Sliding in Latvia Part 4

The Ice Prince

Sigulda Castle backside

The end of the nineteenth century was an age of royal eccentricity. Prince Ludwig II of Bavaria spent a fortune on a series of elaborate castles across Southern Germany. The most famous, the fairy-tale Neuschwanstein, was an expression of his love for swans.

Sigulda Castle (above) was built in 1878. It is now proudly in Latvia but was then part of a sprawling Russian Empire – the castle was was built by a Russian aristocratic family, the Kropotkins. Like Prince Ludwig II, Nikolai Kropotkin sought to add a personal touch, but swans were not thrilling enough for him, so he looked to Switzerland for inspiration.

Ice Hotel

In St Moritz, the hotel owner Caspar Badrutt had been trying to promote the town as a winter resort. He found that his guests, who were mostly British, would enjoy sliding though its streets on improvised sleds. Wanting to encourage them, but equally mindful of the danger to pedestrians, he built the world’s first sliding track, now the Cresta Run.

The idea snowballed, laying further tracks as it did so. Sliding spread to other parts of Switerland, including Arosa and Davos, which had a very good bobsleigh team (below).

More than a century later, the legacy of this Swiss-British invention continues to be felt. Switzerland still has more Olympic bobsleigh medals than any other country, although Germany is catching up fast. Great Britain is by far the most successful nation without its own track, in bobsleigh and even more so in skeleton, particularly in women’s events.

Bobfahrer Davos

The Sigulda region is known as the “Switzerland of Latvia” and Nikolai Kropotkin tried to strengthen this association by building a sliding track, modelled on those in the Alps, in the grounds of his castle. This was 90 years before the modern track was completed.

This cannot have been a coincidence. The Soviet choice of Sigulda to host a track surely had much to do with the precedent that the prince had set. And the passion of the locals for the sport must have spread like icy fire from Kropotkin, who they wanted to emulate.

The mystery appears to have been solved. Latvia’s sliding history has been traced back, through the Soviet era, to the moment when it all began, with the fanciful act of a prince.

Or has it?

Nikolai Kropotkin was an adviser to Tsar Nicholas II, the last of the Romanov dynasty, which had eccentrics of its own. The great great great grandmother of Nicholas II was Catherine the Great, who installed an ice slide outside St Petersburg’s Winter Palace.

Catherine might also have been an inspiration for Kropotkin. Not only is the history of sport shaped by unpredictable crazes and capricious decisions, but there are so many overlapping causes that it is impossible to be certain that a final answer has been found.


Town of Skiers

Review of the Week: 18 – 24 January 2016

Lindsey Kildow Aspen

Cortina Downhill Skiing World Cup

Austria twice lost out to Italy this week. The Hahnenkamm race at Kitzbuehel, normally the biggest event on the annual skiing calendar, was overshadowed by the women’s race at Cortina, where Lindsey Vonn (above) won a 37th World Cup downhill, a new record.

Vonn won the Super G the following day and took over the lead in the overall World Cup standings, from Lara Gut of Switzerland. But injury in 2014 means that she still has only one Olympic gold medal, something that she hopes to put right in Pyeongchang in 2018.

European Water Polo Championships

Also with unfinished business is Serbia’s men’s water polo team. With players such as Stefan Mitrovic (below), it won its fifth European title, its third in a row. Second placed Montenegro will join its neighbour in Rio, as they both aim for an elusive Olympic gold.

The women’s final was a clash between the Netherlands, the most successful nation at women’s water polo, and Hungary, the top country across both sexes. Hungary edged it but both will have to contend with the world and Olympic champions, the USA, in Rio.

Paralympic Powerlifting Test Event

There was a strong South American presence at the Rio test event, strong in every sense of the word. Hosts Brazil topped the medal table and there was gold for Jainer Cantillo of Colombia, a country which will be hoping for its first ever Paralympic medal this year.

Stefan Mitrović

Kitzbuehel Downhill Skiing World Cup

The second victory for Italy over Austria came on the Hahnenkamm itself, where Peter Fill took victory while local favourite Hannes Reichelt of Austria crashed out, as well as the World Cup leader, Aksel Lund Svindal, whose injury will deny him the overall title.

Fill was born not far from Austria in South Tyrol, a largely German-speaking region of Northern Italy. Many top Italian skiers come from there, as do almost all of its lugers.

