European Tour of Sports

A personal pet project consisting in the presentation of the sports landscape in an European country, featuring their more recognisable athletes, beloved sports, major historical places/sporting facilities and relevant yearly events. New posts dispatched, at least, every couple of months.

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

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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

 

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

European Tour of Sports – Republic of Ireland

The Basics

Population: 4.6 M
Area: 70 273 km2
Capital: Dublin
Summer Olympic Medals: 28 (9 G-8 S-11 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 0

 

Popular sports and History

Let’s put the political stuff to bed from the outset. This article is about the Republic of Ireland which for most of sport’s governing bodies is synonymous with just “Ireland”. The Island of Ireland usually fields a single team, and many athletes born on both the Republic and the Northern part participate under the Republic of Ireland’s flag, but there are some notable exceptions. The main one is football, with both nations being part of UEFA, and the Northern Ireland also sends a separate representation to the Commonwealth Games (similarly to what happens with Wales and Scotland), but in many others a conjunct group is assembled for international participation, including in rugby, hockey or basketball. For the Olympic Games, Northern Ireland-born athletes can choose to be part of Team Great Britain or Team Ireland. Thus, for purposes of this article, I’ll limit myself to the intricacies of Ireland-based events and sports venues, and focus on the sports of interest for the people of the Republic of Ireland. As for the athletes, those that represent the Irish teams are included even if they hail from the North. Sometime in the future, I may get back to the “Emerald Isle” to recognize the traditions and achievements of the people that wear Northern Ireland’s colours.

If politics couldn’t stay out of this article, geography also plays a key part, since Ireland’s distance to mainland Europe is one of the reasons the continent’s main game gets pushed to a secondary role on the nation’s sports pyramid. Indeed, the top headlines stirring the passions of the people are pretty much unique to the island, with the Gaelic games taking centre stage. From the group organized by the GAA (Gaelic Athletic Association), Gaelic Football and Hurling are the most relevant, dominating Ireland in terms of match attendances (together hog 60% of total live sports spectators), community involvement and popularity, galvanizing entire counties in support of their local heroes and team representations. Both sports are strictly amateur, with players, coaches, and managers prohibited from receiving any form of payment, thus the love for the game and pride in representing their own fuel the artists.

The teams from Dublin and Kerry took part in the 2015 All-Ireland Gaelic Football Championship Final

The similarities extend to much terminology and the field, as both sports pit two squads of 15 players on a rectangular pitch trying to score points by putting the ball into the other team’s goal (3 points), or between two upright posts above the goals and over a crossbar 2.5 metres (8.2 ft) exceeding the ground (1 point). However, while in Gaelic football a leather ball bigger than a volleyball is carried, kicked or punched, in Hurling the players use a wooden stick, called a hurley, to hit a small ball, which results in the latter being considered one of the fastest sports in the world. Naturally, both games are also hits with the large Irish expats communities around the world, even if no country is strong enough to compete with the home nation.

In terms of competitions, the major ones operating every year include the National Football League and the All-Ireland Senior Championship, both disputed on an inter-county basis, and the All-Ireland Club Championship, which is contested by individual clubs. A similar organization (and adapted designations) is used in hurling. The All-Ireland Senior Football Championship Final is the pinnacle of Ireland’s sport season and the most watched match on the calendar, with more than 80.000 packing Croke Park to crown the best team in the country, but the All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship enjoys almost the same buzz. The most dominant sides in both sports come from the provinces of Leinster and Munster, with Kilkenny, Cork and Tipperary being considered “the big three” of hurling, while the assortments of Dublin and Kerry are the most successful in Gaelic football.

Players from Tipperary and Kilkenny chase the ball during an All- Ireland Hurling Championship match

Behind these two sports comes finally (association) football, whose fandom is more ingrained in Northern Ireland. The Republic of Ireland’s national team qualified for the third time for the European Championships in 2016, following presence in 1988 and 2012, and has also been in three World Cups (1990, 1994 and 2002), going past the group stage in every occasion and reaching the quarter-finals on their debut. Roy Keane, the irascible former Manchester United midfielder – and national team captain from 1997 to 2002 – is the most famous Irish footballer, alongside Robbie Keane (no relation), the current captain, all-time top goal scorer and most capped player.

Forward Robbie Keane is Ireland’s top goalscorer of all-time

The Irish football fans are fervent supporters of the national team, always travelling in droves to international tournaments (more than 250.000 have applied for Euro 2016 tickets..), and strongly sympathize with leading British clubs like Manchester United and Liverpool. However, the scenario isn’t as interesting on the domestic League of Ireland, one of the weakest in Europe, with most of the best talents leaving early to earn a living abroad, particularly in England and Scotland. Shamrock Rovers Football Club is the most important team in Ireland, holding a record 17 National Championships and 24 FAI Cups, but that wasn’t an impediment for a staggering 22-year-period (from 1987 to 2009) without a stable home ground, which speaks for the financial frailty of a league with an average attendance of less than 1600 spectators. Also based in Dublin are Shelbourne FC, Bohemians FC and St. Patrick’s Athletic, while Dundalk, the Champions in 2014 and 2015, are the most important side away from the capital region.

The other team sport enjoying widespread popularity throughout Ireland, especially in urban centres, is rugby, with the National Team regularly positioned on the top five in the World and able to get the best of every other squad except for New Zealand’s All Blacks. From the Shamrock’s laurels are part several Triple Crowns (awarded by defeating Scotland, Wales and England in succession) and thirteen Six Nations Championships (the last in 2015), of which two were Grand Slams (conquered by winning all five matches during the tournament). At the Rugby World Cup, Ireland has been tremendously consistent, advancing to the quarter-finals in six of eight tournaments, but never getting past that hurdle. The national team represents the entire Irish Island and eight former Ireland players have earned induction into the International Rugby Hall of Fame, including Brian O’Driscoll, former outside centre, captain and Ireland’s all-time leader in tries scored, widely regarded as one of the best rugby players ever.

Former Ireland’s captain Paul O’Connell lifts the 2014 Six Nations Championship trophy

At the club level, Ireland’s provinces field professional squads that compete with the best in the continent, and those teams have achieved relevant performances in recent years, in part boosted by sell-out crowds in decisive matches. They take part in the Pro12, the annual rugby union competition involving twelve professional sides from Ireland, Italy, Scotland and Wales – one of the three major professional leagues in Europe along with the English Premiership and the French Top 14 – and due to their performance qualify regularly for the European Rugby Champions Cup, a tournament won by Ulster in 1999, Munster in 2006 and 2008, and Leinster in 2009, 2011 and 2012.

Team sports that possess high popularity around Europe like basketball, volleyball or handball are rather inconspicuous in Ireland, whilst the Irish lineage is found on some eminent American sports stars like former NBA MVP Shaquille O’Neil or NFL quarterback Tom Brady. However, Pat Burke was the only Irish-native to have played in the NBA, suiting up for the Orlando Magic (2002-03) and Phoenix Suns (2005-2007).

Changing directions now, from Ireland’s 28 Olympic medals more than half were conquered in boxing, a sport whose popularity is resurging in the country due to a constant stream of international medals conquered at the amateur level and culminating at the London Olympics in 2012 (more on that on the next section). As for the professional ranks, it stands out former WBO middleweight and WBO super-middleweight champion Steve Collins, who piled up victories during the 90’s.

A Champagne-soaked Darren Clarke (L), Paul McGinley (C) and Padraig Harrington (R) celebrate under the Irish flag after Europe’s Ryder Cup win in 2006.

Set to return to the Olympic calendar in 2016, Golf is not only of major importance on a touristic level, with over 400 golf clubs dotted throughout the island, but also as a competitive sport because Ireland produced several top golfers since the turn of the century. Look no further than Pádraig Harrington, Paul McGinley and Darren Clarke, who achieved significant success internationally and were all part of the European team that secured the 2006 Ryder Cup held at the Irish club of Kildare. However, the best golf talent unearthed in the Island over the last few years is Rory McIlroy, who represents Northern Ireland.

Not as followed but equally relevant for historical reasons is cycling, with Ireland producing two of the leading racers of the 1980’s. Stephen Roche won the Tour de France and Giro d’Italia in 1987, and later that year added the World Championship title to cap an incredible triple crown, while Sean Kelly picked up almost two hundred professional triumphs from 1977 to 1994, including the 1988 Vuelta a España, the green jersey of the Tour de France in four separate occasions and a stunning nine monument classics (3 Giro Di Lombardia, 2 Paris-Roubaix, 2 Milan-San Remo and 2 Liège-Bastogne-Liège).

Cycling legend Sean Kelly represented Ireland in multiple occasions

After Boxing’s sixteen medals, Athletics has contributed with the largest share of Olympic credentials, with six, even if only one after 1984, courtesy of Cork-native distance runner Sonia O’Sullivan, second in the 5000 meters at the 2000 Sidney Olympics. O’Sullivan was also the event’s 1995 World Champion, the highlight of a decade when she was at the top of the pack internationally, whereas Derval O’Rourke was a leading 60m and 100m hurdles sprinter at the European level from 2006 to 2011.

Swimmer Michelle Smith was a triple gold medallist at the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games (200m and 400m individual medley, 400m freestyle), to which she still added a bronze medal on the 200m butterfly, and such a haul earmarked her as the most successful Irish Olympian to date, but the results have been tainted with unproven allegations of doping.

Of the five sports that brought back Olympic medals to the Island, we still have to mention sailing, which contributed with silver in 1980, and equestrian sports, conventionally an Irish stronghold. Events such as show jumping, dressage and endurance races are strongly attended, and the excellence is certainly facilitated by a great tradition in breeding and training horses. Some of Ireland’s tracks are also used for greyhound races, since the country also exports racing dogs. Finally, the Irish have also gained notoriety in snooker, even if the biggest names were born and represented Northern Ireland, including the “Hurricane” Alex Higgins.

In terms of winter sports, they are utterly residual in Ireland but the country has managed to send a representation composed of a handful of athletes to every Winter Olympiad since 1992, except for Lillehammer 1994.

Star Athletes

Jonathan Sexton (Rugby)

Johnny Sexton converting a penalty for Ireland during a 2011 World Cup match

The career of Jonathan “Johnny” Sexton has been defined by his ability to rise up when called upon to deliver in key situations for both his country and provincial team. After joining Leinster in 2006, Sexton had to wait patiently for the opportunity to leave his mark and it would come on the biggest of stages: the 2009 semi-final of the Heineken Cup against rivals Munster. Summoned early to replace the incapacitated starter, the fresh-faced fly-half coolly steered his team to the final, and was truly inspired on the decisive encounter, adding 15 of Leinster 19 points – including an outrageous drop goal from the halfway line – to secure his team’s first European title. Two years later, he was once again the man on the spotlight, lighting the field with 28 points to complete a stunning comeback for Leinster and collect a second Heineken Cup, with 2012 fetching a third triumph in four seasons. The composure of Sexton powered the new-found European dominance of Leinster and he was already entrusted as one of the finest fly-backs in the game.

The 30-year-old reign on Ireland’s squad took a bit more to consolidate, since Sexton and veteran Ronan O’Gara, one of the most capped rugby players of all-time, alternated the hold on the Nº10 shirt from 2009 to 2012. Nevertheless, ultimately the position became his and under the Dublin-native’s guidance and masterful play from the back line the Irish collected the 2014 and 2015 Six Nations Championship.

By then, Sexton was already enjoying a lucrative two-year stint for French giants Racing Métro 92, but he has since returned home to pursuit a fourth European Champions Cup and a third Celtic League/Pro 12 victory. With 540 points (including 9 tries) amassed in 61 appearances for his country, Sexton’s passing, defensive expertise and proficiency on spot-kicks have made him almost irreplaceable for Ireland and Leinster.

