Sport in Latvia
Sports in Latvia include association football, ice hockey, basketball, athletics, rugby, tennis, cycling, and others. Association hockey is historically the most popular of the Latvian sports and is closely followed by basketball. Some of Latvia’s most notable athletes include hockey player Sandis Ozoliņš, football player Māris Verpakovskis, olympic javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis, two-time Olympic BMX champion Maris Strombergs, and basketball player Kristaps Porziņģis.
Association football was the most popular sport in Latvia during the first period of independence (1918–1940).
The Latvian national team participated in the final stage of the 2004 European Football Championship. The leading scorer for the Latvian national football team is Māris Verpakovskis. A sports marketing study conducted by international company Mediacom has concluded that football is Latvia’s most popular sport – a title it has now held for three consecutive years. The annual study takes into consideration 65 sports activities in Latvia, calculating their popularity by taking into account the amount of active and passive participants in each sport at both a social and competitive level, as well as tracking the amount of coverage each sport receives in the media and attendance at events.
Ice hockey is the most popular sport in Latvia. Its professional league is the Latvian Hockey Higher League, held since 1931. In Latvia there are also several amateur hockey leagues. Ice hockey has been played in Latvia since the 1920s. Latvia is a member of the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), its national team has participated in several World Championships and the 1936 Winter Olympic Games. After Latvia was occupied by the Soviet Union in 1940, its membership in the IIHF was interrupted. Latvians had a significant role in establishing ice hockey in the Soviet Union. Latvia's Dinamo Rīga team was one of eleven teams which played in the first Soviet championship tournament in the winter of 1946/1947. The Latvian Harijs Mellups was the goaltender for the Soviet Union National team in its first international game in 1948.
Latvian hockey experienced a decline in the 1960s, with Dinamo Rīga being relegated from the Soviet High League (vysshaya liga) to the first league and then even to the second league. It began a comeback in the 1970s, under the coach Viktor Tikhonov who would later go on to coach CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team. In the 1973/1974 season, Dinamo Rīga returned to the Elite League where it stayed until the end of Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1975, Viktor Hatulev of Dinamo Rīga became the first ice hockey player from the Soviet Union drafted by the National Hockey League (NHL) but never had a chance to play, as Soviet players were not allowed to play for foreign teams. Helmuts Balderis was the brightest Latvian hockey star of the 1970s and 1980s, and achieved all-time scoring records (scoring 333 goals in Soviet championships) for Latvian forwards. He was the leading scorer in the Soviet Elite League twice (1977 and 1983) and the Player of the Year once (1977). Balderis also played for the Soviet National team, being on the losing side of the Miracle on Ice game in 1980 but winning the World Championships on other occasions (1978, 1979 and 1983). Balderis was named the best forward of the 1977 Ice Hockey World Championship. Despite his continuing high scoring results, he was not selected for the Soviet National team for the 1984 Winter Olympics, possibly because of political or national reasons (in those years the Soviet team consisted of sportsmen only from Moscow ice hockey teams, any other Soviet cities or Soviet republics were not represented). Thus Balderis became the all-time top scorer among those Soviet ice hockey forwards who played for the national team but had never been awarded the Olympic gold medal. Goaltenders Vitālijs Samoilovs and Artūrs Irbe also starred for the Soviet team in the 1980s, Irbe was the best goaltender of the 1990 Ice Hockey World Championship. Samoilovs was the backup goaltender on the gold-medal winning Soviet team at the 1988 Winter Olympic Games.
The best season for Dinamo Rīga came in 1987/1988, the first season when the Soviet Elite League instituted an NHL-style playoff system. Dinamo Rīga finished third in the regular season and upset Dynamo Moscow in the semi-finals, before losing to CSKA Moscow, the perennial Soviet champions of the 1980s, in the finals.
After Latvia regained independence in 1991, Latvia restored its membership in the IIHF and the Latvian national team returned to international competitions. As a new team, they were initially placed in the C Pool (third division) of the World Championships and had to qualify for the higher level competitions. They debuted in the B Pool in 1994 and the top-level A Pool in 1997. Latvia has played in the A Pool championship since then. The best result was 7th place in 1997, 2004 and 2009. While not a medal contender, the Latvian team has produced some upsets over the top teams in World Championships, defeating the USA twice (in 1998 and 2001) and arch-rival Russia twice (in 2000 and 2003). Latvia competed in the 2002 Winter Olympics, the 2006 Winter Olympics and the 2010 Winter Olympics.
