SPORTS - Baltic athletes get ready to reach for Olympic gold
- By Talis Saule Archdeacon
DISCO DISCUS: Kantor unseated his Lithuanian rival to become World Champion last year. He is now Estonia's best hope for a gold.
With the Games fast approaching, a lot rests on the keen competitors who everyone hopes will bring glory back to their respective countries. Here we take a look at the contenders but we also take time to celebrate the national sport in Latvia, Ice Hockey and give the underdogs in the sporting world a chance to have their say. This weeks Industry Insider is all about sport.
RIGA - The Olympic torch is slowly making its way around the world, through protests and pickets, on a journey which will end with the Aug. 8 commencement of the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing, China.
The torch won't be traveling through the Baltics on its 137,000 kilometer, 130 day journey 's the longest in Olympic history 's but athletes are nonetheless closely watching the trip as a reminder of the Games to come.
The three Baltic states are each sending dozens of representatives to the Games. Though the countries are small, all stand a relatively good chance of winning a medal in at least one event.
Lithuania has by far the most Olympic medals to its name. With 98 medals so far 's not counting those won while under Soviet rule 's the country is poised to take even more at this year's events.
Though the exact number of athletes the countries will send to Beijing is not yet known, Lithuania will almost certainly send the largest contingent of competitors from the Baltics.
"The exact number [of competitors] is not clear yet, it will be clarified only in May or June. For now, some of the athletes are still trying to [qualify for] the Olympics. Nevertheless, Lithuania is expecting to send about 65 athletes and about 45 personnel," Lithuanian Olympic Committee representative Lina Vaisetaite told The Baltic Times.
Though the Games are fast approaching, Lithuanian athletes are feeling calm and confident, methodically following through with their training schedules and preparing to hit their peak in August.
"Athletes are following their training plans, setting goals and achieving them. They are feeling rather confident that if their training plan goes as it's planned, the goals for the Olympics will be reached," Vaisetaite said.
One of Lithuania's best chances at a medal lies in the country's world-renowned men's basketball team. The basketball field is strong, however, and in order to win Lithuania will have to take on international heavyweights such as Argentina, Spain, Russia and the United States.
The Olympic Committee said the country has at least five other medal hopefuls: Virgilijus Alekna (discus), Andrejus Zadneprovskis and Edvinas Krungolcas (modern pentathlon), Simona Krupeckaite (track cycling) and Mindaugas Ezerskis (wrestling).
After holding the title of world champion in the discus for two undefeated years, the 35-year-old Alekna was finally unseated at last years World Championships in Osaka by Estonian rival Gerd Kanter.
Kanter is now one of Estonia's best hopes for a medal at this year's Olympic Games. The 28-year-old exudes confidence after his win at the World Championships, when the normally calm and collected athlete ran around the stadium pumping his fists and waving an Estonian flag. After winning, Kanter immediately announced his intention to beat the world record of 74.08 meters which has been in place since 1986.
Kanter will be one of 40-50 Estonian athletes to take part in the Beijing Olympics. Estonia will compete in a number of different events and will be the only Baltic state to field a strong water sports team.
Aside from the discus, the Estonian double skulls rowing team probably has the best chance at taking home a medal 's but only if they are able to contend with the skull powerhouses of New Zealand, Poland and Slovenia.
The Olympic team will field strong players in laser sailing and heavyweight judo. A former medal winning marksman is also garnering some attention from Estonian sports buffs as a possible medal contender.
Estonian athletes are drawing on their deep experience to help them prepare for the upcoming games.
"I think it is OK, they are preparing well, they are not amateurs anymore and they have a long list of experiences. I do not think they are very nervous for this," Estonian Olympic team representative Martti Raju told TBT.
While the veteran Latvian Olympians are going about their preparations in the same way, many of the first time competitors are starting to get a bit nervous.
"I think the athletes that have Olympic experience, they aren't nervous. But the young athletes, yes, some of them are getting nervous," Marite Vilcine of the Latvian Olympic Committee told TBT.
Latvia will be sending about 35 athletes to the games 's plus a few more if the women's basketball team can make the cut. Of those competitors, three or four have a good chance of winning medals.
The country's best hope is in the famous parliamentarian weightlifter Viktors Scerbatihs. An MP with the Greens and Farmers Union, Scerbatihs won a silver medal in the 2004 Athens Olympics. Last year he became the world champion in the over 105 kilogram weight class.
Latvia's other great medal hopeful is javelin champion Vadims Vasilevskis. He is still coping with an injury which left him just off the medal stand with a fourth place finish at the World Championships last year. Only time will tell if he is able to recover enough to beat the intense competition from Norway and Finland.
The country also has its eyes set on a medal for BMX cycling. The BMX team has managed to pull off a few European Championships medals in recent years and their chances at an Olympic finish are good if they can contend with American and Australian riders.
Though the Olympics are still a few months off, for Baltic athletes they seem to be right around the corner. And with each kilometer the torch travels, competitors' dreams of Olympic glory come one step closer to becoming a reality. Baltic Olympic medal countLatvia
Gold 1, Silver 10, Bronze 3, Totals 14Estonia
Gold 8, Silver 7, Bronze 14, Totals 29Lithuania
Gold 26, Silver 19, Bronze 53, Totals 98