Katie Taylor (Boxing)

August, 9th, 2012. The Excel Arena in London is brimming as the sea of fans draped in green bellows while a national hero strides towards the boxing rink. Some 450km Northwest, in Bray, on the east coast of Ireland, a crowd can’t control the nerves in front of giant TV screens set around town, expectant to see one of their own deliver Ireland’s first Olympic gold medal in 16 years. A few minutes later, Katie Taylor’s right arm is elevated as the decision is announced and the whole of Ireland explodes. The most outstanding Irish athlete of a generation has added the inaugural women’s lightweight (-60 kg) Olympic title to a plethora of European and World honours, and on her way became one of the faces of the 2012 Olympics as her aura of invincibility was elevated by her raucous, record-setting countrymen.

Katie Taylor and the Irish Flag on the victory lap in London

Born in 1986, Katie Taylor balanced her dreams of staring in both boxing and football for so long that she managed to represent the senior national football team in 11 occasions before hanging the boots in 2009. However, no matter how talented a footballer she was, it was improbable that she could go as far as her boxing career has taken her. In fact, since taking off by becoming an Amateur Boxing European Champion in 2005 and losing in the quarter-finals of the World Championships on the same year, this sport has never been the same. One year later, New Delhi saw Taylor turn into a World Champion for the first time and step into the World Rankings’ lead, and both labels haven’t been relinquished almost a decade later. The 29-year-old’s résumé is composed of a staggering 18 gold medals, 12 conquered in European competitions, 5 World titles in a row, and that Olympic award she will try to replicate at Rio de Janeiro this summer. Instrumental in getting women’s boxing into the Olympic calendar, this is a run of domination few can claim to equal in any sport and inevitably makes the girl from Brady the ultimate flag bearer of Ireland’s sport.

Daniel Martin (Cycling)

Born in Birmingham, England, but representing Ireland since age 20, Dan Martin has carried – alongside his cousin Nicholas Roche – the expectations of a country that followed passionately the sport of cycling in the 80’s. The nephew of Stephen Roche first turned some heads in 2008 by winning the Irish Road Race Championship, but would have to wait for his place at the sun. The first successes amongst the best would arrive in 2010, namely on the general classification of the Tour of Poland, yet 2011 was Martin’s true breakthrough season, highlighted with a triumph on the 8th stage of the Vuelta a España and a 2nd position on the Giro di Lombardia. The Irish rider was quickly establishing a repertoire on hilly, punchy finishes and bumpy one-day classics, and 2012 confirmed his potential both as a future monument winner, with a top-five position at the Liège-Bastogne-Liège, and as top-ten Grand Tour hopeful by virtue of a debut at the Tour de France.

The 2013 Volta a Catalunya triumph preceded the biggest victory of his career, conquered at the Liège, and he was fighting at the Tour de France before an untimely illness cracked his flying chances a few days after winning a stage. This up-and-down path knew more chapters in 2014, with a crushing fall on the roads of Belfast on the initial time-trial of the Giro d’Italia coming right after a devastating mishap on the last meters of the Liège. Rising from the tarmac, Martin gutted out a 7th overall position at the Vuelta a few months later and his luck completely spun on the Giro di Lombardia, ending the year on a high with a famous triumph.

Dan Martin, at the time racing for Garmin-Sharp, crosses the line at the 2013 Liège-Bastogne-Liège

Last year, after no wins and several near-misses on high-profile occasions (including two runner-up finishes at the Tour), the 29-year-old said adieu to his only professional organization, leaving Slipstream/Garmin to join Etixx-QuickStep, where his aggressive, risk taking racing style may thrive even more. At the peak of his physical abilities, Martin should look at the Rio de Janeiro Olympic Games as a chance to increase his profile among the Irish public, and the route certainly seems suited to incarnate the role of an outsider for gold.

Other Athletes: Robbie Keane (Football), Mark English (Athletics), Ken Doherty (Snooker), Paddy Barnes, Michael Conlan (Boxing), Fionnuala Britton (Athletics), Robert Hefferman (Athletics), Annalise Murphy (Sailing), Caroline Ryan (Cycling), Nicolas Roche (Cycling), Aileen Reid (Triathlon), Henri Shefflin (Hurling), Sanita Pušpure (Rowing)

Venues

The heart of Ireland’s sport and the country’s largest venue is the emblematic Croke Park in Dublin. Up to 82,300 people (73,500 seated) can watch the biggest events on the calendar, including the All-Ireland Senior Football and All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship Finals, days when the stadium throbs with excitement. Also doubling as the headquarters of the GAA, Croke was first opened in 1884 and experienced the latest renovation in the 90’s, reaching the current capacity, which makes it the third largest stadium in Europe after Barcelona’s Camp Nou and Wembley Stadium, in London. It is, thus, in a place of its own as a venue that isn’t usually used for football, even if in the last decade the rugby and football national teams played there while the Aviva Stadium was being erected. Croke is also sporadically used for concerts, especially since 2007, when floodlights were installed, with local boys U2 (you may have heard of them…) having performed there on four different occasions.

Croke Park brimful on an All-Ireland Championship Final day

Also located in Dublin, the modern Aviva Stadium holds 51,700 spectators since being opened in May 2010 on the grounds of the demolished Lansdowne Road. The former home of the Irish Rugby Football Union opened in 1872 and could welcome 48,000 (36,000 when all seated for football), but the advance of time deemed necessary the construction of a new arena to receive the rugby and football national teams. Therefore, the Aviva Stadium, adorned with a beautiful undulating roof, was assembled and has already received several high-profile events, including Six Nations Championship fixtures’, European and World Cup qualifiers’, the final of the 2011 UEFA Europa League, and the most important rugby matches of Leinster.

Aerial view of the stunning Aviva Stadium

The relatively modest capacity of the Aviva Stadium in comparison with Croke Park has been the subject of some criticism, and the truth is that the new infrastructure pales behind another venue used for Gaelic games, the Semple Stadium, which can accept 53,000 fans, half of them properly seated. The home of Tipperary GAA, a hurling powerhouse, is located in the city of Thurles, part of the province of Munster. Also boasting capacities above 40,000, even if significantly bloated by standing sections, are the Gaelic Grounds (49,500) in Limerick, the Páirc Uí Chaoimh (45,000) in Cork (currently closed for a redevelopment), and the Fitzgerald Stadium (43,180) in Killarney, incidentally all located in Munster and “dual” Gaelic football/hurling venues. The McHale Park, situated in Castlebar, on the province of Connacht, is the second GAA venue by seating capacity, with 38,000 seats.

Scrolling down the list ordered by capacity, the GAA teams dominate as the main tenant of the largest stadiums, with the next football/rugby arena being Limerick’s Thomond Park, where Munster Rugby usually lines up in front of close to 26,000. Meanwhile, their foes of Leinster mainly use the multi-purpose RDS Stadium in Dublin, where sell-out crowds can reach around 20,000 people. Football’s Irish Cup Final was contested there in 2007 and 2008, while the Aviva Stadium was under construction, but originally the venue was built to host show-jumping events, dating back to the XIX century, when the Dublin Horse Show competition was first organized. Today, the stadium’s demountable north and south stands are removed for equestrian occasions.

Munster’s Thomond Park prepares for a rugby match

In terms of racing grounds, the most traditional are the Fairyhouse Racecourse, a premier horse racing venue situated in Ratoath, Country Meat, on the province of Leinster, and Galway Sportsgrounds (capacity 7,500), which doubles as a greyhound racing track and stadium for Connacht Rugby’s matches.

Moving inside, Ireland lacks a state-of-the art national indoor arena, with the 3Arena, a 14,500-capacity amphitheatre located in the Dublin Docklands, functioning as the closest approximation. However, it is not a sports venue but a Music Hall erected on the site of the former Point Theatre, a versatile building that functioned from 1988 to 2007, a period when ice skating, boxing and wrestling events were part of the calendar alongside a multitude of cultural appointments.

The project of the so-called National Indoor Arena – in reality more of an indoor sports campus – based in Blanchardstown, a suburb of Dublin, is in the works, with the final configuration expected to include athletics and gymnastics training centres and multi-purpose sports facilities capable of receiving national and international competitions.

Dublin’s unique National Boxing Stadium on fight night

Nowadays, from the capital’s menu of sports venues deserve nomination the National Boxing Stadium (capacity: 2000) – the only purpose-built boxing stadium in the world – which dates back to 1939, and the National Basketball Arena (capacity: 2500), also known as Tallaght Arena, which is chiefly used by Ireland’s national basketball team. Else, the National Aquatic Centre is the main indoor aquatics facility in Ireland, housing a 50m swimming pool which hosted the swimming events of the 2003 Special Olympics World Summer Games, the 2003 European Short Course Swimming Championships, and a number of international water polo events.

Yearly Events

As referred early, the most awaited sports events in Ireland are the All-Ireland Senior Football/Hurling Championships, tournaments that are contested throughout the summer and culminate in the finals being held in late summer/early autumn. The hurling decider takes place in the first (or second) Sunday of September at Croke Park, while the correspondent gaelic football encounter is played later in the month, on the third or fourth Sunday. Additionally, the women’s finals (taking into account that camogie is the female variant of hurling) take place on the ensuing Sunday to the men’s correspondent event and are also held at Croke Park.

Football’s main division, the feeble “League of Ireland” is classified as a summer league, with the seasons beginning in March and rapping up in November, while the Pro 12 competition, the rugby league that includes the four professional teams in Ireland (Leinster, Ulster, Munster and Connacht) is disputed between September and May, with an interregnum in February and March for the Six Nations Championship. Ireland’s annual pair (or trio) of home matches for this competition is held at the Aviva Stadium.

For a summary of Ireland’s main sporting events yearly scheduling, look below:

Six Nations Championship, Rugby
Dublin, February and March

Fairyhouse Easter Festival, Horse Racing
Ratoath (County Meath), March

The Irish Grand National is a popular Steeplechase horse racing event held every Easter Monday at the Fairyhouse Racecourse

Irish Open International, Martial Arts
Dublin, March

Irish Open, Golf
Location varies every year, May

Dublin Horse Show, Show Jumping
Dublin, July

The Galway Races, Horse Racing
Galway, July

All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship, Hurling
Dublin, September

All-Ireland Senior Football Championship, Gaelic Football
Dublin, September

Dublin Marathon, Athletics
Dublin, October

European Tour of Sports – Romania

The Basics

Population: 20.1 M
Area: 238 391 km2
Capital: Bucharest
Summer Olympic Medals: 301 (88 G-94 S-119 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 1 (0 G-0 S-1 B)

Popular sports and History

Romania places in a very honourable 15th position on the all-time Olympic Games’ medal count, and there is an edition that contributed with more than one in six medals conquered for the country. In 1984, at Los Angeles, Romania only trailed the hosts, collecting 20 golds and a total of 53 laurels, a haul never approached before or after. Those Olympic Games were indelibly marked by the boycott of the rest of the so-called Eastern Bloc, headlined by the Soviet Union, but Romania’s feats can’t be belittled as they reigned supreme over powerhouses like China, Japan or West Germany. And that performance came in the middle of a stretch where the country amassed, at least, 24 medals on four consecutive editions, starting in Montreal 76 and ending in Seoul 1988. Those were the heydays of Romania’s artistic gymnastics, but we’ll get to that later.

