing strike from the halfway line that beat a reeling Kaihori. Things slowed down a bit after that, with the final result settled at 5-2 because a brave Japanese team never gave up on the match, but the day undoubtedly belonged to the Americans and to Lloyd.

The USA’s #10 midfielder propelled his side to a magnificent start, one rarely watched before at this level of competition, and completely decimated the opposition, leaving her mark on a major final like she had done in the 2008 and 2012 Olympics. Her inspired performance throughout the tournament merited the Golden Ball for best player of the tournament, and she will surely welcome another individual accolade in a few days, the FIFA Women’s Player of the Year award.

Fabio Aru and the improbable Tom Dumoulin go head-to-head at the Vuelta

Selecting just a moment from a whole cycling season comprised of numerous races can be a monumental task. Others may answer with Alberto Contador’s epic recovery on the Mortirollo ascent during the Giro, Chris Froome’s irresistible (and much discussed) attack on the climb to La Pierre Saint Martin during the 10th stage of his second Tour de France triumph, or even Peter Sagan’s coup d’état, with the Slovak finally getting the best of an entire peloton to punch a signature victory on the World Championships.

However, I believe no other battle symbolized what cycling racing is about like the up-and-down affair between Fabio Aru and Tom Dumoulin at the Vuelta, which culminated on the Dutch clinging to the dream until the last day, only to see it vanish through the fingers. The Giant-Alpecin rider was the talk of the first half of the competition alongside Colombian Esteban Chavez, with the pair alternating the ownership of the red jersey while in discussion of the plethora of stages culminating on steep terrain, but not many predicted the 25-year-old could keep up with the best as the difficulties accumulated. Not even after a superb victory over Froome at the end of stage nine.

Fabio Aru (white jersey) and Tom Dumoulin (in red) excelled at the 2015 Vuelta a Espana

Dumoulin would lose ground on a diabolic stage 11 at the Pyrenees, but his feverish fighting spirit provided for terrific moments of cycling as he almost strapped himself to the Vuelta GC contenders over the next few days on the mountains, managing to stay within striking distance while all his teammates lagged way behind unable to support him. Fabio Aru would command the race lead until Dumoulin shattered the opposition on the individual time trial at Burgos, turning the overall classification into a 3-second stranglehold between Dutch and Italian.

Despite Astana’s push over the next two days, Dumoulin resisted stoically, even showing his muscles on the cobbled end at Ávila, before finally succumbing in dramatic fashion on stage 20, at the Puerto de la Moncuera, as Aru and friends were getting antsy and frustrated. The Maastricht-native, on his own, completely empty and defeated, sank further on the final kilometres to finish the Vuelta in sixth, but the fortitude and drive he displayed by leaving it all on the road against the odds impressed every observer. And were well worth of a reference here.

Stan Wawrinka ends Novak Djokovic’s Roland Garros bid

A truly significant season for tennis saw two players end the year with three Grand Slam titles on their bags, and it could have been even more incredible had Novak Djokovic joined Serena Williams on the quest to complete the calendar Slam at the US Open. He couldn’t because the only stain on a brilliant 2015 season came in June, at the final of the only big tournament that still eludes the Serbian.

The 27-year-old entered the Court Phillipe Cartier still riding the wave of a drubbing over Rafael Nadal on the quarter-finals, only the second time (and first when healthy) that the King of Clay got beaten at Roland Garros, but also feeling the effects of a nervous five-setter against Andy Murray on the semi-finals. A match where the pressure of clinching the trophy that is missing on his curriculum started opening some cracks on the armour.

Stan Wawrinka came out ahead of Novakj Djokovic at Roland Garros

Like happened to Roger Federer until 2009 – and to other tennis greats that never grasped success at the French Open – Djokovic may have shrunk with the tension and indomitable desire to win he had to cope with, but the final was much more than a favourite throwing out a golden opportunity. Stan Wawrinka had already backed up his candidacy to a second Grand Slam title with a straight sets victory over Federer, and was completely “in the zone” on that afternoon, unleashing his patented one-handed backhand with devastating precision left and right after “Nole” took the inaugural set.

Djokovic had to settle for the finalist’s plaque and a deserved rising ovation from the crowd after a crushing defeat, but snapped out of it pretty quickly. Wimbledon and the US Open would later join his other nine titles amassed in 2015, and that loss to the Swiss was the only in 28 matches at Majors and one of just six during the best season of the Serbian’s career. The setback in Paris just fuelled his hunger for more, and he figures to come back in 2016 even more prepared to complete his own career Slam and equal Nadal and Federer, his contemporaries that figure on a shortlist of just seven names.

