Never too young for gold

  • 2000-03-02
  • By J. Michael Lyons
RIGA — Latvia has certainly made a name for itself in the bundled-up sports of winter. Renowned Latvians are found on American and Canadian ice in the National Hockey League and on Europe's world class bobsled runs and Nordic ski trails.

But in track and field? Where they wear shorts?

When 20-year-old Stanislavs Olijars, born and raised in Riga, burned the field in the 60-meter hurdles to take gold at last weekend's European Indoor Track and Field Championships in Ghent, Belgium, he continued a tradition that those who think Latvians belong strapped to skates or skis might find surprising.

Olijars finished second in his qualifying heat to earn a spot in the middle lane of the finals Feb. 26. Though he competed throughout Europe this winter against the world's best, the European Championships was the biggest meet of his short career.

The Britain-based Eurosport television network featured the race live, broadcasting it back to Latvia and across Europe.

After the preliminary heat, Olijars was sceptical about his chances for gold. But then something clicked as he made his way toward the starting blocks for the finals.

"When I came out on the track I knew," he said this week back home in Riga. "I just felt something inside."

Olijars drew a good lane, dead center. But he started slow and had to fight through the pack.

Olijars caught and passed Tony Jarret of Great Britain to win in 7.50 seconds, a personal best.

Jarret finished second in 7.53 seconds and Poland's Tomasz Scigaczewski was third in 7.56.

Olijars time was two tenths of a second shy of the world record set by Great Britain's Colin Jackson in 1994.

"It's not so much of a surprise," said Arturs Vaiders, sports editor of the Latvian daily Diena. "The last few years he was one of the best juniors in Europe."

There is also some hurdling tradition here for Olijars to lean back on.

Igor Kavanov won European Indoor gold in the 60m hurdles in 1990, 92, 96 and 98, when he was one of two Latvians on the podium.

During the Soviet occupation, Latvia produced four gold medalists in the javelin, the last coming in the 1980 Olympics in Moscow.

Olijars will head to Greece in May to begin training for the upcoming Olympic Games in Sydney.

"He's maybe a little too young for excellent results in the Olympics this time," said Vaiders.

In Sydney he'll face the top hurdlers from the United States and Cuba, who have dominated the Europeans in international meets this season.

"I've counted like 15 people who can make the final," said Olijars.

His goal is to be one of them.

Unlike the indoor races, the shortest Olympic hurdle race is 110 meters, which suits Olijars fine.

"I'm better on the longer distance," he said.

So this summer when the skates are long hung up and the skis are in storage there be an athlete from Latvia competing on the world's biggest stage.