Our first stop is on a sport that hasn’t contributed to the more than 300 medals conquered on the Olympic stage, but it is, nonetheless, the most beloved by Romanians. The nation’s football history has no record of a major international triumph by the “Tricolorii”, the Romanian National team, but they’ve participated in seven World Cups, with the pinnacle being a quarter-final in 1994, a tournament highlighted by the elimination of Argentina. On the continental stage, Romania will take part for the fifth time on the European Championships in 2016, hoping to best the quarter-finals achieved in 2000.

Connecting the squads of 1994 and 2000 was one man above all others, The “Regele” (“The King”) of Romanian football, Mr. Gheorghe Hagi. The exquisite playmaker graced the fields of Europe for two decades and is not only one of the few players to have represented both Real Madrid (1990-92) and FC Barcelona (1992-94), but also a legend in Turkey, where he’ll forever be remembered as “The Commander” by Galatasaray fans. Hagi’s technique and vision were responsible for another nickname, “The Maradona of the Carpathians”, and the recognition as the greatest Romanian player of all-time, a country he represented in 137 occasions (35 goals).

Gheorghe Hagi with the Romanian jersey on the 1994 World Cup

Names like those of Gheorghe Popescu, who also played for Barcelona and Galatasaray, and Miodrag Belodedici, the first player to win the European Cup for two different clubs (Steaua Bucharest (1986) and Red Star Belgrade (1991), are also inked in the nation’s books, while Mircea Lucescu served Romania as a player (70 appearances) and coach (1981-86), but is most recognized for an illustrious career as a manager in Italy, Ukraine and Turkey, where he led Hagi and Galatasaray to an unprecedented triumph on the 2000 UEFA Cup.

At the club level, FC Steaua București is, undoubtedly, the most important institution, becoming the first Eastern Europe club to win the European Cup, in 1986, and losing the final three years later. Steaua also has a record number of National Championships (26) and National Cups (22), with fierce rivals Dinamo București coming next. Dinamo was the first Romanian team to reach the semi-finals of the European Cup, in 1984, defeating the holders Hamburg SV. FC Rapid București, FC Universitatea Craiova and CFR Cluj have also amassed a significant number of national honours.

Handball is the second team sport in Romania, with the men’s national team securing the World Championships on four occasions (1961, 64, 70, 74), tied for the most with Sweden, and adding four medals in Olympic tournaments (silver in 1976, bronze in 1972, 1980, 1984). However, Romania has been away from the top over the last two decades, missing all but two (2009 and 2011) World tournaments since 1997, and failing to qualify for the European Championships and Olympic Games since the early 90’s. Both Steaua București (1968 and 1977) and Dinamo București (1965) have won the sport’s Champions League, while CS UCM Reşiţa, HC Odorheiu Secuiesc and HC Minaur Baia Mare have secured other European competitions.

The Women’s National team won the World Championship in 1962, came second in 1973 and 2005, and has never missed the tournament, something no other nation can claim. CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea triumphed on every European Cup, except for the Champions League (finalists in 2010), and also holds the record for most national titles on the women’s side.

Romania is a top European nation in Rugby, having competed in every World Cup. The Stejarii (”The Oaks”) picked up the European Nations Cup (also called the Six Nations B, a tournament instituted in 2000) in four instances, trailing only Georgia, their challenger for the right to be considered the seventh best team on the continent. In their history, Romania has managed to beat France, Italy, Scotland and Wales, four of the Six Nations.

The Romanian rugby national team celebrated after a win over Canada on the 2015 World Cup

Other team sports that boast some relevancy on Romania’s sports landscape are basketball, volleyball and water polo. The Romanian men’s Basketball team finished 5th on the 1957 and 1967 Eurobasket, but hasn’t qualified for the competition since 1987, while their women’s counterparts took part in the 2015 Eurobasket, by virtue of co-organizing the competition with Hungary, and were defeated in all four matches. Gheorghe Mureșan isn’t the best Romanian Basketball player of all-time, since that honour goes to Andrei Folbert, captain of the national team for 25 years, but he’s definitely the most recognizable face, becoming the first to compete in the NBA and, in the process, sharing the distinction as the tallest man ever in the League, standing at 2.31 m.

Romania men’s volleyball team captured a silver medal in the 1980 Olympic Games and reached the podium in the World Cup on four occasions, from 1956 to 1966, while the water polo representation is a regular in the most important international competitions, even if they have never been able to guarantee a top three position.

Nadia Comaneci, an Olympic legend at age 14

For Romania, no sport has been engraved more on the world scale than artistic gymnastics, with a strong tradition rooted on the successes of their ladies. The sport has managed to fetch a staggering total of 72 Olympic medals, including 25 golds, and contributed with the best female athlete in Romania’s history. A 14-year-old girl by the name of Nadia Comaneci took by storm the 1976 Olympics and became the first ever gymnast to score a perfect ten during her routine on the uneven bars, one of the most memorable moments in Olympic Games’ history. She conquered three individual gold medals (uneven bars, balance beam and all-around competition) in Montreal, and added two more in Moscow 1980, leaving his Olympic tally in 5 titles, three silver medals, including two on the team competition, and a bronze.

Comaneci’s achievements transcended her sport and brought a great deal of attention to Gymnastics, something her country beneficiated from on the following Olympics, with Ecaterina Szabo collecting gold medals in three (vault, balance beam, floor) of the four individual events in Los Angeles 84. She also added the team triumph, missing the all-around crown for just 0.5 points to home favourite Mary Lou Retton. In 1988, it was Daniela Silivaș’ time to shine, medalling in all six events of the Seoul Olympics, including the titles in the uneven bars, floor exercise and balance beam. Romania’s prowess has continued into the 21st century, carried on by Olympic Champions like Sandra Izbașa and Cătălina Ponor, who combined for nine medals, five of them golds. On the men’s side, Marius Urzică and his unique style on the pommel horse were catalysts to a career highlighted by three Olympic medals in the event on consecutive Games (1996-2004), and three World Championships titles.

Another individual sport rooted in Romania’s lore is tennis, mainly by the achievements of the third member of Romanian sports’ gold triangle (alongside Hagi and Comaneci). Ilie Năstase is the only Romanian to ever become World N.1* (between August 1973 and June 1974) but he didn’t stop there. He won Roland Garros in 1972 without dropping a set on the entire tournament, the US Open in 1973, and four ATP Tour Finals, the most important titles of the more than 100 he amassed between singles and doubles. Năstase also led Romania to three Davis Cup finals (1969, 1971, 1972), losing out on the trophy at the hands of the USA on every occasion. Nonetheless, the long campaigns forged a partnership with teammate Ion Țiriac, who rose as far as 8th on the singles rankings before building a reputation as a billionaire businessman, tennis coach, manager and tournament promotor.

Ilie Năstase, Romania’s best tennis player of all-time

On the female circuit, Virginia Ruzici is (by now) the most accomplished player hailing from Romania, having won the French Open in 1978 on both singles and doubles. On the Fed Cup, Romania went as far as the semi-finals in 1973, but the country has been away from the top division since 1992, a run of futility that will end in 2016 due to a renaissance of the women’s game expressed on the presence of five players among the top 100 in the World. Meanwhile, no Romanian man is currently on the top 100 of the ATP Tour Singles Ranking.

*Horia Tecău, alongside Dutch Jean-Julien Rojer, climbed to the lead of the ATP Doubles Rankings today (23/11/2015) after winning the Masters

The second sport in Romania’s history in terms of Olympic silverware is rowing, with 37 medals conquered. Elisabeta Lipă collected a total of eight over a run of six consecutive Olympic Games, from 1984 to 2004, a feat no other rower has ever achieved. She ascended to the podium propelling four different boats, the singles, doubles and quadruple sculls plus the eight-oared boat. Likewise, the 20 years that mediated the first and last of her five Olympic titles are a record in the sport. Also on the history books, Georgeta Damian won six medals (5 titles) from 2000 to 2008, on the coxless pair and eights, first pairing with Doina Ignat (4G+1S+1B) and later with Viorica Susanu (4G+1 B). In London 2012, for the first time in 36 years, Romania came home without a medal from their rowers.

Also impelling the water, Ivan Patzaichin hauled seven Olympic medals (four titles) on Canoeing from 1968 to 1984, later becoming the long-time head of the Romanian national team on a sport that has contributed with 34 medals for the country’s tally.

Alina Dumitru, Judo Olympic Champion in Beijing 2008

Fencing is another sport that enjoys great tradition, with six Romanians among the sport’s Hall of Fame, and 15 medals, spanning every weapon, accumulated since the 50’s. The track and field events (Athletics) place third on the nation’s list of Olympic offerings, with 35 honours, and the women have also been responsible for most of the biggest moments, at least recently: Constantina Diță was the marathon Olympic Champion in 2008; Gabriela Szabo won the 5000 meters of the 2000 Sidney Olympics; Lidia Simon was a silver medallist on the marathon in the same edition, and Ionela Târlea a runner up on the 400 meters hurdles in Athens 2004.

Judo has come into the spotlight over the last few years, with half of the sport’s six medals conquered in 2008 and 2012. Alina Dumitru was a surprising Olympic Champion in Beijing on the -48kg category, and won silver four years later, while Corina Căprioriu lost the decisive encounter in London on the -57kg. Boxing, Wrestling, weightlifting and shooting have also brought joy to the Romanian people on multiple occasions.

Romania’s history on the Winter Olympics is much less impressive, including a single moment of glory, back in the 1968 edition, when the two-man bobsleigh crew of Ion Panturu and Nicolae Neagoe stepped up on the lower podium position.

To wrap it up, a reference to Romania’s own traditional sport, Oină, a team game sharing similarities with baseball that is also played on neighbouring Moldova, and wherever there is a Romanian ethnic or cultural presence.

Star Athletes

Simona Halep (Tennis)

The picturesque city of Constanța, on the edge of the Black Sea, welcomed Halep to the world in September of 1991 and, from early on, the diminutive Simona displayed tremendous talent and passion for the game. The pursuit of the dream to become a professional led to a move to Bucharest at age 16 and a triumph on the 2008 Roland Garros Junior event would soon follow, enlisting the Romanian on the list of biggest promises in the sport. She would dip her toe on the WTA during 2009, but her results didn’t really took off until she made the extremely brave decision to have breast reduction surgery in order to improve her career prospects, citing recurring back pain and trouble with the additional weight.

Simona Halep clutches the Indian Wells trophy, the most important she’s conquered on her career

From 2010 to 2012, Halep slowly improved her game and adapted to the top-level, despite failing to go past the second round on any Grand Slam or conquer a WTA trophy. In 2013, she finally put it all together and broke into the scene with a bang, winning her maiden tournament in June, at Nuremberg, and adding five more until the end of the season, to finish with six on three different surfaces (clay, grass and hard courts). She climbed from just inside to top 50 all the way to 11th, was named WTA Most Improved Player of the Year, and set her sight on breaking into the top 10. A quarterfinal performance at the 2014 Australian Open did the trick and Halep didn’t look back. Her first Grand Slam final followed soon, ultimately losing to Maria Sharapova at Roland Garros, but she also reached the semi-finals at Wimbledon, triumphed on the important Qatar Open, and celebrated, at home, on the Bucharest Open. By August, Halep had already became the 2nd player in the world and she ended 2014 with an impressive debut at the WTA Finals, defeating Serena Williams during the group stage before succumbing to the same opponent on the final.

In 2015, Halep solidified her grip on the top positions of the WTA Rankings, ending the season as the Number 2, but couldn’t take a step forward in the Grand Slams, with a semi-final at the US Open as the best outcome. However, her triumph at Indian Wells, a Premier Tournament, represented the most relevant trophy of her career and, at age 24, she has a lot ahead, with her aggressive game from the baseline combined with great athleticism and balance well suited for more successes down the road.