Out of Austria

And despite not winning this time, Austria’s status as a cradle of skiing is assured. Just the town of Kitzbuehel, with a population of 8,000, produced six Olympic Alpine skiers between 1956 and 1968. They won eleven medals, including three golds for Toni Sailer.

More incredibly, Kitzbuehel shares the honours with the tiny neighbouring villages of Lech am Arlberg and St Anton, whose combined population of 4,000 produced another seven Alpine skiers, who hoarded ten more Olympic medals, between 1948 and 1964.

It comes down to history. One of the first ski instructors, Hannes Schneider, developed modern skiing techniques in the Arlberg region, and there has been skiing in Kitzbuehel since 1893. The local economy is based on ski tourism and local sport is based on skiing.

That is the message of my blog. It is easy to think of sporting clusters – from Jamaica to Kenya – as oddities, which requires a special type of explanation. But there are canoeing clusters in Romania, sliding clusters in Latvia and South Tyrol, and two skiing clusters in Austria. Far from being rare, they are just another example of economic specialisation.

Sliding in Latvia Part 3

Accidental Glory

Leevan Sands

Drivers in Sweden have to watch out for moose but, in the Bahamas, they once had to watch out for triple jumpers. A fad developed where enthusiasts would hop, step and jump from one back yard to another, often across a busy road. It is difficult to interpret these trends – they seem as crazily unpredictable as a moose stepping in front of a car.

As with California in 1849, the Bahamian jumping rush might not have been entirely rational but it did produce precious metal. The country’s tradition in the event would unearth Frank Rutherford and Leevan Sands (above), both Olympic bronze medallists.

Lucky Breaks

Role models play a part – Bjorn Borg provoked a huge growth in tennis in Sweden, as did Martina Navratilova in Czechoslovakia – but there must also be random factors at play. Ilie Nastase and Maria Bueno inspired Romania and Brazil but were much less imitated.

It is like trying to explain the popularity of colouring books for adults, or why a picture of an ambiguous dress went viral last year. There is a kaleidoscope of reasons, some which are clearly visible and keep coming into view, others which are harder to make out, and a few which can barely be seen at all. A complete answer will never reveal its true colours.

Nixon at an athletic exhibition in Peking - NARA - 194757

Even if key individuals can be identified, their actions may not be straightforward – the dress went viral in part because it was retweeted by Kim Kardashian. And her behaviour is no more capricious than that of Mao Tse Tung, who first embraced table tennis as the Chinese national sport, only to discourage it during the Cultural Revolution, and then to regain a love for the game, in time for Ping Pong Diplomacy with Richard Nixon (above).

Equally significant for the history of table tennis was Ivor Montagu of Great Britain, the president of the ITTF between 1926 and 1967. Before Nixon, China had been shunned by the international sporting world, in favour of the democratic regime on Taiwan, but Montagu’s Marxist leanings led him, uniquely, to prefer the Communist state instead.

Great Men and Chaos Theory

Had Ivor Montagu had different politics, China would not be the ping pong powerhouse that it is today. The “Great Men of History” is increasingly unfashionable as a theory of events but, in sport at least, arbitrary decisions by powerful people can have a profound effect. Although, as with Mao and Nixon, “greatness” is not a measure of moral stature.

Sporting history is chaotic in both the poetic and the mathematical sense. Randomness has many aspects, from the unpredictable spread of fashions to the whimsy of heads of state. The Latvian sliding story includes both, and begins in the late nineteenth century.

Next week: The creation of the sliding sports in Switzerland, and how they got to Latvia

Should Coe Go?

Review of the week: 13 – 17 January 2016

2014 IAAF Council Meeting - Sebastian Coe

There were ominous signs, even before Thursday’s press conference. Dick Pound had warned, days before, that his conclusions would be “nuanced”. Twitter held its breath.

And nuanced they were, with Pound condemning the IAAF on governance, but praising its use of the biological passport; saying that Coe must have known that rules were not being followed, but backing him to remain in post. Coe had not been corrupt but he had not been alert to the corruption of his colleagues. Some found the report contradictory.

In fact, it made perfect sense. Experts, like economist and jurist Susan Rose-Ackerman, have spent many years studying corruption, and have concluded that a quick-fire firing does not always lead to a quick fix. It is better to remove the incentives for corruption.


The IAAF could learn a lot from Rose-Ackerman’s ideas. She advocates protecting and rewarding whistleblowers, and preventing conflicts of interest. But she also cautions against punishing everybody equally, regardless of the gravity of the offence – this can benefit the most corrupt. If, having stepped foolishly onto a slippery slope, the door to redemption slams behind, some will find an excuse to slither all the way to the bottom.