As of 2008[update], fifteen Latvian ice hockey players have played in NHL. The first of them was Helmuts Balderis, who came to play in Minnesota North Stars team at the age of 36 in the 1989–90 season .Sandis Ozoliņš, Artūrs Irbe, Sergejs Žoltoks and Kārlis Skrastiņš have been the most successful ones. Ozoliņš is the only Latvian to win the Stanley Cup, in the 1995–96 season with the Colorado Avalanche. Ozoliņš and Irbe have played in NHL All-Star Games. The other Latvian players who have played in NHL are: Aleksandrs Kerčs, Grigorijs Panteļejevs, Pēteris Skudra, Viktors Ignatjevs, Herberts Vasiļjevs, Kaspars Astašenko, Raitis Ivanāns, Jānis Sprukts, Harijs Vītoliņš, Mārtiņš Karsums, Oskars Bārtulis, Artūrs Kulda, Kaspars Daugaviņš, Zemgus Girgensons, Kristers Gudļevskis, Ronalds Ķēniņš.
The 2006 Men's World Ice Hockey Championships was held in Latvia.
In Latvia, basketball is the second most popular sport after Ice Hockey. Latvia has a long basketballing tradition. Latvia won the first European championship in 1935 and hosted the second championship in 1937.
In the Soviet period, the Latvian men's basketball team, ASK Rīga was dominant in the Soviet League in the 1950s and early 1960s, winning several Soviet league championships and three European Champion's Cups, in 1958, 1959 and 1960. In the 1960 Summer Olympics, four Latvians, Jānis Krūmiņš, Valdis Muižnieks, Cēzars Ozers and Maigonis Valdmanis were a part of the silver-medal winning Soviet team. The Soviet Olympic teams in 1956 and 1964 Summer Olympics had three Latvian players each. The Soviet team in 1952 Summer Olympics had one Latvian.
The women's team, TTT Riga was very successful in the 1970s and 1980s, winning the European Champion's Cup 18 times, more than any other team in any team sport. 2.12 m (7 ft) tall Uljana Semjonova was the women's key player in this period. She was also very dominant with the Soviet team in international games, never losing a game in international competitions and winning 2 Olympic and 3 World Championships.
For men's basketball, the guard Valdis Valters was the most highly acclaimed player of the 1980s. He won a European Championship with the Soviet team in 1981 and was recognized as the most valuable player of the tournament, but did not get a chance to play in Olympics, because of the Soviet boycott of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles which coincided with Valter's best playing years. Another Latvian, Igors Miglinieks won gold with the Soviet team four years later, in the 1988 Summer Olympics.
Latvia returned to international competition as an independent country in 1992. The qualifiers of the 1992 Summer Olympics were the first tournament for Latvia's team. A major controversy was caused by two Latvian players, Igors Miglinieks and Gundars Vētra. They had a choice of either playing for the Unified Team which was certain to qualify for the Olympics or the Latvian national team which had a chance but was not certain to qualify. The two players chose to play for the Unified Team. The Latvian team, playing without them, failed to qualify for Olympics. This caused a great deal of resentment in Latvia and the two players never played for Latvia in an international game.
After the country regained independence, the most successful tournament for Latvia was the 2001 European Championships when the Latvian team finished in 8th place. The centre/power forward Kaspars Kambala was Latvia's best player in this tournament. Latvia's national championship, Latvijas Basketbola Līga, was dominated by Brocēni team in 1990s and Ventspils team in the 2000s. In 2006, Ventspils team won its seventh consecutive championship.
Gundars Vētra became the first Latvian in the NBA when he briefly played for Minnesota Timberwolves for 13 games in 1993. Andris Biedriņš was drafted in the 2004 NBA draft with the 11th pick by the Golden State Warriors and had already played three seasons, becoming the second Latvian to play in the NBA. He was the youngest player in the 2004-05 NBA season. In the 2015 NBA draft, the New York Knicks selected Kristaps Porziņģis, at the time playing for Spanish club Baloncesto Sevilla, with the fourth selection.
In EuroBasket Women 2007, the national women's basketball team reached the semi-finals, the best results of the first national basketball team since gaining independence from The Soviet Union, and faced Russia. Struggling with injuries, most notably key players Gunta Baško and Anete Jēkabsone-Žogota, Latvia eventually lost and reached 4th place, losing to Belarus.
