Sports in Latvia
Ice hockey has been played in Latvia since 1920s. Latvia was a member of International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), its national team participated in several World Championships and 1936 Winter Olympic Games. After Latvia was occupied by Soviet Union in 1940, its membership in IIHF was interrupted. Latvians had a significant role in establishing ice hockey in Soviet Union. Latvian Dinamo Riga team was one of eleven teams which played in the first Soviet championship tournament in 1946/1947 winter. Latvian Harijs Mellups was the goalkeeper for the Soviet Union team in its first international game in 1948.
Latvian hockey experienced a decline in 1960s, with Dinamo Riga team being relegated from the USSR higher league (vysshaya liga) to the first league and then even to the second league. It began a comeback in 1970s, under the coach Viktor Tikhonov who would later go on to coach CSKA Moscow and the Soviet national team. In the 1973/1974 season, Dynamo Riga returned to the higher league where it stayed until the end of Soviet Union in 1991.
In 1975, Viktor Hatulev of Dinamo Riga became the first ice hockey player of USSR drafted by the National Hockey League but never had a chance to play there, as Soviet players were not allowed to play in foreign teams. Helmuts Balderis was the brightest Latvian hockey star of 1970s and 1980s, and retained all-time scoring records (scoring 333 goals in USSR`s championships) for Latvian ice-hockey forward ever. He was the leading scorer in Soviet league twice (1977 and 1983) and the Player of the Year once (1977). Balderis also played for Soviet national team, being on the losing side of the Miracle on Ice game in 1980 but winning World Championships on other occassions (1978, 1979 and 1983). Balderis was the best forward of 1977 Ice Hockey World Championship. Despite of his continuing high scoring results, he was not taken into Soviet national team for 1984 Winter Olympics, possibly because of political or national reasons (in those years the Soviet team consisted of sportsmen only from Moscow ice hockey teams, any other Russian cities or Soviet republics were not represented). Thus Balderis became the all-time top scorer among those Soviet ice hockey forwards who played for Soviet national team but had never been awarded with the Olympic gold medal. Goalkeepers Vitālijs Samoilovs and Artūrs Irbe also played for Soviet team in 1980s, Irbe was the best goalkeeeper of 1990 Ice Hockey World Championship. Samoilovs is the Winner of 1988 Winter Olympic Games.
The best season for Dinamo Riga came in 1987/1988 winter, the first season when Soviet league instituted an NHL-style playoff system. Dinamo Riga finished third in the regular season and upset Dynamo Moscow in semifinals, before losing to CSKA Moscow, the perennial Soviet champions of 1980s, in the finals.
After Latvia regained independence in 1991, Latvia restored its membership in IIHF and Latvian national team returned to international competitions. As a new team, they were initially placed in the C Pool (third division) of World Championships and had to qualify for the higher level competitions. They debuted in the B Pool in 1994 and the top-level A Pool in 1997. Latvia has played in the A Pool championship since then. The best result has been the 7th place in 1997 and 2004. While not a medal contender, Latvian team has produced some upsets over the top teams in World Championships, winning USA twice (in 1998 and 2001) and Russia twice (in 2000 and 2003). Latvia has also competed in 2002 Winter Olympics, finishing 9th.
As of 2004, twelve Latvian ice hockey players have played in NHL. The first of them was Helmuts Balderis, starting to play in Minesota North Stars team at the age of 36 in the 1989-90 season .Sandis Ozoliņš, Artūrs Irbe, Sergey Zholtok and Kārlis Skrastiņš have been the most successful ones. Ozoliņš is the only Latvian to win the Stanley Cup, in the 1995-96 season with the Colorado Avalanche. Ozoliņš and Irbe have played in NHL All-Star Games.
It is planned that 2006 World Championships will be held in Latvia.
Latvia has a long basketball tradition. Latvia won the first European championship in 1935 and hosted the second championship in 1937.
In Soviet period, Latvian men's basketball team, ASK Rīga was dominant in the Soviet League in 1950s and early 1960s, winning several Soviet league championships and three European Champion's Cups, in 1958, 1959 and 1960. In 1960 Summer Olympics, four Latvians, Jānis Krūmiņš, Valdis Muižnieks, Cēzars Ozers and Maigonis Valdmanis were a part of the silver-medal winning Soviet team. Soviet Olympic teams in 1956 and 1964 Summer Olympics had three Latvian players each. The Soviet team in 1952 Summer Olympics had one Latvian.
The women's team, TTT Riga was very successful in 1970s and 1980s, winning European Champion's Cup 18 times, more than any other team in any team sport. 2.12 m (7 foot) tall Uljana Semjonova was the women's key player in this period. She was also very dominant with Soviet team in international games, never losing a game in international competitions and winning 2 Olympic and 3 World Championships.
For men's basketball, the guard Valdis Valters was the most highly acclaimed player of 1980s. He won a European Championship with Soviet team in 1981 and was recognized as the MVP of the tournament, but did not get a chance to play in Olympics, because of the Soviet boycott of 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles which coincided with Valter's best playing years. Another Latvia, Igors Miglinieks won gold with the Soviet team four years later, in 1988 Summer Olympics.
Latvia returned to international competition as an independent country in 1992. The qualifiers of 1992 Summer Olympics were the first tournament for Latvia's team. A major controversy was caused by two Latvian players, Igors Miglinieks and Gundars Vētra. They had a choice of either playing for the Unified Team which was certain to qualify for Olympics or Latvian national team which had a chance but was not certain to qualify. The two players chose to play for Unified Team and Latvian team, playing without them, failed to qualify for Olympics. This caused a long resentment in Latvia and the two players never played for Latvia in an international game.
After the country regaining independence, the most successful tournament for Latvia was 2001 European Championships when the Latvian team finished in the 8th place. The center/power forward Kaspars Kambala was Latvia's best player in this tournament. Latvia's national championship, Latvijas Basketbola Līga, was dominated by Brocēni team in 1990s and Ventspils team in 2000s. In 2004, Ventspils team won its fifth consecutive championship.
Gundars Vētra became the first Latvian in NBA when he briefly played in Minnesota Timberwolves for 13 games in 1993. Andris Biedrinsh was drafted 2004 in NBA as 11th by Golden State Warriors and has already played his first games thus becoming the second Latvian to play in NBA.
Latvian national team participated in final stage of 2004 European Football Championship. The leading scorer of Latvian national soccer team is Maris Verpakovskis. See also: Latvia national football team
Latvian athlets have achieved some medals in Olympics and Europe/World championships.