Marian Drăgulescu (Artistic Gymnastics)

So, up there I wrote almost 300 words on artistic gymnastics and Romania’s history on the ladies side, and now I’ll feature a male gymnast? It’s certainly strange but the pool of candidates it’s so much deeper on the women’s side that I had to scramble a bit.

Marian Drăgulescu is still picking up medals for his country at age 34

Anyway, Marian Drăgulescu is a more than qualified athlete to be here. After all, the 34-year-old has won a staggering amount of 26 medals between Olympics, World and European Championships. The Bucharest-native toggled with other sports as a youngster but ended up choosing gymnastics, and the decision paid off on the first international championship he competed in, the 1998 Junior European Championships, which he left with four medals. Two years later, on the 2000 Olympics, Drăgulescu was a 20-year-old newcomer that performed modestly among the big boys but, by the 2001 World Championships, the Romanian was already amongst the best, taking gold on the vault and floor exercise, the first two of his eight career world titles. Three more medals settled his spot on the top in 2002, netting the recognition as Gymnast of the year, and he reached the 2004 Olympics fresh of four triumphs on the European Championships (team competition, vault, floor exercise and all-around).

In Athens, he became a household name on his country by gathering a trio of medals. First, the 23-year-old helped secure a bronze on the team event, then came out second on the floor exercise, losing the title on a tiebreaker, and later added another bronze medal on the vault. On this event, Drăgulescu failed to secure the title after making an error on his second attempt, and the disappointment trickled into an extemporaneous retirement announcement in 2005, from which he returned before long to take the vault title on the World Championships. Two years later, a heavy fall during the European Championships derailed his preparation to the Beijing Olympics, and history ended up repeating itself, with the vault Olympic title escaping again after a near perfect first routine.

He left Beijing empty handed, retired and unretired again in 2009, and went through some tough seasons, pulling out of the 2012 Olympics due to injury. By 2015, approaching age-35, way past the peak for most gymnasts, Drăgulescu is still hanging on with the best, as proved by the gold medal conquered on the vault at the 2015 World Championships. Time will tell if he can finally write his name in gold on Olympic history next year, but the “Drăgulescu”, a move described as “a handspring double front with half turn” will stand the test of time on the future of the vault apparatus.

Cristina Neagu (Handball)

The 27-year-old born in Bucharest has carved a place amongst the top-echelon of female handball players in the World after shining on several occasions for her country at the international stage. Neagu debuted on the professional ranks for Rulmentul Braşov in 2006, and helped the team to an EHF Cup Winner’s Cup trophy in 2008 and three runner-up positions on the national league, behind a CS Oltchim Râmnicu Vâlcea club that was starting a string of seven consecutive titles. The left back switched sides in 2009, just as she was becoming the best player on the country, and the new challenge proved decisive for a 2010 season that would leave an indelible mark on her career.

She led Oltchim to the Champions League final, lost to Denmark’s Viborg, and then dazzled at the European Championships, where she won the top scorer award, was elected to the tournament’s All-Star Team, and helped Romania to a first podium position in history. Her performance was so impressive that she was named as the IHF World Player of the Year.

Cristina Neagu, Romania’s handball national team lethal left back

However, in 2010-11, Neagu started an injury ordeal that would last almost three years, first due to damage on her right shoulder cartilage that kept her out for two seasons and, in early 2013, after a rupture on the cruciate ligaments of her left knee. Before 2013-14, the Romania star left her country to join Montenegro’s ŽRK Budućnost Podgorica, and found her stride again, repeating the All Star Team distinction in the 2014 European Championships just a few months before coming in 2nd on the election for World Player of the Year. Her team lost the Champions League Final in 2014, but Neagu’s ability as a scorer carried them back to the decision in 2015, with the Romanian winning the biggest title of her career until today.

Other Athletes: Cătălin Fercu and Florin Vlaicu (Rugby), Cătălina Ponor and Sandra Izbașa (Artistic Gymnastics), Ana Maria Brânză and Simona Gherman (Épée, Fencing), Tiberiu Dolceanu (Sabre, Fencing), Alin Moldoveanu (shooting), Corina Căprioriu and Andreea Chițu (Judo), Elizabeta Samara (Table Tennis), Horia Tecău (Tennis), Alexandru Dumitrescu (Canoeing), Vlad Chiricheș (Football)

Venues

Romania doesn’t boast the same deep pockets that their western neighbours have demonstrated when it comes to building shinny new top sporting facilities, but they’ve steadily worked to modernize and substitute the most important venues in the country.

The symbol of that is the state-of-the-art Arena Națională (National Arena), which opened in 2011 and substituted the former Stadionul Național, the home of the national football team between 1953 and 2008. The 55.600-seats venue, located on the Romanian capital, has hosted, in addition to national team matches’, the 2012 UEFA Europa League Final – the first ever European football final held in the country – and several continental appointments of the country’s main clubs, especially Steaua and Dinamo Bucharest. In 2020, the stadium will receive four matches of the 2020 UEFA European Championships.

The Arena Națională on the night of the inaugural match, between Romania and France.

Beyond the National Arena, there are three more stadiums that can accommodate more than 30.000 people: the Dan Paltinisanu Stadium (32.972), in Timișoara, opened in 1964; the 1983’s Stadionul Iftimie Ilisei (32.700), in Medgidia; and the majestic Cluj Arena (30.201), a modern venue erected in 2011 to be used by Fotbal Club Universitatea Cluj. This arena is also equipped with a running track, opening the possibility of welcoming important athletics’ meetings. CFR Cluj, the city’s most famous club, plays on the Stadionul Dr. Constantin Rădulescu, a facility with capacity for 23.500 that dates back to 1973.

Steaua Bucharest’s long-time home, the Stadionul Steaua, is owned by the Ministry of National Defence, and disagreements with the government meant the club had to move out from the place they occupied since 1974. Until a solution is found, they’ve transferred to the Arena Națională. Opened in 2011, the Stadionul Ilie Oană, in Ploiești, seats just 15.500, but it’s one of the only three Romanian venues (alongside the Arena Națională and Cluj Arena) ranked by UEFA as a category 4 stadium, thus able to host Champions League and Europa League matches.

On a different perspective, the Stadionul Naţional de Rugby “Arcul de Triumf” deserves a reference, as the 5.500-seats facility is considered the historical ground of the Romanian national rugby team.

In terms of indoor arenas, the Sala Polivalentă (Polyvalent Hall) din București, with a capacity for up to 5.300, is the main hall for sports events in the capital. Renovated in 2008 and 2011, the building has hosted several high-end events in a number of sports, such as the final of the 2000 Women’s Handball European Championships, the 2014 European Judo Championships, or the 2009 European Weightlifting Championships. However, there’s a bigger indoor venue in Bucharest, the Romexpo, an iconic building for combat sports in Romania, since almost 14.000 can watch the battles on scene. With the concert configuration, though, 40.000 can flock inside a hall that dates back to 1962.

Cluj-Napoca’s Sala Polivalentă during an handball match

Cluj-Napoca’s own Sala Polivalentă opened up in October 2014, alongside the new Cluj Arena, and can host 10.000 fans for boxing or concerts and, approximately, 7300 for basketball and handball matches. The local men’s basketball (U BT Cluj-Napoca) and women’s handball (Universitatea Alexandrion Cluj-Napoca) teams hold their games on the hall.

In Craiova, the Sala Polivalentă is also very recent, having been inaugurated in 2012. The arena holds 4200 spectators in the matches of the city’s volleyball, basketball and handball teams. The Sala Sporturilor Olimpia, in Ploiești, was renovated from 2011 to 2013, and now welcomes 3500 spectators for the matches of CSU Asesoft Ploiești, the most successful basketball team in the country during this century, winners of 10 of the last 11 national championships.

Staying indoors but on a different surface, the Patinoarul Olimpic Brașov is a multi-purpose ice rink, with 1600 seats, inaugurated in 2010 with the goal of hosting the festivities of the 2013 European Youth Winter Olympic Festival. The ski jumping events for the Festival were held at the Râșnov Ski Jump, a hill that has hosted rounds of the ladies’ FIS Ski Jumping World Cup.

Meanwhile, the Patinoarul Mihai Flamaropol holds 8.000 and is the venue used by the Steaua Rangers, the ice hockey section of Steaua Bucharest and the sport’s most decorated club in Romania. The capital’s rink will be demolished to make space for a new 16.000-seats facility on the proximity of the Arena Națională.

Getting back outside, the Arenele BNR is a tennis complex with 11 courts – including a stadium with capacity for 5.000 – which hosts the WTA and ATP Tour annual events held in Bucharest.

Yearly Events

You can’t really say Romania has a league nested on Europe’s top-level (except maybe in women’s handball), but you’ll surely find some decent matches dotted around the country in various sports. Several handball, basketball and football teams are competitive on international competitions, so keep an eye on the league’s schedules from August to May.
For some of the main sporting events held on the country during the year, look below:

Irina Deleanu Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics (World Cup Series)
Bucharest, April

The Arenele BNR Stadium on a night session

BRD Năstase Țiriac Trophy (Romanian Open), Tennis (ATP Tour)
Bucharest, April

Cluj-Napoca International Marathon, Athletics

Cluj-Napoca, April

Spring Cup, Rhythmic Gymnastics
Ploiești, May

BRD Bucharest Open, Tennis (WTA Tour)
Bucharest, July

Bucharest Trophy, (Women’s) Handball

Bucharest, August

Constanța-Mamaia ETU Triathlon European Cup, Triathlon
Constanța-Mamaia (Constanța district), September

Bucharest International Marathon, Athletics
Bucharest, October

European Tour of Sports – Hungary

The Basics

Population: 9.8 M

Area: 93 030 km2

Capital: Budapest

Summer Olympic Medals: 476 (167 G-144 S-165 B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 6 (0 G-2 S-4 B)

Popular sports

There are seven countries in the world that can proudly boast to have collected more Olympic medals than Hungary. Of those, only Sweden has a better medal per capita rating, and missing the 1920 and 1984 Games does not help the Magyars numbers even if they still lead in golds per people. However, Hungary is undoubtedly the most successful country to never host an edition of the Olympics.

For the majority of sports fans, the most recognizable team in the country’s history is the Golden team, the national football team that dominated this sport’s landscape in the early 50’s. Also known as the Mighty Magyars, the team headlined by legendary Ferenc Puskás, Sándor Kocsis and Zoltán Czibor redefined football with his revolutionary WM formation (2-3-3-2), a tactical breakthrough based on versatility that would inspire the “Total Football” that Netherlands implemented a couple of decades later. This mythical football side, coached by Gusztáv Sébes, won the 1952 Olympic tournament, demolished a pretentious English national team on two notable clashes, and lost only once from 1950 to 1956, precisely the 1954 Wold Cup Final, a controversial match that West Germany secured on what went to become known as the “Bern Miracle” and one of the biggest upsets in sports history. Nonetheless, the Hungarian Revolution of 1956 effectively scattered the core of this magical team, with the main stars leaving home powerhouse Budapest Honvéd to play at FC Barcelona or Real Madrid. The football national team was also a runner-up on the 1938 World Cup and added two more Olympic gold medals in 1964 and 1968, but the pipeline of talent has gone dry over the last decades, with the last Wold Cup appearance dating back to 1986, and the 4th place on the 1972 European Championship being the last noteworthy outcome.