In a celebrated clean-up of the Hong Kong police, the most heinous offenders were all treated severely, but many of those guilty of lesser infractions were given an amnesty.

Paradoxically, the more widespread the problems, the less sense it makes for Coe to go. If there are only a few bad apples, it really is as simple as turning them into crumble and leaving the rest of the barrel to remain pristine and ripe for evermore. But if corruption is systemic, expelling a few individuals without proper structural reform is like changing the water in a cesspool. It will not be too long before it is just as murky as it was before.

No Muzzle Required

Should the media stop behaving like a “pack of dogs”, as Paula Radcliffe has complained? No – the incentives for corruption are reduced if there is a chance of it becoming public knowledge – there is less corruption in countries with a free press. Release the hounds!

Coe and the media could be the best of frenemies. He can balance the perceived lack of toughness of his simpering good cop, if he allows the press to play the unstable bad cop. Pointing to the risk of embarrassment and disgrace will make easier to say no to Russia.

2010 Winter Olympics Aksel Lund Svindal in downhill

Skiing World Cup

Aksel Lund Svindel (above) remedied a significant career omission, when he claimed his first win in the historic downhill race in Wengen. His compatriots Henrik Kristoffersen and Kjetil Jansrud won the other two World Cup events, to continue a season in which Norwegians dominate the overall standings. Austria will have the chance to strike back during the next two weeks, with its famous home races in Kitzbuehel and Schladming.

Track Cycling World Cup

Despite its Olympic successes, the British track cycling team has a patchy record in the gaps between Games. This weekend’s overall World Cup title was only its second ever.

As Rio approaches, the sleeping giant showed signs of awaking again from its three year slumber. The Olympic sprint champion, Jason Kenny, had a long overdue return to form to win a bronze medal. Laura Trott won omnium gold but she seems never to sleep at all.

Next week: More Alpine skiing from Kitzbuehel and Cortina, and European water polo

Before the Thaw

Review of the Week: 4 – 12 January 2016

Konkurs drużynowy mężczyzn na skoczni K-120 - Peter Prevc

Despite an unprecedentedly warm December across Europe, in which winter sport has been severely disrupted, some big events were able to take place in the Alps last week.

Four Hills Ski Jumping

Peter Prevc of Slovenia (above) was simply far too hot for the rest of the field to handle, and reduced them to puddles in the snow. He finished a tepid third in the opening round in Oberstdorf but was on fire for the remaining three. He stomped further muddy prints on his opponents with victory in Willingen, to make it four World Cup events in a row.

Prevc now becomes the favourite to win gold in Pyeongchang in 2018. If he does, he will blaze a trail for Slovenia as the first Olympic ski jumping champion from his tiny nation.

Olympic Volleyball Qualification

The qualifying rules are liable to melt the brain, like Alpine snow. There were six spots up for grabs this week, as well as places in another qualification round in Tokyo in May.

Poland’s men missed qualification last year, dramatically dropping from first to third in the World Cup, after a final game defeat. This time, they were whitewashed by France to be denied automatic qualification again, and then, in a thrilling five set match, squeezed past Germany to claim a place at the bar, and a Japanese beer, at the last chance saloon.

Russia’s men and women both booked tickets to Rio, and women’s teams from the US and Argentina will also join their country’s men on the flight. Cuba and Egypt qualified their men’s teams. Canada’s men and Peru’s women, Olympic silver medallists in 1988, are among those who must head for the Rising Sun in the hope of reaching the Rio sun.

JOHNSRUD SUNDBY Martin Tour de Ski 2010

Tour de Ski

The Alps also hosted cross country skiing but the Alpine nations were left far behind by the skiers from Norway. Martin Johnsrud Sundby (above) won a third title in a row and, despite a difficult fifth stage in which he finished 23rd, he led all the way from stage two.

The women’s race was a close contest between Ingvild Flugstad Ostberg and Therese Johaug. Ostberg overhauled Johaug to lead before the final stage, but struggled on the climb as Johaug clinched victory. Heidi Weng’s first World Cup win after 37 podiums took her to third overall. But national pride was not at stake – all three are Norwegian.

Tennis and Speed Skating

The Hopman Cup has been played in Perth since it began in 1989 but Australia has had  a mixed record in the mixed tournament. It made some amends when Nick Kyrgios and Daria Gavrilova defeated Ukraine to claim only its second title, and its first since 1999.