And, on a quicker sequence, five more moments that just missed the main cut:

Lionel Messi gets back to marvelling the world

Football fans around the world blessed 2014-15 for the return of the best Lionel Messi. The Argentinian wizard used the motivation after a crushing World Cup Final defeat to power Barcelona to a second treble in four seasons, as the Blaugrana hoarded the Spanish League, the Spanish Cup and the Champions League. Messi’s brilliance was at its peak on two key moments.

First, on a monumental goal against Bayern Munich on the 1st leg of the European Cup semi-final, turning Jerome Boateng into a bowling pin before chipping the ball beautifully over Manuel Neuer. A few weeks later, he embarrassed Athletic Bilbao’s defence on the Copa Del Rey decider with a preposterous slalom which started near the convergence of the sideline and center circle and ended with him slotting the ball home.

The Ski Flying World Record falls twice on a weekend

Slovenia’s Peter Prevc flew like never before at Vikersund

Humanity’s enduring fascination with flying finds resonance on ski jumping and especially its more risky offshoot, ski flying, where athletes really push the limits of audacity. 2015 brought the first jump over the 250 meters barrier, as Peter Prevc flew exactly that in February, 14th, during a World Cup event held in Vikersund, Norway.

The Slovenian broke by 4 meters the mark set on the same venue, in 2011, by Norwegian Johan Remen Evensen, but his reign would be really short. To the delight of the home crowd, Norway’s Anders Fannemel soared 251.5 meters the following evening under perfect conditions and stole the record back. The next few years promise new heights, since Vikersund and the “rival” infrastructure in Planica, Slovenia, have suffered renovations and extensions, so expect more superlative images of sportsman gliding on air for what appears like an eternity. After all, the 300m may be just around the corner.

The Golden State Warriors complete a fairytale season with first NBA title in 40 years

The gang of Stephen Curry had shown flashes of domination in years past, but only after Steve Kerr took over the bench everything clicked into perfection. The Golden State Warriors won 67 games on the NBA Regular Season led by an unique sharpshooter enjoying an MVP-worthy performance, an incredible sidekick (or should I say Splash Brother?) in Klay Thompson, and Mr. Everything Draymond Green, and then weaved through the minefield that are the Western Conference playoffs to reach the NBA Finals.

The 2015 NBA Champions, the Golden State Warriors

Against LeBron James’ Cleveland Cavaliers, the most exciting team in basketball conquered the ultimate prize in six fascinating games, undoubtedly benefitting from an opponent that was weakened by substantial injuries to star actors, and had to place too much of a burden on the planet’s best player over the last decade. Nevertheless, with or without the injury bug, no team lighted out arenas all over North America throughout the season like the Warriors, and the series may well be reminisced before long by the passing of the torch from James to Curry as the world’s finest player.

Japan stuns South Africa at the Rugby World Cup

England welcomed what can probably be considered the biggest sports competition of 2015, and beyond the hosts’ lacklustre performance, and New Zealand’s uncontested supremacy towards reclaiming the spot at the top of the mountain, there was time for a completely unexpected result. Rugby’s history places the sport amongst those where the minnows stand lower changes of humbling the giants, whereby Japan’s courage and faith belied the norm and they were deservedly rewarded for it.

The moment Japan dreamed with

On that afternoon at Brighton, the “Brave Blossoms” did justice to their name, deciding to press for the winning try as the final whistle approached instead of settling for a potential equalising kick. The Springboks had already sweated way beyond their expectations to conjure a narrow lead, were left to crawl in order to protect it, but they probably never realized a team with only one World Cup triumph could pull off the tournament’s greatest shock ever.

That is, obviously, until New Zealand-born Karne Hesketh finalised the 34-32 score in injury time, with what looked like a bunch of folks helping launch him forward so the ball could touch South Africa’s area. It was goosebumps-inducing stuff. In 2019, at home, can Japan do an encore, please?

Jamie Benn clinches NHL’s Art Ross Trophy at the buzzer

You really thought I would go away without a hockey reference? At the end of 2014, I had two moments lined up for the “would be” review list of the year, but this season was leaner in worthwhile memories. The Chicago Blackhawks collecting a third Stanley Cup in six seasons was kind of boring (for neutral fans), and the playoffs lacked striking scenes, even if the Hawks and Ducks on the West, and the Rangers and Caps on the East, weren’t far from the level of excitement provided by that Hawks-LA Kings matchup of a year ago.

Thus, my choice was the theatrical and improbable late charge that delivered Dallas Stars’ captain Jamie Benn his scoring title. With his team out of the playoff race, he put up 15 points in the last 6 games to leap John Tavares on the 82th and final contest, grabbing 4 points, including an assist with just 8.5 seconds remaining, to reach 87 on the season. On a game with no implications table-wise, the buzz, voltage and elation on the American Airline Center, as time ticked away and the team pushed for the tally that Cody Eakin ultimately delivered, made for a stunning sports instant that few won’t relish.

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And that’s all I have for you from 2015. Thanks for reading, and let’s hope for even better in 2016!