Latvian mixed luge relay team celebrates bronze. Photo: AFP/Scanpix
It wasn’t what reigning world skeleton champion Martins Dukurs was hoping for but it was a silver medal for Latvia nevertheless. This is Dukurs second Olympic silver medal. He had one four years ago at the Games in Whistler.
Dukurs was less than a second off the mark but in the skeleton that’s enough. In turn the bronze medalist from the United States finished more than two seconds behind Dukurs. That is a huge margin. Older brother Tomass Dukurs, who finished second on this year’s world cup circuit, missed the medals by a fraction of a second.
This time gold went to Russian Alexander Tretiatov who had finished behind both Dukurs brothers in the world cup circuit. But the Olympics is a whole new game. The entire winter world is watching, the media coverage is intense and the expectations back home are huge. It was Tretiatov who owned the Sochi track on his home ground.
Earlier in the week, the Latvian lugers came through. On February 12 brothers Andris and Juris Sičs picked up a bronze in the luge men’s doubles. A day later the lugers pulled in another bronze in the mixed team relay where the men’s singles is followed by the women’s singles and then the men’s doubles. Veteran Mārtiņš Rubenis led off, he was followed by Eliza Tīruma and then by the Sičs brothers. They shut out 4th place Canada by 1/10th of a second.
Tīruma is the first woman from independent Latvia to win a Winter Games medal. Four years ago the Sičs brothers picked up a silver at Whistler while Rubenis had a bronze in Turin.
The two Sičs have had an uphill battle since Whistler. In May 2011, Juris Sičs was in a terrible car accident in Latvia two weeks before the birth of his son. The entire luge team donated blood. Doctors were skeptical he would be able compete. Andris too had injuries to overcome after Whistler. Both persevered and are back on the podium.
The tradition of sliding sports in Latvia goes back to 1967 when a group of enthusiasts built the rickety “Cīrulīšu” track near the city of Cēsis. The Soviet Union decided to enter the sport in 1972. Latvians were front and centre and at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, Vera Zozuļa won the gold and Ingrīda Amantova came home with the bronze.
In 1980 the Soviet Union turned its attention to the bobsleigh and Latvian luger Ronalds Upatnieks was tapped as its first bobsleigh coach. Latvian bobsleighers picked up medals for the Soviet Union at the 1984 Games in Sarejevo and in 1988 at Calgary. The sliding track at Sigulda was built in 1986.
Since Latvia gained independence, its bobsleighers have been shut out from Olympic medals but over the past few seasons have had medal finishes on the world cup circuit. While not favourites, they are contenders. Latvia has two crews in the two man bobsleigh which takes place on February 16-17 and two in the four man on February 22-23. The two pilots are Oskars Melbārdis and Oskars Ķibermanis.
Other Latvian athletes have also been competing in the short-track, biathlon, women’s skeleton, cross-country and downhill skiing but they have finished far from the podium.
While winless, Latvia’s men’s hockey team coached by Canadian Ted Nolan has attracted attention for their play. They lost 0:1 to Switzerland with the Swiss scoring a heart-breaking goal with only 8 seconds to play. They followed with a 2:4 loss against the Czechs in a tight game. Perhaps their best outing was the 3:5 loss against the highly ranked Swedes. Rather than sitting back, they took the game to the Swedes, played physical with some bone-rattling body-checks and never gave up. Unlike previous years the power play looked good. Lauris Darziņš goal off a blind back-hand pass from Jānis Sprukts was one of the prettiest goals seen at the tournament. Were it not for some undisciplined penalties resulting in power play goals for the Swedes, the result could have been different.
The team is led by grizzled veteran and hockey legend Sandis Ozoliņš who despite being 41 years old logged lots of ice team and even though a defenceman, he was often in deep reminiscent of his thrilling play years ago while in his prime. Goaltending has been great with Edgars Masalskis coming up big against the Swiss and Czechs while youngster Kristers Gudļevskis played a solid game against the Swedes making several spectacular saves late in the game.
The seeding for the qualifying round in hockey will be decided by the results on February 16. Even though winless, Latvia will end up either 11th or more likely 10th in the 12 team tournament. They will play a winner takes all game against the Czechs or possibly the Swiss on February 18 to see who advances to the quarter-finals where the top four teams had a bye. Although a stretch, the Latvian team has been playing good hockey and they could advance.
Latvian sports fans can follow their athletes by checking the calendar at – http://sportacentrs.com/soci_2014/musejo_kalendars/03022014-latvijas_sportistu_kalendars_socos
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