Sven Kramer of the Netherlands won a  record eighth European allround speed skating championship. Bart Swings, a Belgian who started in inline skating, came second. And there was Dutch disappointment with a a fifth title for Martina Sablikova of the Czech Republic, ahead of her great rival, and four-times champion of the event, Ireen Wuest.

It was a feast of winter sport but there are ominous signs that, if global temperatures continue their rise, the feast could soon become a famine. Enjoy it while you still can.

Next week: Downhill skiing in Wengen and the track cycling World Cup in Hong Kong

Sliding in Latvia Part 2

If You Build It, They Will Come

Sigulda track lower start

Of the 44 Olympic gold medals to have been awarded in luge, only one has been won by a non-German speaker, Vera Zozula of the Soviet Union. And it is extremely unlikely that Russian is her first language either. She hails from Talsi province, the most Latvian part of Latvia, where 95% state that the country’s national language is their mother tongue.

Zozula was equally fluent in the language of luge. Her Olympic debut was in 1976, when the first Soviet luge team appeared. Of the six members of that team, five were Latvian.

Her title came in 1980 and, until the break-up of the Soviet Union, Latvians continued to dominate its luge and bobsleigh teams. As discussed last week, an important part of the reason for this was the existence of a sliding track in the Latvian town of Sigulda (above).

Cool Moneying

When Sigulda became part of an independent nation, Russian sliding ran out of track. It crashed and remained unconscious for several years. But it recovered in typical fashion, throwing vast sums of money at the problem. Russia built not one, but two new tracks, one at Paramonovo near Moscow, and another at Sochi, for the 2014 Winter Olympics.

The investment paid dividends and had a lubricating effect on sliding in Russia. In 2014, it won two gold medals in bobsleigh (below), and one in skeleton, and two silvers in luge.

Two-man bobsleigh, 2014 winter Olympics, Russia

But there is a chink in the ice, a curious gap in the story, because the Sigulda track was not completed until 1986. Latvia’s early successes, including Zozula’s golden moment, were all achieved without it. The way in which it happened is a truly remarkable tale.

Shall I Carve?

The Soviet Union was just as prepared as its capitalist Russian counterpart, to dedicate state funding to state-of-the-art technology. But constructing a track would take time.

The enthusiastic and impatient people of Latvia were unwilling to wait. They decided to create their own, not a modern artificially-refrigerated track, but a natural track carved out of the snow. They built it in the town of Cesis, less than 25 miles away from Sigulda.

The keenness of the locals to get their hands cold explains why Sigulda was selected to host the track. As will become clear, the region’s bobsleigh history goes back more than a century. Before carving the track, it had already carved itself a niche in sliding sports.

Natural Born Lugers

Practising on a natural track is less beneficial for aspiring Olympians. Natural track luge is a non-Olympic specialism of its own, with a quite different set of successful athletes.

This makes the Zozula’s victory all the more impressive. She will surely lose her record as the only non-German-speaking winner – a US luger could even claim gold in 2018 – but, as countries become willing to spend more and more, it will only get harder to train for gold predominantly on a natural track. This is a feat which might never be emulated.

Next week: The role of randomness in sporting history in the Bahamas, China and Latvia

New Year Resolutions

Review of the Year 2015 Part 2

Happy Pachi

Phew! 2015 was a tough year for sport. But it is possible to find some positives, while acknowledging the negatives, and to think about ways to build on them for the future.

The Pan American Games in Toronto were something to smile about (above). They were a huge success organisationally, and for Canadian sport. They even finished on budget.

In sporting terms, the European Games in Baku were equally promising. But there were also signs of trouble. It was yet another exorbitantly funded spectacle in a country with a questionable human rights record. And after the Netherlands withdrew as the host for 2019, it seems likely that the next event will be in Russia, ridden with a doping scandal.

Here are some New Year resolutions for sporting administrators to have a better 2016:

1. Stop Being Corrupt

This really goes without saying and corrupt people tend not to listen. But I believe that there are some in the sporting world who are not so corrupt. What can they do to help?

2. Stop Being Defensive

This is vital. The media should be free to scrutinise the IAAF and FIFA without threats.

Overdosing on information like an addict is unhelpful. In anti-doping, over-interpreting ambiguous blood values renders them meaningless, and has innocent victims, like Paula Radcliffe. Instead of making untestable allegations about athletes, Sebastian Coe said, “They should be challenging me, they should be challenging federations.” He was right.

