RIGA - Eight competitors tested their pedals, waiting for the signal to start the tense winner-takes-all race. It was a historic moment in their sport 's the first to cross the finish line would take home the first ever Olympic gold medal in BMX cycling.
In the previous heats, Maris Strombergs, Latvia's 21-year-old BMX prodigy, had earned the right to choose which gate he would start from. He chose a fast track and it gave him an immediate edge over the other cyclists. By the end of the first turn, he was well ahead of the competition.
His performance was flawless. Strombergs threw up his arms in victory before even crossing the line. He was nearly half a second ahead of the next competitor.
"I needed the fast lane, and I did it," Strombergs told the Associated Press after his win.
"I was just trying to take the gate and come out first. I just raced my race and it came out for the best," the cyclist told the Chinese state-run news agency Xinhua.
The closing ceremonies have passed and the Baltics have come away from Beijing victorious. The total medal count for the three countries was two gold, three silver and four bronze.
Both Estonia and Latvia managed to take a gold in Beijing 's no small feat considering their relatively small size. According to the official results published Aug. 24, the last day of the games, Latvia finished in 45th place, Estonia tied for 46th and Lithuania tied for 57th.
Latvia ended up right behind Finland, which managed to secure one more bronze than the Baltic state. Estonia, meanwhile, ended up tied with Belgium, the Dominican Republic and Portugal. Lithuania got the worst result of the three Baltic states 's the country came out on par with Croatia 's but it managed to secure the highest number of total medals of the three Baltics.
Sport of choice
Each country excelled in different events at the Games. Estonian athlete Gerd Kanter took home the first Baltic gold in the discus throw.
With a perfectly executed toss, Kanter hurled the disc an amazing 68.8 meters in the fourth round. The throw put the 29 year-old Tallinn native on the gold medal stand above Polish national Piotr Malachowski, who won silver, and veteran Lithuanian Olympian Virgilijus Alekna, who walked away with the bronze.
Though Kanter won the 2007 World Championships in Osaka, Japan, he still had to contend with Alekna, a fellow Balt who took the gold in Athens in 2004. After his win, Kanter said it was "only right" that he took the win.
"I knew the pressure was on me not to break down ... but it was Alekna who broke down. That was only right. It was time for a younger man to take over," the newly crowned Olympic champion was quoted as saying by The New York Times.
After being announced the victor, the 125 kilogram athlete ran a 100 meter sprint holding the Estonian flag high above his head as it flapped in the wind.
Latvia, meanwhile, gleaned its moment of glory from the newly introduced Olympic sport of BMX cycling, where it beat out strong teams from the U.S. and Australia to take the top spot.
Strombergs finished the course in 36.190, leaving Mike Day and Donny Robinson, both hailing from the United States, far behind at 36.606 and 36.972, respectively.
Though the sport originated in America some 40 years ago, Strombergs is the current world champion and was one of the favorites to win the historic medal. The Latvian had been on BMX bikes since the age of five and is considered a veteran of the sport despite his relatively young age.
Strombergs said that despite the prestige of winning the first Olympic medal in his sport, the race itself felt much like any other world-class competition.
"It doesn't matter if it is the Olympics, the world championships or the European championships, the feeling is the same. I see no difference between my competitors, whether they come from the United States or New Zealand," Strombergs told Xinhua.
His win makes him only the second Latvian to take an Olympic gold since the country regained independence in 1991. Igors Vihrovs was the first, with a gymnastics victory in the 2000 Summer Games in Sydney, Australia.
While Lithuania was unable to get a gold, it did take both the silver and the bronze in the men's pentathlon.
Andrejus Zadneprovskis and Edvinas Krungolcas, Lithuania's two pentathlon superstars, faced a nearly impossible task in defeating legendary Russian athlete Andrey Moiseev. Moiseev won the event in Athens in 2004, and his victory in Beijing made him the second athlete to ever successfully defend an Olympic title in the event.
A heavy favorite, Moiseev was so far ahead that he had time to stop and get a Russian flag to drape around his shoulders from the audience before finishing the race. After his win, however, the competitor said that the Lithuanians made it tougher for him this time around than it was in Athens.
"It was definitely easier to win in Athens than it was here," the gold medalist said at a press conference after the event.
Though many Balts are reveling in their countries' victories, there was no small amount of disappointment as some of the region's finest athletes and top medal hopefuls faltered.
One of the biggest disappointments was Lithuanian discus thrower Virgilijus Alekna. With a gold medal to his name four years ago, many thought Alekna could put on a repeat performance. Not only did he represent one of Lithuania's best chances at getting a gold, the 36-year-old probably would not have another chance at the Games.
Lithuania's other big disappointment came in the men's basketball team, which faltered in the last few games despite a strong start. The team earned first place in the round robin competition, giving them a relatively easy first match against China in the quarterfinals. The team went on to play world champions Spain in the semifinals, a match they lost by only five points.
The real problem, however, came in the bronze medal match. Once hopeful that they could make it into the finals, the Lithuanian team was bumped from the medal table by Argentina 's a country they beat in the round robin competition.
Latvia's greatest disappointment was probably the famous parliamentarian weightlifter Viktors Scerbatihs. Hossein Rezazadeh, who has been dubbed the Iranian Hercules and would have been a heavy favorite to win the gold, could not compete due to injury. This left the door wide open for Scerbatihs, the world's second best, to step in and take the gold.
His coach, however, missed the time limit to register his athlete by a mere two seconds, leaving the Latvian with little choice but to lift a larger amount earlier in a bid for gold. He almost did it. The "clean" phase of the lift went off without a hitch, but when it came to the "jerk," Scerbatihs was simply unable to get his legs under him, and the bar went crashing to the floor.
Estonia's disappointment is harder to pinpoint, but it may come in the fact that the country sent its largest delegation ever to an Olympic Games and only came back with one real success story. Moreover, the country boasts a number of world-class athletes who, for a variety of reasons, failed to make it into the Olympics.
Though the Games had their ups and downs, Balts generally seem happy with their achievements in Beijing. And they have good reason to be happy 's the three countries can boast some of the most medals per capita of any country in the world.