Latvian skeletonist Tomass Dukurs in training at Sochi. Photo: AFP/Scanpix.
Latvia has a respectable contingent of 51 athletes at the Winter Olympic Games in Sochi although 25 are from the men’s hockey team. Medal hopes are resting with Latvia’s daredevils, the sliders, the athletes who compete in the skeleton, luge and bobsleigh.
In particular, the pressure is on the Dukurs brothers, Martins and Tomass. Martins is the reigning World Champion four years straight but missed gold in Vancouver by a whisker and had to settle for silver. Tomass had a breakthrough season and has seen a number of podium finishes on this year’s World Cup circuit. Their father Dainis is their coach. They will be competing on February 14 and 15. Here’s hoping they come through.
Latvia’s lugers have picked up medals at the last two Winter Games. At the 2006 in Turin, Mārtiņš Rubenis picked up a bronze while brothers Andris and Juris Sičs picked up a silver in the doubles at Whistler in 2010. The men have already gone and Rubenis finished 10th at Sochi this past weekend and promptly announced his retirement. Other lugers include Oskars Gudramovičs, Pēteris Kalniņš, Imants Kivlenieks, Kristaps Mauriņš, Elza Tīruma and Ulla Zirne. Gudramovičs and Kalniņš have had top 10 World Cup finishes in 2012 and 2013. The women compete on February 10 and 11, the doubles follow on February 12 with the team relay on February 13.
There is a cute story about how the Sičs brothers got started. They lived near Sigulda, home of Latvia’s only sliding course, and would sneak in to try it out. They were caught by a security guard. Rather than being reprimanded, the guard connected them with a qualified coach and the rest is history.
Latvia has 8 bobsleighers at Sochi. The two four man pilots Oskars Melbārdis and newcomer Oskars Kibermanis have been on the cusp at the World Cup circuit this year with top 10 and even medal finishes. The rest of the team consists of Raivis Broks, Daumants Dreiskēns, Vairis Leiboms, Helvijs Lūsis, Jānis Strenga and Arvis Vilkaste. They are coached by Sandis Prūsis who competed between 1983 and 2003. Back when Latvia was breaking away from the Soviet Union, he was one of many who risked all to man the barricades in the Riga to protect the nascent government from Soviet attack.
The Latvian bobsleighers are big guys all easily topping 6 feet and 200 plus pounds. One American sports announcer recently commented on television that in the United States guys this size become football linebackers while in Latvia they become bobsleighers. The bobsleigh two man event is on February 16 and 17 while the four man crews race February 22 and 23, the last two days of the Games.
Latvia’s hockey team consists primarily of players from Dinamo Rīga and other KHL teams along with two young budding stars, Zemgus Girgensons from the NHL Buffalo Sabres and goaltender Kristaps Gudļevskis vying for a position with the Tampa Bay Lightning, along with players from a number of other top European leagues. They take to the ice on February 12 when they play the Swiss. They follow with games on February 14 against the Czech Republic and the next day against Sweden in the preliminary round. Further games will depend on how they fare. It will be tough for Latvia to advance.
Latvia’s coach Ted Nolan is also the coach of the Buffalo Sabres. He is a seasoned professional and junior coach and a Native Canadian from the Ojibway nation in Northern Ontario. Nolan has garnered a lot of attention and recently was featured in the Wall Street Journal and how as a Native Canadian he can relate to a small nation like Latvia and the importance of its language – http://online.wsj.com/article/AP6879990d85e74564834f0c58bdd14492.html
The captain of the hockey team is Latvian legend Sandis Ozoliņš, the only Latvian to win the NHL’s Stanley Cup back in 1996 with the Colorado Avalanche. He is currently captain of the Dinamo Rīga team in the KHL. A seven time NHL all-star, he was chosen to be Latvia’s flag bearer at the Opening Ceremonies in Sochi.
While much has been made of Latvia’s orange-brown official uniforms with some commentators calling them downright ugly, this author liked them and pointed instead to the fluorescent green Lithuanian uniforms, the American sweaters that reminded him of tacky Christmas sweaters or the tourist billboard on the Tongan uniforms as being more likely contenders for uniforms off the mark.
Rounding off Latvia’s team at Sochi are downhill skiers Inese Āboltiņa who at 18 is the youngest member, Lelde Gasuma, Martiņš Onskulis, Roberts Rode and Kristaps Zvejnieks, cross-country skiers Inga Dauškane, Jānis Paipals and Aivars Liepiņš, women’s skeleton competitor Lelde Priedulaine, biathlon competitors Zane Juskāne and Andrejs Rastorgujevs, as well as short track skaters Roberto Puķītis and Haralds Silovs. They are not expected to come close to medals.
Latvian sports fans have a number of sites they can use to follow the games including http://sportacentrs.com/soci_2014/ , http://www.diena.lv/sochi2014 and http://www.sochi2014.com/en/team-latvia.
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