Hungarian Legend Férenc Puskás (#10, right) and RFA’s Captain Fritz Walter exchange pleasantries before the 1954 World Cup Final kick off

The most successful clubs on the country are the capital’s representatives: Ferencváros, holders of a record 28 championship titles, MTK Budapest, Újpest and Honvéd, but over the last few years new powers have emerged, namely Debrecen, winners of seven of the last ten national titles, and current champions Videoton, based on the city of Székesfehérvár. With the apex of the nation’s football coming on the early 50’s, before the creation of European Cups, Hungarian clubs don’t have a highly decorated continental history, with the only triumph belonging to Ferencváros, winner of the Inter-Cities Fairs Cup in 1965.

Today, the most important team sport in Hungary is water polo, with no other nation gathering as much Olympic glory on the game. Nine Olympic gold medals on the men’s event and a total of fifteen in twenty-five editions display the domination of the nation on the world scale, with the most famous match of all-time opposing the Magyars and the Soviet Union on the height of the Hungarian uprising of 1956. The semi-final of the 1956 Melbourne Games will forever be known as the “Blood in the Water match” after Valentin Prokorov punched Ervin Zador’s eye on the final minutes of Hungary’s 4-0 win, with the blood pouring on the water almost causing a riot of the Hungarian fans that forced the game to be called off in the final minute. Holders of three World Championships and twelve European Championships, Hungary took gold in three consecutive Olympic tournaments at the beginning of this century but lost on the quarter-finals to Italy in London 2012, while the women’s team has yet to medal on four editions. Deszõ Gyarmati, a three-time Olympic Champion (1952, 1962 and 1964) and five-time medallist, is the most decorated player in the history of the sport and later, as a coach, led the Magyar nation to three more medals, including gold in 1976. He scored a goal and set up the other three in the infamous battle of Melbourne.

The Hungarian Water Polo team celebrates after winning the Olympic title in 2008

Handball is the other team sport with great relevance in Hungary. Although the national team has never medalled in the Olympics, Hungary has finished an incredible five times just outside the podium, in 4th, the last of those in 2012. In European Championships they haven’t been able to do better than that, whereby the only laureate came in 1986, when they lost the World Championship final to Yugoslavia despite the best efforts of left-back Péter Kovács, the most prolific and most capped player in Hungarian handball history. At the club level, MKB Veszprém holds two EHF Cup Winner’s Cup and a record 23 national titles, being followed by the 14 of Honvéd, the only Hungarian club to win the EHF Champions League, in 1982. Meanwhile, Pick Szeged, the main internal competition to Veszprém, triumphed in the EHF Cup in 2014. On the women’s side, the leading team is Győri ETO, winner of the last seven national championships and European Champions in 2013 and 2014. The female national team was the European Champion in 2000, the World Champion in 1965, and a runner-up on the 2000 Sidney Olympics.

Shifting attentions to individual performances, fencing is the sport that has contributed the most to the honourable Hungarian Olympic total, with 83 medals amassed, 35 of those golds. On a country that excels in producing sabre and epee specialists, a good portion of those awards were conquered due to the efforts of Aladár Gerevich, the only man in history to win six Olympic titles on the same event (sabre team competition, 1932-1960), to which he added the individual title in 1948. His colleague Pál Kovács shared part of the credit in five of those six consecutive Olympic golds, competing from 1936 to 1960 and triumphing on the individual event in 1952, while Rudolf Kárpáti also managed to collect six gold medals, four on the team event (1948 to 1960) and the individual spoils in 1956 and 1960. Hadn’t the WWII wiped out two editions of the Games, their trophy cabinets would be even more crammed.

Katalin Kóvacs (front) and Natasa Dusev-Janics have achieved multiple sucesses representing Hungary over the last decade

Below fencing on the podium of sports with most medals, we find two water sports that display the expertise of the Magyars despite being a landlocked nation. Indeed, no sea access doesn’t necessarily mean few aquatic resources and the presence of two important rivers, the Danube and the Tizsa, along with Lake Balaton, the largest in Central Europe, allow for plenty of training opportunities for swimmers and canoeists. Krisztina Egerszegi is probably the biggest name in Hungary’s swimming history, being the only female swimmer to win five individual Olympic titles and one of three athletes to win the same swimming event (200 m backstroke) in three Summer Olympics (1988, 1992, 1996). However, she is joined by Tamás Darnyi, who collected four gold medals in 1988 and 1992 and went undefeated in individual medley events between 1985 and 1993, which also grants him recognition as one of the greatest of all-time in the sport. Meanwhile, sprint canoeist Katalin Kovács holds a record of 40 World Championships medals, including 31 titles, and added eight more on Olympic competitions, all in team events, sharing the K2-500m wins in 2004 and 2008 with Natasa Dusev-Janics.

Gymnastics, wrestling and boxing have also provided a fair share of success to the country, with double digit Olympic titles. In particular, artistic gymnastics has contributed with several Hungarian idols: Ágnes Keleti, who won 10 Olympic medals in just two Games (1952 and 1956), including five golds, is considered one of the most successful Jewish athletes of all-time, and Zoltán Magyar was a double Olympic champion in the Pommel Horse discipline. Boxer László Papp is one of the most notable Hungarian-born athletes of all-time, becoming the first boxing triple Olympic Champion in 1956 and never losing a fight in his professional career (27 wins plus 2 draws)
However, outside of Water Polo, there’s only one other sport where Hungary leads the all-time medal count and that is the modern pentathlon, with 22 medals achieved in 38 total events in Olympic history. András Balczó owns five of them, collected between 1960 and 1972, when he conquered his only individual Olympic title.

Hungary’s only medals in Winter Olympic Games were achieved in figure skating and always in pair’s competitions, with the last of the six dating back to 1980. Going outside the Olympic spectrum, it’s important to remember the Hungarian prowess in chess, spearheaded by the talents of recently retired Judit Polgár, by far the most decorated female player in history.

Star Athletes

Dániel Gyurta (Swimming)

The 26-year old swimmer from Budapest was considered a premature prodigy since his early days and he didn’t take long to make a big splash. As a 15-year-old, he was second on the 200m breaststroke race of the Athens Olympics, in 2004, but that feat did not materialize on more successes right away, with Gyurta failing to medal again in big long-course competitions until 2009. In between, he added some silverware on less important short-course (SC) events and failed to defend his position on the 2008 Olympics, missing the podium by two positions. However, he found the right path at the 2009 World Championships (LC), taking the title on his favourite race, the 200m, and he hasn’t stopped picking up medals since then. He renewed his World title in 2011 and 2013, extended his dominance on the longest breaststroke event to the 2010 and 2012 SC Worlds, and reached the pinnacle with the Olympic title conquered on the 2012 London Games in a new world record time. He has since lost that record but continues to be the most feared swimmer on the 200m breaststroke, a race Gyurta usually starts slowly in order to roar back on the second half and surprise his opponents.

The three times Hungarian Sportsman of the Year (2009, 2012 and 2013), although, is more than just a Champion, having received the 2013 International Fair Play Award, attributed by UNESCO, due to his magnificent tribute to fallen rival Alexander Dalen Oen, a Norwegian breaststroker who died months before the 2012 Olympics and whose family received a replica of the Gold medal won by Gyurta.

Krisztián Berki (Gymnastics)

Olympic Champion Krisztián Berki prolongs Hungary’s tradition of great gymnasts

Born in 1985, Berki is currently rated as the best pommel horse worker of all-time, having completely dominated the gymnastic discipline over the last few years. He has collected six European titles since his first major international championship, in 2005, on the edition held on Debrecen, and added three World titles in 2010, 2011 and 2014, results that netted him the nomination as Hungarian Sportsman of the Year on the same seasons.

However, there’s nothing like an Olympic gold medal and Berki also climbed to the highest podium position in London 2012, seeing off the challenge put on by British Louis Smith due to a tiebreaker after both athletes finished the competition with the same score. Berki had a higher execution score by a difference of 0.1 points to luck out into the win, but he wouldn’t be as happy a year later after a fall on the qualifications round forced him out of his World title defence. In 2016, Berki will try to match compatriot Zóltan Magyar, striving to retain the Olympic crown.

Katinka Hosszú (Swimming)

I made a commitment to always select, at least, a female athlete on this section and I stand by that, even if, in this case, I needed to bend another rule, the one about not profiling two athletes from the same sport. The golden girl of Hungarian sport, though, is too important to leave out and Mr. Gyurta simply deserved his spot.

Hosszú, a 26-year-old native of Pecs, is one of the brightest and better-rounded swimmers of this age and her résumé on international championships (European and World Championships, both short and long course) boasts an astonishing 43 medals, 22 of those of the highest calibre. Her greatest successes have come on medley competitions but she has already participated and taken victories in every swimming discipline (freestyle, butterfly, breaststroke and backstroke). Anyway, Hosszú’s best races are the 200m and 400m medley and the gold medals on the LC World Championships came on those events, first in Rome 2009 (200m) and later the double triumph of Barcelona 2013.

Katinka Hosszú after another triumph

The Hungarian Sportswoman of the year in 2009, 2013 and 2014 competed in the last three Summer Olympics but failed to deliver on those occasions, something she will be eager to correct at Rio de Janeiro in 2016, which shouldn’t be a problem if the swimmer can maintain the level displayed last year. During the most decorated season of his career, Hosszú collected eight medals on the SC World Championships, including four titles, and added six more medals on the LC European Championships, an inordinate amount of prizes that earned her the distinction as FINA Swimmer of the Year.

The University of South California student also currently holds four individual World Records on short course (100, 2000 medley; 100, 200 backstroke) and the last three World Cup titles. She is married to his coach (and agent), American Shane Tusup, who received the award for Best Hungarian Coach of the Year in 2013 and 2014.

Other Athletes: László Cseh (Swimming), Krisztián Pars (Athletics), Gergely Kiss, Péter Biros (Water Polo), László Nagy (Handball), Áron Szilágyi (Fencing), Attila Vajda (Canoe Sprint), Miklós Hungvári (Judo), Danuta Kozák (Canoe sprint), Anita Görbicz (Handball), Éva Risztov (Swimming), Éva Csernoviczki (Judo)

Venues

Hungary’s sporting infrastructure is under complete overhaul, with the government approving, for example, a bizarre program to pump up, approximately, 250 M$ to upgrade and rebuild a total of 22 stadiums on the top two football divisions of the country.

The brand new Nagyerdei Stadion

In 2014, three new stadiums were already opened: the 23,700-seats Groupama Arena in Budapest, the new home of Ferencváros, the majestic Nagyerdei Stadion (Great Forest Stadium), in Debrecen, with a capacity for 20,000, and the polemic Pancho Arena, in Felcsút. The costly 3,500-seats facility is located on the small village of current Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and is destined for the country’s youth national teams, having already hosted games of the 2014 UEFA Euro Under-19.
The city of Győr also has a modern stadium, the ETO Park, a 15,600 arena built in 2008, but the biggest stadium in Hungary continues to be the Férenc Puskás Stadium, situated in the capital. Opened in 1953, the national stadium now holds 38,000 but, during the glory football days of the country, over 100,000 attended matches at the then-called Népstadium (People’s stadium). As an infrastructure highly deteriorated, options for a renovation or a rebuild have been weighted for years, with the current plans pointing to the construction of a new 68,000-seats facility on the same grounds and ready to open in 2018, in time to host matches of the 2020 UEFA European Championship. Numerous other sporting venues should also be erected on the vicinity of the new National Stadium, creating an Olympic Centre.

