Population: 1.3 M
Area: 45 339 km2
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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.
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)
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.
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.
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.
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
Tartu Ski Marathon, long-distance cross-country skiing
Tartu County and Valga County, February
Võhandu Marathon, Rowing
Võru – Võõpsu, April
SUMMER CUP – International Youth Football Festival, Football
2017 World Orienteering Championships, Orienteering
Tartu, July (2017)
Rally Estonia, Motorsports rally racing
Tartu – Otepää, July
Tallinn Marathon, Athletics
Tartu Rattamaraton (Tartu Cycling Marathon), Mountain bike cycling
Otepää – Uderna küla, September
Épée World Cup “Glaive de Tallinn”, Fencing