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Tallying up the year in sport

  • 2004-12-22
To wildly paraphrase the Frank Sinatra song, it was a very good sporting year for the Baltic states. Not only did they make a considerable splash on the international scene in several areas, but there have also been some promising steps taken to ensure that sport is improved at a grass roots level, so that these successes can hopefully be built upon in the years to come.

January

Top Latvian soccer side Skonto Riga got off to a good start in the year by beating leading Estonian side FK Flora in the Livonian Cup. The game finished 3-3 in normal time, but Skonto narrowly won 4-3 in the resulting penalty shoot out.

Meanwhile, Skonto striker and wunderkid Maris Verpakovskis finally signed a five-year contract with Dynamo Kiev after intense speculation about his future. Verpakovskis had made an international name for himself after helping Latvia to qualify for Euro 2004.

February

The Latvian junior bobsled team won the gold medal at the Junior Bobsled World Championship in Kortina d'Ampecco, Italy, at the start of the month. The two-man team, consisting of Janis Minins and Juris Latiss, came first, followed by Switzerland. The other Latvian teams competing, however, finished well off the pace.

One of Latvia's best young basketball players collapsed and died during a top division game in Sweden. Raimonds Jumikis, 23, a forward for the Stockholm side Akropol, collapsed just five minutes into the second quarter of a game and was pronounced dead shortly afterward.

Rising 18-year-old Estonian tennis star Kaia Kanepi beat Russia's Anna Chakvetadze to win the final of the Sunderland ITF.

March

The Kaunas City Council gave the go-ahead for the construction of a 20 million euro basketball arena. Basketball legend Arvydas Sabonis was one of several investors in the 10,000-seat arena. The arena was also intended to boost Lithuania's chances of hosting the European Basketball Championship.

Estonian Ford Team driver Markko Martin notched up an impressive World Rally Championship win in the Rally Mexico in an almost faultless display of driving.

Riga 2000 won the Latvian Ice Hockey Championship by beating ASK/Ogre 5-3 over two legs.

April

Estonian discus thrower Aleksander Tammert set an Estonian record by a staggering 73 centimeters during a contest in the U.S.A. His 68-meter-48-centimeter throw raised him to 37th in the world standings.

The Latvian Premier League kicked off, the only point of interest being would Skonto beat their previous record of 13 straight championships and make it 14 straight championships?

May

The Estonian Bodybuilding and Fitness Federation imposed a two-year ban on 2002 European fitness champion and regular Estonian championship winner Marek Kalmus for repeated use of prohibited substances.

Latvia was knocked out of the ice hockey World Championship quarterfinals by Sweden after losing 4-1. Sweden went on to lose 5-3 to Canada in the final.

In Lithuania, Zalgiris kaunas won the Lithuanian basketball league for the fourth consecutive year after beating its closest rivals Lietuvos Rytas 88-70 in the final game of the season. Meanwhile, BK Venstpils won its fifth consecutive Latvian basketball league title.

Latvian soccer received a major boost when Nordea bank signed a new sponsorship deal with the Latvian Football Federation. Although both parties refused to say how much the two-year deal was worth, Nordea claimed it was the biggest soccer sponsorship deal in the Baltics.

June

After months of feverish build up, Latvia finally made its big stage soccer debut at Euro 2004 in Portugal. The Baltic minnows took on the Czech Republic in their opener. Latvia took the lead in the first half, but the Czechs were simply too good and they went on to win the game 2-1. But Latvia impressed throughout much of the game. In its second game, Latvia notched up an historic 0-0 draw against a lackluster German side, meaning that it could qualify from the so-called "group of death" if it beat Holland and the Czech Republic beat Germany. But Latvia was simply awful against the Dutch, who comfortably won the game 3-0. However, Latvia came away from the tournament with its heads held high having done far better than many expected.

July

Estonian cyclist Jaan Kirsipuu won the 202.5-kilometer first leg of the Tour de France.

After much speculation, it was finally announced that top Latvian hockey sides Riga 2000 and Liepajas Metalurgs would compete in the Belarusian league. The two teams made the move because they wanted to compete in a higher-quality league than the Eastern European League they'd previously played in. Latvian Hockey federation officials complained that the change would have an adverse affect on Latvian hockey as a whole.

Lithuania's Zydrunas Savickas was crowned the second strongest man in the world after outmuscling all his competitors but one in the Strongman Super Series.

August

The Baltic states had a strong showing at the Athens Olympics. Lithuania did especially well, winning one gold and two silvers. Virgilijus Alekna initially won the silver in the men's discus, but it was raised to gold after the Hungarian Robert Fazekas was stripped off his title for failing to provide a drugs test. Austra Skutjyte took silver in the women's heptathlon and Andrejus Zadneprovskis took silver in the men's modern heptathlon.

Latvia won four silver medals in all. Vadims Vasilevskis won his in the men's javelin throw, while Viktors Scerbatihs claimed his in +105-kilogram weightlifting. Jelena Rublevska won her medal in the women's pentathlon and Evgeni Sapronenko came second in the pole vault.

Estonia won one silver and two bronze medals, with Juri Jaanson coming second in the men's single scull race, Aleksander Tamert coming third in the men's discus (also benefiting from Fazekas' disqualification) and Indrek Pertelson winning the bronze in the men's +100-kilogram judo category. The Latvian athlete Ineta Radevica didn't win anything but she made quite a stir when she posed nude for the August issue of Playboy.

September

FC Skonto and Latvian national soccer coach Aleksandrs Starkovs announced that he would be stepping down from both coaching positions to take over at Russian side Spartak Moscow. Starkovs signed a two-year deal with Moscow after having helped Latvia to unprecedented heights in international soccer. Meanwhile the Estonian Football Federation decided not to renew national coach Arno Pijper's contract. Pijper had been in charge of the national team since 2000. His replacement was named as fellow-Dutchman Jelle Qurinus Goes.

October

Latvian prosecutors dropped their case against Strawberry, the 19-year-old Latvian girl who became the country's first ever streaker (see page 12) when she ran half naked onto the field during a World Cup qualifier against Portugal. They made their decision on condition that Strawberry stay out of trouble for the next six months.

Spain strongly criticized Lithuania's Zalgiris Stadium after playing a World Cup qualifier there, which ended in a 0-0 draw. The Spanish manager Luis Aragones referred to the pitch as a "paddy field."

Lithuanian basketball was sent into shock when Tauras Stumbrys died during an LBL game. The 34-year-old, who played as guard for Hidruvos Atletas, went into convulsions and fainted on the bench. The official cause of death was given as coronary heart disease.

November

FC Levadia won the Estonian Premier League, having lost only once all season. In Lithuania, Kaunas won the Premier League in controversial fashion after beating second-placed Ekranas in the final game of the season. Ekranas fans tried to invade the field and the planned award ceremony had to be canceled. The scenes were a result of a chaotic build up to the match, in which Ekranas was threatened with expulsion from the league after allegations of match rigging.

Latvian hockey legend Sergei Zholtok died during a game between Riga 2000 and Dinamo Minsk in Belarus after suffering from heart failure. The 31-year-old played for the NHL side the Nashville Predators and was only playing for Riga 2000 because of the NHL lockout. Many regarded him as one of Latvia's finest ever forwards.

FC Skonto won a record 14th straight Latvian Premier League title, and Markko Martin achieved a career-best when he finished third in the WRC. It was also announced that next season he would leave the Ford team to drive with Peugeot.

December

The Estonian cross-country skier Kristina Smigun got her season off to a good start with a victory in the 10-kilometer classic-style race in Finland. She's currently second in the standings.