However, even before the new stadium, Hungary has already promised to build, in record time, the new Dagaly Swimming Center: an edgy state-of-the-art facility with capacity for 18,000 that was supposed to host the 2021 FINA World Aquatics Championships, but his now on track to receive the event’s edition in 2017, in what promises to be the largest-scale sports event ever hosted by Hungary. Yet, as of today, the most important swimming complexes in the country are the Debrecen venue, a 2,000-seats building that hosted the 2012 European Aquatics Championships, and Budapest’s Alfréd Hajós National Swimming Stadium, home of the 2006 and 2010 editions of the European Championships and the 2014 European Water Polo Championships.

The Laszlo Papp Budapest Sports Arena during last year’s EHF Women’s Champions League Final 4

The new natatorium will become the biggest indoor sporting venue in Hungary, surpassing the László Papp Budapest Sports Arena, the most important multi-purpose arena in the country. Welcoming up to 12,500 spectators in the largest configurations (music concerts), the building opened in 2003 regularly hosts a great variety of sports and entertainment events, including international competitions of ice hockey (2003 and 2011 IHHF World Championships Division I), handball (2004 and 2014 Women’s European Championships), athletics (2004 World Indoor Championships), tennis and futsal. The new Budapest Sports Arena substituted the Budapest Sportcsarnoc, a facility built in 1982 that lasted only 17 years before succumbing to a fire in 1999.

With a capacity for 8500, the Főnix Hall, situated in Debrecen, is the second most important indoor arena in the country, having been built just in time for the 2002 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships. Since then, several events have been held on the main venue of Hungary’s second largest city but the biggest was probably the final of the 2010 UEFA Futsal Championship, where Spain defeated Portugal.

The Audi Arena, located in Győr, holds 5,500 people and was inaugurated in November 2014, taking part, along with the venues in Budapest and Debrecen, on the 2014 Women’s Handball European Championship, an organization shared between Hungary and Croatia. The 4000-seats Arena Savaria, in Szombathely, is also an important facility, having opened in 2006, while the Veszprém Arena receives 5,000 spectators to provide an amazing atmosphere for the home team’s games in the handball Champions League.

The red clad Veszprém Arena in a Champions League match

The Kisstadion in Budapest is a singular venue, an outdoor stadium mainly used for ice hockey. Opened in 1961, holds up to 14,000 and hosted the Hungarian Winter Classic, in 2009, along with several concerts and Davis Cup matches. A recent renovation has set up an isolated tent to lengthen the ice-season and protect against Winter’s harsh weather conditions.

To close this section, reference to the motor-racing circuit of Hungaroring, situated in Mogyoród, just 18 km out of Budapest. Besides the Formula One Grand Prix that has taken place there annually since 1986, the home of Hungarian motorsports has also hosted DTM, FIA GT and FIA WTCC Championship races. Described has a “twisty and bumpy” track, the circuit is located on a valley, allowing for excellent sight lines from almost everywhere, and has a capacity for 70,000 fans, being one of Hungary’s most visited destinations.

Yearly Events

The best bets to watch exciting team sports events in Hungary are unquestionably the premier water polo national league, the Országos Bajnokság I (ou OB I), disputed between October and May, and the national handball championship, the Nemzeti Bajnokság I (NB I), with games ranging from September to May. Pick Szeged and Vészprém, the top handball teams in the country, are hot tickets, with regular sold out games and unbelievable atmospheres, but the same cannot be said of their football counterparts, who usually play in front of small attendances.

The list of the most important yearly sporting events in Hungary is the following:

ITTF World Tour Hungarian Open, Table Tennis
January, Budapest

WestEnd Grand Prix “in Memoriam Sakovics Jozsef”, Fencing
March, Budapest

Lake Balaton SuperMarathon, Athletics
March, Lake Balathon

The Red Bull Air Race in front of the Hungarian Parliament

FIA WTCC Race of Hungary, Motor Racing
May, Hungaroring (Mogyoród)

World Judo Grand Prix Budapest, Judo
June, Budapest

2015 European Women Basket Championship, Basketball
June (2015); Budapest, Debrecen, Győr, Szombathely, Sópron

Red Bull Air Race World Championships, Air Racing
July, Budapest

István Gyulai Memorial – Hungarian Athletics Grand Prix, Athletics
July, Székesfehérvár

Formula One Hungarian Grand Prix, Motor Racing
July, Hungaroring (Mogyoród)

2015 ICF Canoe Marathon Master’s World Cup, Canoeing
September (2015), Győr

National Gallop, Horse Racing
September, Budapest

Budapest International Marathon, Athletics
October, Budapest

Tennis Classics (exhibition tournament), Tennis
November, Budapest

European Tour of Sports – Sweden

The Basics


Population: 9.7 M
Area: 450 290 km2
Capital: Stockholm
Summer Olympic Medals: 483 (143 G-164 S-176 B)
Winter Olympic Medals: 144 (50 G-40 S-54 B)
Popular sports
“Välkommen till Sverige”, a land of less than ten million people that seats on the top ten in medals conquered at both the Summer and Winter Olympics, a country that sees half of its population engaged in sports clubs, and in which one in every five persons actively participates in sports activities.
I’m repeating myself over every article of this series, but you wouldn’t be surprised to know that football is right at the top of the Swede’s preferences, with the national team being a regular participant in the biggest international competitions after qualifying a total of 16 times for the World Cup and the European Championships. Although the country’s best results have come on home soil, mainly the second position at the 1958 World Cup, lost at the Räsunda Stadium against Pele’s Brazil, and the semi-final appearance at the Euro 1992, the Swedish national team is always regarded as a team to watch, as the third place finishes at the 1950 and 1994 World Cup reflect the amount of talent the Swedes have been able to produce over the years. Gunnar Gren, Gunnar Nordhal and Nils Liedholm, members of the team that won Gold at the 1948 Olympics, were probably the first big stars of the sport in the country, enjoying a formidable partnership over the 50’s for AC Milan and the “Blågult” (ENG: The Blue-Yellow), but later names like goaltender Thomas Ravelli and forwards Tomas Brolin and Henrik Larsson also left their mark on European football.

Tomas Brolin celebrates a goal for Sweden on the Euro 92

At the club level, despite today’s obscurity on the European scale, the fans of IFK Göteborg had the chance to celebrate two UEFA Cup wins on the 80’s, while Mälmo FF lost a European Cup final in 1979. A look over Swedish football wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the most successful Swedish coach of all-time, Mr. Sven-Göran Eriksson, who collected 17 trophies during managing stints in 9 different countries, including league-and-cup doubles for IFK Göteborg, a team that he coached to the 1982 UEFA Cup success, SL Benfica and SS Lazio.
On the women’s side, Sweden is definitely one of the continent’s main rulers, with the national team succeeding at the first edition of the European Championships, in 1984, and the best result at the World Cup happening in 2003, a loss in the final against hosts USA. However, over the last few years, they have successively fallen just short of glory, beaten on the semi or quarter-final stages of every major competition since 2007. The 1-0 loss to Germany in the semi-final of the 2013 European Championships the country organized is a perfect example of that. Meanwhile, Sweden’s Dammallsvenskan is hailed as one of the top domestic leagues in the World, with Umeå IK vaunting 2 Women’s Champions League trophies and three runner-up finishes.

Peter Forsberg on the victory lap after the Tre Kronor defeated Finland at the 2006 Turim Olympics Final

Sharing the spotlight with football on the leading sports coverage in Sweden is ice hockey, a sport where the national team, nicknamed “Tre Kronor” (ENG: Three Crowns), currently leads the World Rankings and boasts an impressive résumé. Nine World Championships, the most recent in 2013, and nine Olympic medals, including two golds, in 1994 and 2006, fill the nation’s trophy cabinet, but the Swede’s should also be proud of the amount of talent they have nurtured. Nicklas Lidström, Peter Forsberg, Mats Sundin, Börge Salming, Håkan Loob and Mats Näslund were all players that achieved great success both at home and at the NHL level, and their level of play ranks them among the best of all-time. Furthermore, the Swedish Hockey League is considered the third best in the world and even the second tier competition, the HockeyAllsvenskan, welcomes excellent attendances.
Handball is other team sport that receives plenty of attention in the country, as the Swedes can take pride on the four gold medals at the European Championships, a record, the four titles and eleven podium finishes at the World Championships, and the four silver medals gathered at the Olympic Games. The most successful period of the Swedish handball team came between 1996 and 2002, when the country reached eight consecutive major finals (Euro, World, Olympic) due to the “Bengan Boys”, that, coached by Bengt Johansson, thoroughly dominated the sport fielding star players like Staffan Olson, Magnus Wislander and Stefan Lövgren. However, since 2003, the squad has struggled to reach the same heights, with Sweden failing to get to podium positions, except for a silver medal at the 2012 London Olympics, and occasionally not qualifying at all.
Niche team sports such as curling, bandy (a mixture of ice hockey, field hockey and football played outdoors) and floorball are also quite popular in Sweden while the national basketball team sometimes appears at the European Championships. Still, the sport has never really take off in the country even with the recent presence of two players in the NBA (Jonas Jerebko, Jeffery Taylor).

Ingemar Stenmark, the men’s Alpine Skiing World Cup record-holder with 86 wins

With an abundance of snow, Sweden as always produced great athletes in winter sports, specially skiing events. In the alpine disciplines, names like Ingemar Stenmark, the best GS and slalom racer of all-time, Pernille Wiberg and Anja Pärsson are living legends, whereas Sixten Jernberg and Gunde Svan do the same for cross-country skiing, a sport where the country has amassed 74 Olympic medals, second only to Norway. And although ski jumping has never been the most triumphant discipline for the Swedes, another winter speciality, the biathlon, had his moments over time, particularly Magdalena Forsberg’s impressive run on the turn of the century, with six consecutive World Cup titles amassed between 1997 and 2002, and six golds won in World Championships.
With a total of 81 medals collected over the years on Olympic games, Athletics has a long tradition on the country, ranging from Ernst Fast’s third place on the men’s marathon of the 1900 Paris Olympics (Sweden’s first Olympic medal) to the triple Gold success of Athens more than one hundred years later. Actually, in that 2004 edition, Christian Olson took the spoils in the triple jump and Stefan Holm confirmed the Swedish tradition on the high jump, following the footsteps of names like Patrick Sjöberg and Kajsa Bergqvist. For the ladies, the gilt light shone on Carolina Klüft, the athlete that dominated the women’s heptathlon (and pentathlon) during the first decade of the new century, conquering an unmatched three consecutive world titles and posting the second highest point total of all-time (7032 points).

Björn Borg with one of the five consecutive Wimbledon trophies he captured

From the tracks to the courts, Swedish excellence provided three former tennis number one’s, Mats Wilander, Stefan Edberg, and Björn Borg, with the latter, a eleven-time Grand Slam Champion and a five-times ATP Player of the year, standing as one of the most recognizable figures in the history of the sport and probably the most popular Swedish sportsman of all-time. And we could go on, with other worldwide sports where Swedes have excelled internationally including swimming (Therese Alshammar, Emma Ingelström), golf (Hall-of-Famer Annika Sörenstam), sailing, table tennis (World and Olympic Champion Jan-Ove Waldner), canoeing (eight-times Olympic Champion Gert Fredriksson), speed skating (triple Olympic gold medallist Tomas Gustafson), horse riding and cycling (Gösta Pettersson, 1971 Giro Winner).
Yet, none of those sports can claim the lead in number of Olympic medals brought to the country, since that achievement belongs to….wrestling, with 84, the last two added at the London Olympics.
Star Athletes
Zlatan Ibrahimović (Football)
From just another tall kid of Bosnian and Croatian origins to the top of the list of most identifiable Swedes, the life of the Mälmo-born striker is worthy of a best-seller book. Growing up on a city brimming with foreign-background inhabitants, Zlatan learned to stand up by himself since his early years as a black belt in taekwondo and those lessons stayed with him over a brilliant if controversial football career. Undeniably, a stunning total of 11 national titles in 13 seasons playing for six of the biggest clubs in Europe (well, 5 plus PSG) and four top scorer awards attest the proficiency of one of the best players of his generation and an unique forward with skills and swiftness rare for a 1,95m man. Moreover, in Sweden, Ibrahimović is revered for his exploits with a national team he captains today after more than 100 games, 51 goals and appearances in two World Cups (2002, 20006) and three European Championships (2004, 2008, 2012).
Always a distinctive figure, the 33-year-old, considered nine times the best Swedish footballer of the year, was recently named the second-best sportsperson of all-time in the country and famously retorted that he should have occupied the first five positions, perfectly displaying the character and personality that has motivated several confrontations with colleagues, coaches and adversaries over the years. When his career ends, his charismatic behaviour will define his legacy in the sport as much as the fantastic executions he’s capable on the pitch (), but Zlatan wouldn’t like it any other way.

