Uphill climb for athletes as funding shrinks

  • 2011-02-03
  • By Jared Grellet

THE GREAT EQUALIZER: Aldons Vrublevskis points out that despite budget cuts, world class sports centers, including outside of Riga, continue to be developed.

In 2010 Latvia experienced their most successful Winter Olympics campaign in their short history competing as an independent state. The result came on the back of significant state funding injected into the country’s Olympic program in the years leading up to Vancouver. But now, the Latvian Olympic Committee is facing their third year of significant cuts in funding from the government. Just what does this mean for the immediate future of sport in Latvia as the country attempts to maintain their high standards set in 2010 on a restricted budget?

Spend money, gain results

The positives and negatives of communism can be debated over a number of hours, often with no conclusive agreements arrived upon, but one area that most people can agree that communist systems - in particular the former Soviet Union - got it right was in their development and implementation of intensive high performance sport centers, with the results no more evident than in the Soviet Union’s dominance of the Summer and Winter Olympics. The formula was simple and effective: high injection of money from the state equals results on an international stage.

As a former member of the Soviet Union, Latvia benefited from the Soviet sport system with a number of Latvians achieving greatness in sports under the flag of the Soviet Union.
After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Latvia continued to compete to a high standard for a short time, but as those who had been trained under the Soviet system began to retire, Latvian sport hit a lull with the new government lacking the amount of capital required to continue to develop and recruit potential athletes at the same level as the Soviet Union.

However, following Latvia’s accession to the European Union in 2004, Latvia began to experience a strong period of financial growth with sport directly benefiting from a) the government and b) private investment. In 2007, the state budget allocated 29.9 million lats (42.7 million euros) for sports. A year later this was 27.5 million lats. This allowed for heavy investment in recruitment, coaching and the development of new sports facilities, along with the upgrading of already existing facilities.

But this funding was about to take a severe hit as Latvia began to be struck by the full force of the recession, seeing significant cutbacks in government spending. In just a year the money allocated to sports dropped from 28 million lats, in 2009, to 17.6 millions lats in 2010. 2011 sees another cut, with just 14 million lats being allocated to sports from state funding.

With the planning already well in motion ahead of the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, the affects of the significant cuts in funding had not yet begun their trickle down affect. Instead, Latvia enjoyed their most successful Winter Olympics campaign in their history, with the heavy investment in sport from the government in previous years paying dividends. Juris Sics and younger brother Andris surprised everyone by taking a silver medal in men’s luge, while Martins Dukurs finished second in the skeleton. His older brother, Tomass, finished back in fourth place, just 0.03 of a second from a podium finish. Latvia also performed admirably in bobsleigh, finishing in 11th spot in the four-man event and eighth in the two-man competition.

Had it not been for their leading pilot Janis Minins being struck down with appendicitis on the eve of the Olympics, forcing him to withdraw, it was possible Latvia would have experienced even stronger results in both events, with Minins holding the track record going into the event. Had it not been for the high investment in sport from the government, Latvia arguably would not have enjoyed the same level of success.

In an ironic twist, Latvia’s neighbor, Russia, announced last month that it would increase state expenditure on sport in 2011, to 759 million lats, this coming after they returned from Vancouver with their smallest haul of medals from a Winter Olympics campaign.

Time to tighten the belt

It is really only now that the jubilation from the successes in Vancouver wears off that the hangover begins to hit home for Latvia. With government funding severely reduced, Latvian athletes need to find funding from other sources if they are to continue performing with distinction at a high level on the world stage. Aside from the individual athletes, the Latvian Olympic Committee (LOK), as well as the governing bodies of individual sports in Latvia, needs to review their financial position in order to assure they can continue to attract new participants to their sports, protect their assets as well as continue to develop and support their elite athletes.

