Bobsleigh Silver Ends Drought


Bobsled foursome, headed by Oskars Melbārdis. Foto: Romāns Kokšarovs, Sporta Avīze, f64

It was a long time coming but the Latvia’s 4-man bobsleigh crew consisting of 26 year old pilot Oskars Melbārdis and crew members Daumants Dreiškens (29), Jānis Strenga (28) and Arvis Vilkaste (24) brought home a silver on the last day of the Sochi Games. They finished behind Russia by 9/100th of a second. After a shaky 1st heat when they finished 5th, the crew nailed it on the second when they shot up to 2nd place and kept that position through the 3rd and 4th heats.

Twenty six years ago at the Calgary Olympics in 1988, a four man crew piloted by Zintis Ekmanis consisting of three Latvians and a Russian, and a two man crew piloted by Jānis Kipurs, brought home a gold and a bronze. Unfortunately the medals went to the Soviet Union. Four years earlier in Sarajevo, Zintis Ekmanis piloted a 2-man sled to a bronze.

When the Soviets decided to take up bobsleighing in 1980 they leveraged the luge tradition in Latvia and Latvians were front and centre in Soviet bobsleigh. There were high hopes that the medals would continue after Latvia regained independence. That was not to be the case. Bobsleighing is an expensive sport. Sleighs are high tech and cost over $100,000 each. Latvian bobsleighing struggled as the country transitioned to a free market economy where state funding had to be replaced by private sponsors.

The luge and skeleton are less expensive and Latvian athletes in those sports were able to eclipse the bobsleighers. But over the last few seasons, the bobsleighers were starting to podium on the World Cup circuit and they finally delivered on February 23 at Sochi.

Meanwhile Latvia’s second crew consisting of Oskars Kibermanis, Raivis Broks, Helvījs Lūsis and Vairis Leiboms finished 14th. Only twenty years old, pilot Kibermanis will be a future force in Latvian bobsleigh. Earlier in the week during the two-man bobsleigh competition, pilot Oskars Melbārdis and brakeman Daumants Dreiškens came in 5th while Kibermanis and Leiboms finished 16th.

Latvia’s flag bearer at the Sochi Olympics closing ceremonies is bobsleigher Daumants Dreiškens. He has been competing in bobsleigh since 2003 and was chosen by the Latvian Olympic Committee as an athlete who sets the example for others through his character, work ethic, perseverance and teamwork.

Perhaps the only black mark for Latvia at these Olympics was that hockey player Vitalijs Pavlovs tested positive in random doping tests conducted on four players from each team after every game. Ostensibly it was a food supplement. Pavlovs plays for Dinamo Riga in the KHL.

Top 10 finishes for Latvia included a 4th place finish by Tomass Dukurs in the skeleton just shy of a medal, a 5th in two-man bobsleigh, 9th place by Andrejs Rastorgujevs in the 12.5km biathlon pursuit, 10th place by Mārtiņš Rubenis in the luge and another 10th place by Oskars Gudromovičs and Pēteris Kalniņš in the men’s double luge. As a footnote, Latvia pocketed one of only three goals scored in hockey against Canada as the Canadians advanced and eventually won gold against Sweden.

With two silver and two bronze medals, this is Latvia’s best Winter Olympics showing topping the two medals picked up in 2010 at Vancouver. Latvia is proving to be a sliding power and along with Russia and the United States were the only countries with medals in all three disciplines, the bobsleigh, luge and skeleton.

Russia won the official medals standing where a gold counts more than a silver and a silver more than bronze. Norway came second and Canada third. The United States came second in the unofficial total number of medals count regardless of colour. Latvia placed a distant 23rd with 26 out of 89 countries at Sochi picking up medals.

But Latvia was the only one of the three Baltic countries to medal.

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