Latvian athletes have achieved medals in Olympics and European/World championships. Most recently Ainārs Kovals with a silver medal in the men's Javelin throw at the 2008 Olympics in Beijing. Staņislavs Olijars won a silver medal in 2002, and a gold medal at the 2006 European Athletics Championships in the 110 m hurdles. Jeļena Prokopčuka has won New York City marathon in 2005 and 2006.
In the Soviet, period there were many great Latvian javelin throwers. Javelin thrower Inese Jaunzeme became first Latvian who won Olympic Games she did it in 1956 Olympics. In 1960 Summer Olympics gold medal won another javelin thrower Elvīra Ozoliņa. Latvian javelin thrower Jānis Lūsis won 1968 Summer Olympics also he is 4 time European champion. Lūsis set two world records in javelin throw, 91.68 m in 1968 and of 93.80 m in 1972. In 1987, IAAF nominated him as the all-time greatest javelin thrower in the world. Another javelin thrower won gold medal in 1980 Olympics it was Dainis Kūla.
Since 2006, tennis has become a popular sport in Latvia because of Ernests Gulbis's achievements. He reached 4th round of 2007 U.S. Open wherein the 3rd round he beat world No. 8 Tommy Robredo. In 2008 he lost in the quarter-finals in French Open, where his opponent was the world No. 3 Novak Djokovic. Gulbis reached No.10 in June 2014.
Another successful tennis player was Ukrainian-born Larisa Neiland, one of the top female doubles players from the late 1980s until the early 1990s. Partnering Natasha Zvereva, she has won two Grand Slam doubles tournaments (1989 French Open and 1991 Wimbledon). In singles her highest achievements are quarterfinals at the 1994 Wimbledon and the 1988 U.S. Open. Her best position in WTA singles ranking was 58th, which she reached in 1996, while in beginning of 1992 she was 1st in doubles ranking.
The Latvian team has been participating in Davis Cup since 1993 when it won rights to get promoted to Group II of Europe/Africa zone. In 2000 Latvia was relegated to Group III. Next year Latvia returned to Group II, but was relegated again in 2002. Latvia returned to Group II already in next year and since then is playing there. In 2007 Latvians met Monaco team. Latvia won and were promoted to Group I for 2008, where Latvia was defeated by Republic of Macedonia. Besides Gulbis, in team were also playing Andis Juška, Deniss Pavlovs and Karlis Lejnieks.
In 2017, Jeļena Ostapenko became the first Latvian to win a Grand Slam title when she won the Women's Singles Title at the 2017 French Open . In March 2018 she reached a career high singles ranking of no. 5 and she has a career high doubles ranking of no. 32 in the Women's Tennis Association (WTA).
Another WTA Player is Anastasija Sevastova who reached a career high ranking of no. 15 in 2017 and has reached three US Open quarterfinals, including one semifinal, and has won three WTA titles.
Also Latvian cyclists are famous in the world arena, lately in BMX. First time in Europe cycling history one country Latvian BMX Elite Riders (Artūrs Matisons, Ivo Lakučs, Māris Štrombergs Artis Zentiņš) triumphed on European Championships 2006. Māris Štrombergs was the 2008 and 2010 UCI BMX World champion and a double gold medalist at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics and London 2012.
In rallycross Reinis Nitišs was European Rallycross Champion in the Super 1600 class in 2013 and went on to become the youngest winner of a round of the FIA World Rallycross Championship when he took the 2014 World RX of Norway at the age of 18. Subsequently, Jānis Baumanis has followed in his footsteps by winning the European Super 1600 championship in 2015.
Many other sports and recreational activities are also popular in Latvia.
- Orienteering is a popular sport that combines cross-country running with land navigation skills in the woods. Orienteering in Latvia is organized by the Latvijas Orientēšanās Federācija.
- Amateur Radio Direction Finding is a sport that combines the skills of orienteering with the skills of radio direction finding. ARDF in Latvia is organized by the Latvijas Radioamatieru Līga.
- Martins Dukurs is currently the top male skeleton athlete in the world, having won all but one of the FIBT World Cup events in 2011-2012 and is the three-time defending World Cup champion.
- Oskars Melbārdis won the combined Bobsleigh World Cup as a driver in the 2012-13 season, after initially entering the sport as a brakeman for Jānis Miņins.
- Latvia national bandy team played in Division A both at the 2015 Bandy World Championship and the 2016 tournament. In terms of licensed athletes, bandy is the second biggest winter sport in the world.
Gallery of famous Latvian sportspeople