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Vol 2, No 19
15 May 2000
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Latvian Hockey Federation Winning is Everything
Mel Huang

Everything in Latvia came to a standstill, as Latvians parked themselves in front televisions and radios across the country on the afternoon of 5 May. No, it was not to watch the vote in the Saeima to confirm the new government of Prime Minister Andris Bērziņš; in fact, the session was delayed, as MPs themselves were fixated on their television screens. They were too busy watching the final minutes of the historic match of the World Ice Hockey Championships in St Petersburg, Russia, between underdog Latvia and mighty Russia.

The entire nation felt a sense of indescribable joy and pride, when the final buzzer went off and the score board read Latvia: 3, Russia: 2. Latvia had won the battle in the Russians' own backyard, in a match that both sides needed to win to have a serious chance at a medal in the annual World Championships. The hard-fought victory led to spontaneous celebrations by Latvians around the world: from impromptu parades in Old Town Rīga to loud celebratory singing outside the arena in St Petersburg. Goaltender Artūrs Irbe (of the NHL's Carolina Hurricanes and a frequent all-star team member) was named the MVP of the game.

To say this victory had symbolic meaning is quite an understatement, considering all the problems that have come up in the context of Russian-Lithuanian relations, including disagreements over the prosecution of Soviet war crimes, the nagging and ever-present disputes about the Russian-speaking population in Latvia, Latvia's NATO aspirations, multiple vandalism cases against Latvian diplomatic property in Russia and, most recently, the interview given by President Vaira Vīķe-Freiberga to the BBC, in which she warned of possible Russian military aggression.

Latvian MVP Artūrs Irbe
"Like Wall!"
MVP Artūrs Irbe
The match also came a day after the tenth anniversary of the declaration, by the Latvian Supreme Council, that restored the nation's independence, making the occasion almost too timely. Though a decade has passed, to Latvia this was as symbolic as the bronze medal victory of the Lithuanian national basketball team in the 1992 Olympic Games against the "Unified Team." Of the hockey victory, MVP Irbe said that it was "one of the greatest days in the small history of a small country."

This important symbolic victory also came as a relief for many people, tired and desensitised after months of bad news, including government squabbles that led to its collapse, controversy over everything from privatisation to paedophilia and even a case of a mass murder in Pittsburgh.

Nothing has gone right for Latvia in the press for months. The trip President Vīķe-Freiberga made to Estonia, the first state visit to Estonia by a Latvian president since the restoration of independence, was overshadowed by her BBC interview. The day the world's media focused on a conference of war crime prosecutors in Rīga, MP Jānis Ādamsons decided to publicly accuse the Premier and Justice Minister of being involved in a dodgy paedophilia scandal. So when the victory came, for the first time in a long while, Latvia shone in the world press, and Latvians felt an elated sense of pride, which had been threatened by the unfortunate and inevitable circumstances their country has faced in recent times.

It was a little anticlimactic two days later, when Latvia faced the other superpower, the USA, and drew 1:1, in a rough and tough game that featured
Artūrs Irbe in net
Irbe in net
some fancy stickwork and fisticuffs. However, the Friday victory against the Russian national team, powered by world-famous stars, such as Pavel Bure, Alexei Zhamnov, Alexei Yashin and Valeri Kamenski, shone as brightly as the three stars on the Rīga Freedom Monument for the thousands of revellers that took to the streets in joy after the match. It has been a while since Latvians have partied in the streets, sung the national anthem in spirited fashion outside the presidential palace, proud and happy for their nation.

Even if all goes wrong for the national team at this point - following a surprising 1:4 loss to Switzerland on Monday evening - the symbolic victory has been achieved. In some ways, this victory in a gentlemanly fashion showed the world, especially Russia, that Latvia deserves to be a full and equal member of the international community. It probably did more good than any state visit, any rhetoric or statements of goodwill, because the competition on the ice was free, fair and equal. The Latvian national hockey team earned the respect of Russian hockey stars, as well as that of the rest of the sporting world.

Societies around the world have learned so much from sport: racial integration in the US with Jackie Robinson of the Brooklyn Dodgers; triumph over cancer by Tour de France winner Lance Armstrong; the symbolic thawing of relations between Iran and the USA in their first football friendly; and the union of the Éire and Northern Ireland teams for the Six Nations rugby championship. Sport has frequently been the harbinger of good news throughout history, and perhaps this recent victory will serve as a catalyst in improving ties between Latvia and Russia.

In the end, the feeling can only be expressed in one word: UZVARA!

Mel Huang, 7 May 2000

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