Mighty Once More

Gediminas Reklaitis
Former Sports Commentator at Viasat Sport Baltic

Arvydas Sabonis (#11, Zalgiris) and Vladimir Tkachenko (#11, CSKA) during the USSR basketball championship final match between Zhalgiris (Kaunas, Lithuanian SSR) and CSKA (Moscow).


The fall of the Soviet Union dealt a devastating blow to the world of Lithuanian athletics. The system, though still recuperating, is now supported by the strong pillars of the national basketball team and the exceptional talents of individual athletes.

The song “Trys Milijonai,” written by the popular singer Marijonas Mikutavičius for the 2000 Sydney Olympics, is considered by many Lithuanians to be the nation’s second anthem. Particularly relevant to Lithuanian athletics are the lines, “Mes per vieną naktį dideli užaugom / ir mes galingi iš naujo” (We grew up overnight / and we are mighty once more). Although the transformation didn’t actually occur overnight, the national sporting community has been growing steadily during the 26 years since the re-establishment of independence despite dubious political decisions, a shortage of athletic facilities, and insufficient funding.

So the question arises: by what measure is a nation to judge the capabilities of its athletes? In the case of professional sports, the only meaningful criterion is participation in international competitions, so the number of medals won at the Olympic Games is one of the best indicators of a nation’s athletic potential.

Lithuania can boast of its high ranking when evaluated thusly. Winning five medals during the 2012 Olympic Games in London (2 gold, 1 silver, and 2 bronze), the national team outperformed several significantly larger countries such as Argentina, Norway, Greece and Belgium.

Lithuanian athletes also won five medals at the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games, and since the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona (the first in which Lithuania could compete under its own flag), the nation’s athletes have won a total of 21 medals. Factoring in the Olympic medal coefficient (dividing a nation’s population by its number of medals), Lithuania consistently ranks amongst the world leaders.

But are these victories indicative of a focused and healthy sports establishment?

Gediminas Reklaitis

There is room for doubt, for some of this success stems from pre-independence efforts. Virgilijus Alekna, one of Lithuania’s most decorated athletes and two-time Olympic gold medalist in the discus throw, is living proof.

To call Alekna an exceptional Lithuanian talent would be an understatement, yet the foundations for his success were laid during Soviet rule, and he is at least partially the product of the athletic boarding school system that existed at the time. It is also worthy to note that during his periods of greatest success, this legendary discus thrower worked without a trainer; therefore, he is literally a self-made champion.

Virgilijus Alekna was not the only Soviet-trained Lithuanian Olympic athlete. Several other awards won before the 2000 games can be attributed to the Soviet sports system, amongst them Romas Ubartas’ first gold medal in discus and the 1992 and 1996 bronze medals for basketball teams led by Arvydas Sabonis.

Basketball is clearly Lithuania’s national sport, but some feared that the retirement of Arvydas Sabonis’ generation of players would lead to its decline. This was not the case, for Lithuania has since won yet another Olympic Games bronze in 2000, placed third in the FIBA Basketball World Cup, and had an impressive run in the FIBA EuroBasket championship (2003 – gold, 2007 – bronze, 2013 & 2015 – silver). What’s significant here is that Lithuanian athletic organizations, having started from almost zero and training under difficult circumstances, have managed to preserve the solid athletic foundations laid during past decades. Based on the hard work of these new athletes, it is not unreasonable to believe that Lithuania will continue to maintain its position amongst the world’s basketball elite, even in the company of more populous nations that can dedicate more resources to their athletes.

If one were forced to choose the hardest working Lithuanian sports organization, the title would no doubt fall to the Lithuanian Modern Pentathlon Federation. Though the foundations for this sport were laid during Soviet occupation, the organization truly came into its own after independence. Lithuanian pentathlonists have already won four awards in the Olympics – including Laura Asadauskaitė’s 2012 gold – and this is only the beginning.

While wrestlers, boxers, and rowers have also successfully maintained their sporting traditions, the most surprising athletic development in recent years has occurred in the field of swimming. During Soviet times and even in the early days of independence, Lithuania had world-class swimmers, but during later years it seemed as though there were no open pools left in the entire country. Because of the neglect and closure of many pools, this branch of athletics found itself on the brink of extinction.

Rūta Meilutytė, champion of the 2012 London Olympics, changed everything. The 16-year-old swimmer’s victories certainly brought joy to the nation, but they also exposed some major problems in Lithuanian athletics, including a severe shortage of training space. Meilutytė has been training in Plymouth, England for several years, but now, should she wish to do so, she could return to train in Lithuania. Her success has been the catalyst for several new pool construction projects, which will hopefully give young swimming talents a place to shine.

Alongside these great successes, there are also concerns, and the biggest of these is the state of the soccer program in Lithuania. The world’s favorite sport was gaining momentum in the years preceding the re-establishment of independence, but since then everything has gone to pot due to financial problems and/or poor coaching. The soccer league currently lacks a clear and coherent vision, which is why Lithuanians will have to wait just a little bit longer to see their national team competing in the European or world championships.

There is certainly no shortage of problems, with the lack of athletic centers and funding at the top of the list. After the 2012 Olympics in London, gold medalist Laura Asadauskaitė spoke at length about these serious problems, claiming that under current conditions, success could only be attributed to the athletes’ stubbornness, the coaches’ patience, and the characteristic Lithuanian diligence. Overall, however, the Lithuanian athletic establishment is slowly growing stronger, and by the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro, we look forward to setting a new Lithuanian Olympic medal record.