RIGA - It is the largest team in Latvian Olympic history. Beginning on Feb. 11, 57 athletes will represent Latvia at the 20th Olympic Winter Games in Turin, Italy.
"This great number of athletes is a brilliant success for our sports system," said Marita Vilcina, press secretary for the delegation.
This trend is a result of Latvia's successful female biathlon team, which currently ranks 20th in the world, she added.
"Because of this good result, our women's biathlon team qualified for the Games for the first time, which is great for the development of women's sports," Vilcina explained.
Latvia's athletes will compete in a total of seven events. The team includes 23 hockey players, 10 bobsledders, eight lugers, two alpine skiers, four cross-country skiers, nine biathletes and one skeleton participant. Latvian President Vaira Vike-Freiber-ga, Prime Minister Aigars Kalvitis and Education and Science Minister Ina Druviete will also attend the Games and encourage the athletes in person.
Not only is this year's delegation the largest, it is also a remarkably young one: The average age of the athletes is about 25, many of whom have never set foot at the Olympics.
Nevetheless, officials have great hope for the Latvian team. Even though the Baltic state hasn't won any medals at the Winter Olympics since re-gaining independence in 1991, the expectations are high, Vilcina said.
This year, the greatest hopes lie with luge racers and biathletes. After winning silver at the world championships in 2003 and bronze in 2004, luger Martins Rubenis is an Olympic favorite. Meanwhile in the double luge, brothers Andris and Juris Sics could have a successful premiere at the Olympics, after good results in the World Cup.
But the nation's biggest hope for a medal lies with biathlete Ilmars Bricis, who will be competing in the Winter Olympics for the fifth time this year.
"As I am aware of these prospects, there is some stress and pressure for me," Bricis told The Baltic Times. "But it is not my first time, so I can handle it."
According to the biathlete, who won bronze in the 2005 World Championships, he is not headed to Turin just to participate, but to bring home a medal.
"But I know that many other athletes have the same target, so the best would be to rank within the top six," he explained. "I feel ready for the competition and want to start."
As Turin is about 100 kilometers away from most competition locations, the delegation will not live altogether while in Italy. Instead, three different centers will accommodate the Latvian athletes: the biggest part of the delegation will stay in Sestriere, where most of the events take place, the hockey team will reside in Turin, and the biathletes in Bardonecchia.
"I believe there could be some problems with transportation to villages in the mountains, as all the delegations - plus thousands of spectators 's will be moving there at the same time," Vilcina said.
Furthermore, she fears having the athletes live in separate homes could negatively affect the team's unity. This could especially become a disadvantage for the younger athletes, who are looking to team members for advice, the press secretary added.
But national bobsledding pilot Janis Minins, 25, is focused entirely on his event. His personal goal is to place among the top-10 in the two- and four-man bobsledding event.
"I feel some pressure right now, everyone wants us to be successful," he said.
Like many of his fellow teammates, this will be Minins' first time competing in the Games, and so it's important for him to be surrounded by more experienced sportsmen.
"It is great that I have some older athletes in my own team. Sometimes one can take the stress away from me and advise me what to do next," he said.
Although Latvian officials - and fans - are hoping for medals, they haven't spoken much about such expectations, to keep the pressure low.
"I simply hope, that everyone will give his best," said Vilcina. "You never know what is happening. Sport can always be surprising 's and that is the beauty of it."
Estonia and Lithuania will also compete in this year's Winter Games, although their teams are not as strong as Latvia's.
Estonia will send over 15 cross-country skiers, two ski-jumpers, two alpine skiers, a strong biathlon team, and three figure skaters. Meanwhile, Lithuania has placed their hopes on ice dancers Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas. the duo took bronze in last month's European Championships.