RIGA - The 2006 Winter Olympics ended with its traditionally opulent closing ceremony on Feb. 26, and was called "a great success" by officials. Estonia performed exceptionally well in the Games, bringing home three medals, and Latvia was overjoyed with its bronze.
On Feb. 27, the Estonian Olympic Committee organized a welcoming ceremony for its gold medalists in Tallinn's Freedom Square. "I hope that thousands of people will gather in Freedom Square to welcome the Olympic heroes," EOC President Mart Siimann said before the event. And he was not let down.
Sure enough, by 6 p.m. the square was packed with Estonians, eagerly awaiting their athletes' homecoming. Popular singer Ivo Linna, alongside the Estonian Defense Force Orchestra, began the celebration on stage, while footage from the Games played on a giant outdoor screen.
Cross-country skier Kristina Smigun and coach Anatoli Smigun, the double-gold medalist's father, were greeted by fans upon arrival from Turin at the Tallinn Airport. Fellow Olympian Andrus Veerpalu, wearing the gold medal he received in the 15-kilometer cross-country skiing event, and his coach Mati Alaver joined the Smiguns before their grand entrance to Freedom Square.
The boisterous crowd welcomed the Olympians, who entered the square in a ceremonious motorcade, with cheers and fluttering Estonian flags. The hoopla was broadcast live on national television, and ended with a concert by Ivo Linna and Anti Kammiste beneath a sky of fireworks.
After Tallinn Mayor Juri Ratas congratulated the athletes at Town Hall, the champions proceeded to the south Estonian winter resort Otepaa, where both reside.
Kristina Smigun, 28, won the women's 15-kilometer pursuit on Feb. 12 and the 10-kilometer classical race four days later. Andrus Veerpalu clinched his third-ever Olympic medal by winning the men's 15-kilometer classical race on Feb. 17. Veerpalu won the same event in 2002, during the Salt Lake City Olympic Games, where he also received a silver medal in the men's 50-kilometer classic-style race.
On Feb. 26, Smigun failed in her bid for a third gold medal when she finished eighth in the women's 30-kilometer freestyle race.
Latvia congratulated its sole Olympic medalist, luger Martins Rubenis, in similar fashion. Rubenis made history on Feb. 12 as the first Latvian to win a winter Olympic medal, when he took bronze in the men's singles event.
"I am pleased with the performance of [our] many young athletes. I am especially proud of Martins Rubenis, who has become quite a success during the period of Latvia's independence," Edgars Sneps, deputy state secretary for sports, told the Baltic News Service.
Sneps, a former player for the national basketball team, said it was especially important that Rubenis had grown as an athlete in independent Latvia. He also praised the female biathlon team and Janis Minins, Latvia's bobsledding star.
"There are many good examples," said Sneps, adding that there were several Latvian athletes who came "close to medals."
During one of the Game's last events, Latvia's four-man bobsled team placed 10th overall. Janis Minins, Daumants Dreiskens, Marcis Rullis and Janis Ozols finished with a total time of three minutes, 42.59 seconds over four runs. The team hit their top speed during the fourth run - 131.5 kilometers per hour.
Sneps has arranged to meet with representatives of the Latvian Olympic Committee and winter sports federations to assess the performance of the national team. The officials will discuss how to further support athletes preparing for the next winter Olympics, scheduled to take place in Vancouver, Canada, in 2010.
Latvia made one last appearance during the closing ceremonies, on top of its procession with other participating countries: The air-stream acrobats that featured as part of the ceremony's festivities were members of Aerodium LV, according to the Latvian daily Diena.
The group was led by Ivars Beitans, who balanced in the air-stream aloft on a snowboard, about 20 meters above the stage. Others participating in the performance were Ingus Augstkalns, Jevgenijs Kolosovs, Reinis Rutentals, Guntis Sefers, and Kristaps Turauskis.
Lithuania finished empty-handed at Turin after ice-dancing hopefuls Margarita Drobiazko and Povilas Vanagas placed only seventh.