An acrobatic move by Zlatan Ibrahimović that resulted on a stunning goal against England in 2013

Henrik Lundqvist (Ice Hockey)
The man many in New York call “King Henrik” was born on a city, Åre, primarily renowned for the alpine skiing facilities. However, Henrik and his twin brother, Joel, always preferred hockey, and it wasn’t long until they got to play for their favourite team, Göteborg-based Frölunda HC. Seven years and two league titles later (2003, 2005), their paths eventually separated and, with nothing else to prove at home, the goaltender moved on to face the best game after game.
Representing the New York Rangers since 2005, after the team selected him at the 2000 NHL draft, Henrik Lundqvist has been a mainstay for the honoured franchise since his rookie season and is undoubtedly one of the best in the world on his position, boasting a Vezina Trophy (awarded to the best NHL goalie in 2012) and four other nominations. To this day, he’s still pursuing the chance to return the Stanley Cup to the Big Apple and he keeps improving his legacy and club-records as the best goalkeeper in the “blueshirts” history.
The 32-year-old has also consistently embodied his country’s efforts on the world scale since the youth levels, with his biggest accomplishment coming at the 2006 Torino Olympics where he backstopped the Swedes to the gold medal. Since the retirement of legendary defenseman Nicklas Lidström, in 2012, Lundqvist inherited the role of Sweden’s prominent ice hockey player and he led his country to a silver medal on the 2014 Olympic tournament. His performances in Sochi further increased his popularity amongst the compatriots, but he has always been a fan favourite everywhere by way of his various community and charity enterprises coupled with a calm and friendly presence on and off the ice.
Charlotte Kalla (cross-country skiing)

Charlotte Kalla during a race at the Sochi Olympic Games

Sweden’s role on cross-country’s history has always been that of party crashers, the nation that craves to surprise the successful neighbours that have historically dominated the sport. Charlotte Kalla personifies that spirit perfectly and the native of Tärendö, a small village on the far north of Sweden, has thereby managed to build an impressive career during the era of two legends of the sport, Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk and Norway’s Marit Bjørgen, the most medalled female athlete in Winter Olympics’ history. The 27-year-old skier has almost 30 World Cup podiums since his debut in 2006 and a total of 5 World Championships medals, all of them gathered in team events. In fact, along with teammates Ida Ingemarsdotter, Emma Wikén and Anna Hagg, Kalla broke a fifty-four year gold medal drought for Sweden on the Women’s 4 x 5km relay event, with the team taking top honours on the competition of the 2014 Olympics through a performance that won the prize for most significant Swedish sports achievement of the year.
However, collective success aside, it was Kalla’s individual excellence that fuelled the most important results of her career, namely the gold medal in the 10km freestyle race of the 2010 Olympics, and the silver medals in the 15 km skiathlon and 10km classic races of the 2014 Sochi Games. The overall triumph at the 2007-2008 edition of the Tour de Ski, on her debut edition, is another important mark on Kalla’s résumé and, with the main rivals nearing retirement, her best years may still ahead.
Others: Lotta Schelin (Women’s Football), Jonas Jerebko (Basketball), Henrik Zetterberg (Ice Hockey), Frida Hansdotter (Alpine Skiing), Sarah Sjöström (Swimming) Johan Olsson, Marcus Hellner (cross-country skiing), Fredrik Lööf (Sailing), Lisa Nordén (Triathlon), Henrik Stenson (Golf)
Venues
Since the Stockholm Olympic Games, held in 1912, Sweden’s track record hosting top international events (European and World Championships) is truly remarkable, with the wealth spread across dozens of disciplines. Without surprise, this organizational expertise has been translated into the development of a sheer amount of modern, state-of-the-art sporting facilities that enable the populations an easy and comfortable access to high-level sport competitions year-round and country-wide.

The Ullevi during the opening ceremony of the Gothia Cup

To start, obvious emphasis on the Friends Arena, located on the municipality of Solna (Stockholm’s urban region). The new national stadium, which substituted the nearby Räsunda, host of the 1958 World Cup final, can hold up to 50,000 and has a retractable roof that can turn it into the biggest indoor venue in the Nordic countries. Opened in 2012, the arena, beyond the matches of the national football team, sees the home games of AIK, concerts and has welcomed the final of the 2013 UEFA Women’s European Championship.
The second biggest stadium in the country is the 43,000-seats Ullevi, in Gothenburg, built for the 1958 World Cup and a place that has hosted multiple football European finals as well as the European and World Athletic Championships. Nonetheless, the women’s national team and the city’s football clubs play at the 2009’ Gamla Ullevi, which was raised on the grounds of the old facility by the same name, and has 15,000 seats. Recent constructions are also the Tele2 Arena (2013), in Stockholm, the home of Djurgårdens IF and Hammarby IF with a capacity for 33,000, and the Swedbandk Stadium (2009), in Mälmo, a facility that holds 24,000.
In terms of (truly) indoor venues, the most important is the unmistakable Stockholm Globe Arena, the largest hemispherical building in the World, and a facility with up to 13,500 seats for ice hockey games. Several World Championships and other international ice hockey games have taken place at the Globe since 1989, but the Handball, Volleyball and Basketball European Championships were also held there. However, the capital’s ice hockey teams (Djurgårdens IF and AIK) usually play their home games at the adjacent Hovet, a 9,000 capacity arena. The 2008-opened Mälmo Arena comes in second-place by capacity (15,000 seats) in the country and is the home of the Mälmo Redhawks, the city’s ice hockey team.

The Stockholm Globe Arena iluminated at night

The Scandinavium, in Gothenburg, completes the podium, as the 14,000 seats venue, opened in 1972, has received over the years swimming, ice skating and athletics events, for example, while turning into the place Frölunda HC calls home. Moreover, the country’s ice hockey significance defines the existence of nine other indoor venues with over 7,000 seats, almost all built during the 2000’s. Thus, towns like Linköping, Lund, Norrköping, Kalmar, Halmstad, Helsingborg, Gävle and Karlstad commonly share the burden of hosting international events with Sweden’s three main city centres.
In respect to winter sports, the main hubs are Falun, Östersund and Åre, all situated in central Sweden. The first two cities regularly welcome World Cup events of the Nordic ski sports (cross-country, ski jumping, nordic vombined) and biathlon, respectively, and have organized the discipline’s World Championships several times over the years, while Åre takes part in the Alpine Skiing World Cup frequently.
Yearly Events
There’s no shortage of sporting events staged yearly on Sweden. Elite sport leagues like football’s Allsvenskan, running from late March to the beginning of November, and hockey’s SEL (season from September to April) provide excitement all over the country, from Mälmo, in the southeast coast, to Lulea, almost on the Arctic Circle, but there’s also the chance to attend a game of bandy (October-March) or handball (September-May). Others events to note are:
Vikingarännet, traditional long-distance ice skating race
Uppsala-Stockholm, January

The Vikingarännet, a 80 km ice skating race on the frozen Lake Mälaren linking Uppsala and Stockholm

Rally Sweden, World Rally Championships
Värmland region, February
World Cup event, Cross-Country skiing
Östersund, February
Vasaloppet, traditional long- distance (90km) cross-country ski race
Dalarna, March
World Cup event, Alpine Skiing
Åre, March
Scandinavian Masters, Golf
Mälmo, June
Stockholm Marathon, Athletics
Stockholm, June

A view of the tennis Swedish Open’s main court, in Båstad

Speedway Grand Prix of Sweden, motorcycle speedway
Målilla (Kalmar), June
Gothia Cup, youth football
Gothenburg, July
Swedish Open, Tennis
Båstad, July
Speedway Grand Prix of Scandinavia, motorcycle speedway
Solna (Friends Arena), September

European Tour of Sports – Denmark

The Basics

Population: 5.7 M

Area: 42.9 km2 (excluding Greenland and Faroe Islands)

Capital: Copenhagen

Summer Olympic Medals: 179 (43G-68S-68B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 1 (0G-1S-0B)

Popular sports

Football is the most played sport in Denmark, but the Danish national sport is probably another one, with its popularity being equally spread over both genres. Handball was invented in Denmark more than one hundred years ago and today is the favourite winter sport, with the national teams’ achievements dragging millions to the front of the televisions. The sport has delivered three gold medals in Olympic Games (1996, 2000, 2004), all won by the ladies, who enjoyed the greater success during the 90’s, but in the last few years the Men’s team has performed better, becoming European Champions in 2008 and 2012, and winning the silver medals at the 2011 and 2013 World Championships. A third European title was snagged in January 2014, when Denmark lost with France the final of the competition it hosted. At the club level, the most successful clubs are, at the women’s level, Viborg HK, winner of several European competitions in the last few years, including three Champions League, and KIF Kolding, on the men’s side.

The 1992 European Champions

There are over 300.000 football players in Denmark and both national teams have qualified regularly for European and World Championships. The biggest success in Danish football history was the surprising victory on the 1992 Men’s European Championship played in neighbouring Sweden, a conquest only possible after the exclusion of Yugoslavia from the tournament, the team that had eliminated Denmark in the qualification round. Three years later, Denmark won the Confederations Cup, while the best showing at the World Cup came in 1998, with a quarter-final defeat to Brazil. Legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel is the most capped player in Denmark’s history, while Michael Laudrup is considered the best Danish footballer to ever play. The women’s team won the European Championship in 1979. FC Copenhagen, funded in 1992, is the most successful club in Denmark, with ten National Championships and four appearances on the Champions League group phase, with their rivals Brondby IF leading the way on the women’s side.

Water sports play a big part on Denmark’s sporting landscape, with sailing, rowing, canoeing and swimming being responsible for dozens of Olympic medals. Paul Elvstrom, a sailer who competed in several classes over the years, won a record four Olympic gold medals, while Eskild Ebbesen, a member of the rowing men’s lightweight coxless fours, was able to medal in five consecutive Summer Games, from 1996 to 2012, including taking gold in the first three participations. Racket sports such as badminton, tennis and table tennis are also popular, while cycling, the second sport on the country on number of Olympic medals conquered, is a strong suit of the Danes, both at the road and track levels, with Copenhagen having hosted the 2011 Road World Championships and Bjarne Riis winning the Tour de France in 1996. The last few years have seen an increase in the profile of golf, especially among the older side of the population.

Rowing’s lightweight coxless fours

The only medal collected by Denmark in the Winter Olympics belongs to the 1998 Women’s curling team, a sport where Denmark has enjoyed some international success. The popularity of ice hockey is growing, with Denmark producing increasingly more talented players, a fact substantiated on the near dozen of players already taking part of the NHL.