One potential problem is that the sports that Latvia excelled at in Vancouver and at the Summer Olympics in Beijing in 2008 tend to receive limited media exposure outside of the Olympics, leaving them unattractive to potential sponsors. The Latvian government offers attractive tax breaks to companies that sponsor sport but this does not help solve the problem, with companies also tightening their belts in the face of the recession with sponsorship targeted as an area in which expenditure can be cut back.

In replying to questions put forward by The Baltic Times, LOK President Aldons Vrublevskis cited the salaries of sport school teachers; the costs of the qualification process for athletes hoping to compete in the London Olympics in 2012; and the funding to be received for young Latvians wanting to compete in the youth Olympics as the three areas that will receive the biggest cuts.

This potentially means that less Latvian athletes than originally thought will be seen competing in London, and the next generation of Latvian athletes may suffer from a) not being able to compete in international events (the youth Olympics), where they can gain invaluable experience competing against leading athletes from around the world and b) not receiving the elite level of coaching they require as sport teachers’ and coaches salaries are slashed.

Taking the positives from a negative situation

Despite the bleak outlook, Vrublevkis is remaining positive in his outlook for the future, acknowledging the situation could have been a whole lot worse had the Latvian government adhered to the “ignorant” proposals made by the World Bank which, in the middle of last year, advised that the government should remove the section ‘sports’ from the state budget in order to adhere to its repayment obligations to international money lenders.

Speaking to Latvian news agency LETA at the time, Vrublevskis stressed that it would not be Latvia’s high profile athletes who would be affected, but rather children, with the cuts likely to lead to a cutback in physical education teachers and trainers. He also believed that the cuts in funding could lead to the closure of state assets, such as Daugava Stadium in Riga and the Sigulda bobsleigh track.

The recommendations were also met with widespread condemnation from the wider Latvian sports community and, to the relief of all concerned, the government did not take up the recommendations of the World Bank, assuring that an already difficult situation did not further implode.

For the time being the Sigulda bobsleigh track and Daugava Stadium remain open, and although the same level of coaching may not be available, the fact is the facilities remain available to aspiring athletes, with the Sigulda bobsleigh track a particularly important asset for Latvia, with few other countries in the world enjoying the luxury of having a bobsleigh training facility in their own backyard.

Grabbing onto the coattails of the increased number of young male tourists coming to visit Latvia, the Sigulda bobsleigh track is also helping itself by generating revenue by opening on the weekends to allow adventure seekers to take on the track with a professional driver. The money then goes directly back into the maintenance of the track, with Latvian athletes ultimately benefiting.

Vrublevskis also points to the continual development of world class sport centers outside of Riga, such as the Zemgale Olympic Center, completed in Jelgava in 2010, showing that even with the major cutbacks taken into consideration, Latvia is continuing to develop. “LOK always supports local initiatives to build or restore modern sports bases outside Riga. It helps to expose all levels of education [to sport] - from kindergarten up to university.”

It is not just Vrublevskis who is remaining positive in a difficult situation, with some sports thinking outside of the box to continue attracting new participants and grow their sport in the country. One such sport is rugby. Thanks to funding from the European Union, acquired under the guise of bringing neighbors closer together, 100 secondary schools from the Siauliai region of Lithuania and Zemgale region of Latvia participated in a six month program that introduced students to non-contact rugby before pitting them in a cross-border tournament in an effort to break down barriers between the two countries. The offshoot has been the number of students who have crossed over to play full contact rugby, as rugby in both countries attempts to bolster their ranks now that it will become an Olympic sport.

It is still early days with Martins Dukurs continuing to compete strongly, having last week won the FIBT skeleton World Cup, and the bobsleigh teams continuing to do well, although cutbacks in funding saw them skip the American leg of the World Cup. The effects will become more evident when the next generation of athletes, who have not had the same level of access to elite coaching and world class competition, reach their prime. Projects as that being undertaken by the Latvian Rugby Development Association (RAA) also offer promise that sport can continue to develop in these tough times, but they are only one solution to the problem that will perhaps not be entirely remedied until Latvia is well onto the long road to recovery.