Lithuanians celebrate Olympic victories

  • 2000-10-05
  • Rokas M. Tracevskis
VILNIUS - Lithuanian successes in the Sydney Olympics were echoed in the streets of Vilnius and other Lithuanian towns. Crowds of smiling people met the two Olympic gold medalists, trap shooter Daina Gudzineviciute and disc thrower Virgilijus Alekna, with loud cheers in Vilnius airport on Sept. 28. However, the real festivals in the streets of Vilnius started at the end of the live broadcast of the Lithuanian team's basketball games. Lithuanians were especially emotional after the team took on the United States on Sept. 30 in the semifinals.

Lithuania lost to the United States, a team composed of NBA professionals known as the "Dream Team," by a mere two points. CNN said that the world changed its views on sport after Lithuania's performance.

Lithuania had a chance to win, trailing by two, when a three-point shot at the buzzer bounced off the rim.

On the eve of the game, Sept. 29, the Lithuanian team got a confidence boost after beating Yugoslavia 76-63 in the quarterfinals. Hundreds of young people celebrated the win in the streets of Vilnius.

However, the real drama unfolded on Sept. 30. The broadcast against the U.S. began at midday, and Vilnius life was paralyzed. Pubs and cafes were full. Everybody watched.

Political life also came to a standstill. U.S. Ambassador John Tefft came to the Lithuanian parliament to award Emanuelis Zingeris, MP and Jewish activist, for his role in developing friendly relations between Lithuania and the United States. MPs invited Tefft and a group of journalists to Parliament's restaurant to watch the game.

Zingeris and Tefft sat close to each other, both holding bottles of beer in their hands and watching the game. "Lietuva! [Lithuania!]" chanted Zingeris near the ear of Tefft. "Lietuva" chanted the old political rivals, Conservative Party Chairman Vytautas Landsbergis and Democratic Labor Party MP Gediminas Kirkilas.

Lithuania trailed after the first half. However, Lithuania equalized in the beginning of the second half, and the game was tight to the end.

Ramunas Siskauskas was given three free throws with just 40 seconds left after being fouled attempting a three-point shot with the game tied 80-80. Siskauskas missed two. After chaotic attacks from both teams the Americans were leading 85-83. Sarunas Jasikevicius missed a three-pointer at the buzzer.

Lithuania's coach Jonas Kazlauskas and Lithuanian players left the field with tears in their eyes.

Half of Lithuania was crying, while the other half refused to recognize the United States' two-point victory as defeat and flew into the streets to celebrate victory over the NBA players. Hundreds of cars with Lithuanian tri-colors sticking out from windows circled in the streets of Vilnius and honked their horns. This noise continued for several hours.

"We won a moral victory," commented Landsbergis.

"Lithuania should be very proud of how well its team played against the United States," Tefft said.

"Now Americans should send some 15 shuttles to Mars to become proud of their country again," Marijonas Mikutavicius, TV host and musician, said laughing.

"It was fun listening to the American TV commentators because they were getting excited. Americans have the trait of appreciating the underdog spirit. Americans like the idea of David beating Goliath... sometimes even when America is the Goliath. When Lithuania missed the last shot of the game one commentator even exclaimed "Ohhh Nooo!," said former Vilnius resident Paul Beckman, who watched the game in Texas. "It looks like at these Olympics, the United States and Lithuania were the only two teams that were on the same level."

"We should have made a bigger margin when we were leading (early). Then there would be no need to compete in the wheel of fortune in the end of the game," said Kazlauskas in an interview with Lithuanian TV.

Lithuania went on to beat Australia for its third consecutive bronze medal, while the U.S. later upended France to claim its third consecutive gold.

Thousands of young people celebrated in the streets of Vilnius and Kaunas. The party started at 4 a.m. in the darkness of the night after the broadcast of the bronze medal game.

"Look at the French. We smashed them easily in the preliminary round (81-63), but they got into the final because they had no serious competitors in the quarterfinal and semifinal," Kazlauskas told Lithuanian TV.

American basketball commentator and former coach Billy Packer in a story on said simply.r.: ;: "Lithuania's team play deserving of gold."

"This Lithuanian team has played the best team basketball, with the best-organized offensive and defensive schemes, of anyone in the Games," writes Packer. He writes that he cannot understand why Sarunas Jasikevicius gets less than $1 million per year at his Barcelona club while Tim Hardaway just last week agreed to a $12 million contract with the Miami Heat. Jasikevicius scored 27 points against the United States while Hardaway was held scoreless.

"Something doesn't fit here," states Packer.