Star Athletes

Mikkel Hansen (Handball)

Son of Flemming Hansen, who represented the Danish Team at the 1984 Olympics, the 27-year-old Helsingor native started his professional career at GOG Svendborg in 2005, the year the team won the Danish Cup, and became a national champion in 2007, before moving to Spanish giants FC Barcelona in 2008. His debut with the national team came in the same year and, since then, he has been a key member of all its successes, as the left back was nominated to the all-star team of the 2012 European Championship, won by the Danes, and was the overall top scorer (along with an all-star) on the 2011 World Championship, participating also on the 2013 World tournament and on the 2014 European Championship. At the club level, his resume is equally impressive, including two Spanish Cups and two Spanish Super Cups with Barcelona, two more Danish Championships (2011, 2012) and Danish Cups (2010, 2011) from his time at AG Kobenhavn, and a French Championship (2013) and French Cup (2014) won with Paris St. Germain Handball, where he currently plays. Nicknamed “The Hammer”, Hansen was awarded the title of World Handball player of the year in 2011, becoming the first Danish man to be honoured with that distinction.

Mikkel Hansen playing for Denmark

Caroline Wozniacki (Tennis)

The daughter of two Polish immigrants who played professional sports, Wozniacki enjoyed a successful junior career and debuted on the WTA Tour at the young age of 15, at the 2005 Cincinatti Open. However, her breakthrough season came only in 2008, the year she won her first Tour title, in Stockholm, added two more victories, in New Haven and on the Japan Open, and finished ranked 12th in the world, feats that earned her the award of WTA Newcomer of the year.

Caroline Wozniacki waves to the crowd

In 2009, her rise continued, with Wozniacki becoming the first Danish woman to reach a Grand Slam final, at the US Open, and ending the season on the top 5. In 2010 and 2011, by virtue of her six titles in both seasons, she finished the year as the World number 1 player, holding the position for 67 weeks despite failing to grasp another Grand Slam final. Since 2012, her form has declined, even if she played another Grand Slam final at the 2014 US Open. At the age of 24, the Odense native, who plays a game based on solid defensive skills, is by far the most successful Danish tennis player of all-time, currently holding 22 WTA Tour trophies and the 8th place on the WTA rankings.

Lotte Friis (Swimming)

Denmark has three world-class female swimmers and any of them could hold this prominent position. Lotte Friis edged Jeanette Ottesen Gray and Rikke Møller Pedersen in my selection simply because she’s the one with an Olympic Medal. Born in the municipality of Allerød in 1988, Friis is a freestyle swimmer who excels in long distances, having won multiple medals on international competitions. Her biggest accomplishment is the bronze medal on the 800 m freestyle race of the 2008 Beijing Olympics, but she has also shined on the sport’s second most important tournament, the long course World Championships, taking the victory on the 2009 Rome 800m freestyle race and at the 2011 Shangai 1500m event, the silver medals from the 2011 800 m and 2009 1500 m races, as well as from both events at the Barcelona 2013 World Championships. Six gold medals in European Championships, both on long and short course competitions, and several other prizes complete her medal record. Friis was considered the Danish Sports Name of the year in 2009.

Others: Jakob Fuglsang (Cycling), Christian Eriksen (Football), Tom Kristensen (Motorsports), Frans Nielsen (Ice Hockey), Rikke Moller Pedersen, Jeanette Ottesen-Gray (Swimming), Nicki Pedersen (Motorcycle speedway)

Venues

The main venue in Denmark is the beautifully-situated Telia Parken in Copenhagen, the country’s national football stadium, with 38,000 seats, and the home ground of FC Copenhagen. The stadium has a retractable roof and has hosted multiple concerts and sport events, including two football European Finals (Cup Winner’s Cup 1994, UEFA Cup 200) and two record-breaking handball matches. The Brondby Stadium, in the Greater Copenhagen area, and the NRGi Stadium, in Aarhus, also hold more than 20.000 people.

Jyske Bank Boxen, Herning

The Jyske Bank Boxen, an arena in Herning with capacity for 15.000 people, is the most important indoor venue in Denmark, having hosted the 2014 Handball Men’s European Championship Final, the corresponding women’s tournament in 2010, and the European Swimming Championships (short course) in 2013. The Ballerup Super Arena, in Ballerup, part of the northern urban region of Copenhagen, holds 7500 people for concerts and is the only indoor velodrome in Denmark, having received several cycling track events, including the World Championships in 2002 and 2010. The Gigantium, in Aalborg, is a modern facility that holds over 5000 people and is used by the city’s handball and ice hockey teams.

Aarhus, the second largest city in Denmark and the country’s main port, has welcomed several international sailing events in recent years and will host the 2018 ISAF Sailing World Championships at the Aarhus Yachting Harbour.

Yearly Events

Beyond the football, handball and ice hockey matches disputed almost year-round all over the country, these are the main annual events held in Denmark:

Vojens Speedway Club during the Grand Prix

Made in Denmark European Tour Tournament (Golf)

August, Himmerland Golf & Spa Resort, close to Aalborg

Tour of Denmark (Cycling)

August

Nordic FIM Speedway Grand Prix (Motorcycle Speedway)

September, Vojens Speedway Center, Vojens

BWF Super Series Premier Denmark Open (Badminton)

October, Arena Fyn, Odense

European Tour of Sports: Latvia

The Basics

Population: 2M

Area: 64.6 km2

Capital: Riga

Summer Olympic Medals: 19 (3G-11S-5B)

Winter Olympic Medals: 7 (0G-4S-3B)

Popular sports

As a former member of the Soviet Union, the achievements of Latvian athletes have to be put in contest for the period between 1940 and 1990, with twenty Latvian born athletes taking part in team and individual Olympic successes representing the former URSS on the Olympic stage. Thus, the numbers transcribed above only include the medals obtained from 1924 to 1940, and after the independence of the country, in 1991.

Latvia Ice Hockey National Team

The sporting landscape on this Baltic country is dominated by three team sports. As in most of Europe, football ranks quite high among Latvians preferences, despite the relative obscurity of both his national team and the main clubs. The qualification of the national team for the 2004 UEFA European Championships is by far the biggest achievement in the country’s football history. Conversely, the relative importance of Latvian ice hockey on the world’s scale is much bigger. Dinamo Riga, the country’s most important team, was part of the sport’s establishment on the Soviet Union in the 1940’s, and was a runner-up for the championship title in 1988. Today, the club is the Latvian representative on the second most important league in the world, the KHL, while some of the country’s best all-time players, like Sandis Ozolins and Arturs Irbe, started their careers at Dinamo before moving to the NHL. The national team took part on the last four Olympic tournaments, and the country organized the 2006 World Championships.

Basketball is the third main sport in Latvia, with the country’s tradition expressed on the men’s European title of 1935 and the 2nd place in 1939. Several Latvian players were part of URSS teams that became European and Olympic Champions, while at the club level, teams from Riga won multiple domestic and European titles in both genders. Actually, the ladies of the TTT Riga team of the 70’s and 80’s won the European Cup an astonishing 18 times. Today, both national teams are regular participants in international competitions.

Latvia Women’s Basketball National Team

On athletics, the country has always produced excellent javelin throwers, with Janis Lusis listed as one of the best of all time in the discipline, while tennis has seen his popularity grow in the last decade due to the successes of Ernests Gulbis. Beyond ice hockey, other winter sports like luge, bobsleigh and skeleton are also recognized, with several Latvian athletes excelling at the international level. With 500 km of beaches, Latvia also produces good beach volleyballers, while names like Piotr Ugrumov and Roman Vainsteins have shined on the biggest cycling races.

Star Athletes

Ernests Gulbis (Tennis)

Named after Ernest Hemingway, the best Latvian tennis player of all-time comes from a wealthy family and this detail has been part of his career results’ analysis since the beginning. In fact, besides being one of the funniest and more charismatic players on the ATP Tour, the uber-talented Gulbis has been accused of having too much interest in partying and not a lot in practicing, with this circumstance taking a toll on his in-court performances. Despite this, the 26-year-old has built a nice résumé since he turned professional in 2006. His first ATP title came on doubles at the 2008 Houston tournament, and two years later he collected the ATP singles tournament of Delray Beach. Today, the 26-year old Latvian holds six career ATP titles and seems to be on the verge of breaking definitely into the top 10, with the 10th position, reached in June 2014, being his all-time best ranking. A gifted offensive player with consistency problems, Gulbis reached the semi-finals at the 2014 Roland Garros tournament, attaining his best result yet on the Grand Slam stage.

Maris Strombergs (Cycling, BMX racing)

Maris Strombergs, Double Olympic Champion

The Republic of Latvia has gained only three Olympic gold medals on his history and this man is responsible for two of them. Maris Strombergs was born in 1987 and didn’t take long to display his talent on a bike, winning his first World Championship (on his class) at the age of 9. In 2008, the cyclist achieved the pinnacle of his sport when he gathered the European, World and Olympic titles in the same season. Nicknamed “The Machine”, the Valmiera native already has his name on two World Championships and three European Championships, while also holding the honour of being the only racer with Olympic Gold medals on the sport, since he won in 2012 too. A two-time Latvian sportsperson of the year, Strombergs is one of the most popular athletes in Latvia.

Martins Dukurs (Skeleton)

Deemed the best athlete in Latvia on three separate occasions (2010, 2011 and 2013), Martins Dukurs boasts an impressive collection of accolades: five consecutive World Cup titles (2009-2014), five consecutive European titles (2010-2014), and two World Championships (2011 and 2012). However, one thing is missing: the Olympic gold medal on the Winter Olympics, something Latvia never had a chance to celebrate. Despite his domination on the skeleton over the last half decade, Dukurs was not able to surpass the home favourites in Vancouver (John Montgomery) and Sochi (Alexander Tretiakov), having to settle for silver on both occasions. Strangely, his older brother, Tomass, finished both times in…fourth place, making it seem that the Olympics are somewhat cursed for the Dukurs family. In 2018, the 30-year old has a new chance for glory and Latvia will be watching anxiously.

Martins Dukurs celebrating

Others: Andris Biedrins (Basketball), Martins Plavins/Janis Smedins (Beach Volleyball), Ainars Kovals (Athletics), Andris Sics/Juris Sics (Luge)

Venues

The Arena Riga is the most important sports venue in Latvia. With a capacity of up to 12.500 spectators for basketball games, and 10.300 for ice hockey, the building was constructed in 2006 to be used as the main venue in the 2006 Ice Hockey World Championships. The arena hosts the games of the KHL’s Dinamo Riga, where the atmosphere is widely regarded as one of the best in Europe, and the basketball games of VEF Riga, the main basketball team in the city. The Skonto Hall, also in Riga, is the second biggest arena in the country, with capacity for 6500, and hosted the most important concerts and sports exhibitions in the country until the opening of the new Arena Riga.

The Skonto Stadium, in Riga, is the biggest stadium in Latvia, holding 9500 spectators. The venue is used by Skonto FC and the football National Team. FK Ventspils, the most successful Latvian club of the last decade, plays in the Ventspils Olympiskais Stadions, which holds 3200 people.

Yearly Events

Beyond the numerous basketball and ice hockey games, both at the national and international level, occurring around the country from September to May, these are the most relevant events held annually in Latvia.

Start of the Riga Marathon

Riga Marathon (May)

FIA European Autocross Championship Event

National Motorsports Centre Musa, Bauska (May)

Speedway FIM World Championships Grand Prix

Lokomotiv Stadium, Daugavpils (August)

Luge World Cup Event

Luge and Bobsleigh Track, Sigulda (January)