But when he is challenged, he doesn’t like it. When a scandal broke about an e-mail sent by his chief of staff, Nick Davies, the response was heavy handed. There might well be a reasonable explanation but there is no way of knowing for certain without looking into it. Davies was right to step down temporarily – he should let the media investigate too.

 Izu Cote d Azur

3. Bigger is Not Better

Fans of track cycling will be disappointed that it is not part of the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Durban – and will not be held in the city of Tokyo during the 2020 Olympics.

There is one consolation – the Izu peninsula where the velodrome is located is one of the most beautiful parts of Japan (above) – and there is a wider issue. These events are now far too big and far too expensive to stage. This problem can no longer be ignored.

The Dutch bid for the 2019 European Games was not the only one to falter last year. Boston withdrew from the race for the 2024 Olympics and was followed by Hamburg, whose people voted No in a referendum. This came after the candidates for the 2022 Winter Olympics had been reduced from six to two by a series of similar withdrawals.

On the face of it, this has little to do with corruption but, under the surface, connections abound. Democracies are being priced out of hosting rights, so that federations become increasingly dependent on dodgy regimes, and want to avoid upsetting them at all costs. These countries have a higher risk of a culture of bribery and of state sponsored doping.

Oslo left the field for 2022 in part because of bizarre demands – including free cakes for Olympic officials – akin to the rider of a shallow pop star. A sense that administrators are greedy, in more ways than one, is undoubtedly a big factor in the reluctance to bid.

Some sports will be affected more than others, track cycling included, unfortunately. But we must get back to the idea that major Games make people smile, like Pachi, the Toronto porcupine, rather than being a method of coldly asserting economic power.

Next week: Four Hills ski jumping, the Tour de Ski, Hopman Cup tennis and volleyball

Sliding in Latvia Part 1

Papa’s Got a Brand New Sliding Track

Martins Dukurs 2010 Vancouver

Martins Dukurs of Latvia has done everything else but has never won Olympic gold. He was second in Vancouver in 2010 (above) despite leading after the first three runs. A tiny mistake allowed Jon Montgomery of Canada to slide away from him on his home track.

He won silver once again in Sochi in 2014, having dominated the World Cup. Alexander Tretiakov of Russia knew the track better and the victory was iced by his home support.

But Dukurs cannot begrudge the extra practice which is inevitably afforded to Olympic host sliders. For the moral of his tale is not that anything can be achieved through many hours of hard work. The moral is that anything can be achieved through many hours of hard work, so long as your father also happens to manage an international sliding track.

The Magic of Sigulda

Nothing should be taken away from Dukurs, who deserves everything he has achieved, and deserves to have achieved more. Nor am I downplaying the importance of practice – quite the opposite, in fact – his story highlights the necessity of having access to a place to practice. Having the right genes is of no benefit if there is nowhere to learn new skills.

Dukurs probably got some useful genes from his father, Dainis, a former bobsledder, but the key point in his life came in 1994, when Dainis got that all important job in Sigulda.

Sigulda is one of a handful of tracks in the world, so it was a golden opportunity of which Dainis Dukurs took full advantage. But he still had to put in plenty of effort coaching his sons, and it paid off. His other son, Tomass, finished fourth in both Vancouver and Sochi.

Rennrodelweltcup Altenberg 2015 (Martin Rulsch) 5217

Another Latvian family also kept friction to a minimum at both Games. Brothers, Juris and Andris Sics (above), twice put in a smooth performance to win a luge doubles medal.

The Sics brothers were born in Sigulda. It is plainly not a coincidence that Latvia’s three most successful Winter Olympians spent their formative years in the same small town.

Eis Eis Baby

Of the sixteen main artificially refrigerated luge tracks in the world, no less than four are in Germany, and Germany (East and West) has won more than half of all Olympic medals in luge. Since reunification, it has also won eight gold medals in bobsleigh, making it by far the most decorated nation. This is not a coincidence either. An unexpected legacy of the division of Germany is that its Communist-era tracks have now been democratised.

Latvia has also emerged from the Cold War with an East German designed track from the days of the Soviet Union. As a result, a country which would otherwise be too small to have its own track can more than hold its own against some much larger rivals. The number of tracks matters far more than population as a determinant of sliding success.

But Latvia’s size does give it one disadvantage. It is unlikely to host the Olympic Games in the near future and Martins Dukurs will never compete for medals on his home track. It is something that he will have to overcome if he ever wants to claim that elusive gold.

Next week: Latvians had a love of sliding before the Sigulda track had even been built