While Lithuania lies at the heart of the Baltic region – the geographical centre of Europe – few realise that it is also the epicentre of European basketball. It’s actually a country where the sport is practically a second religion, where athletics in general play a major role in daily life, both past and present. Where else would be home to Žydrūnas Savickas, one of strongest men in the world?
This may in part be why Lithuania was recently selected as a European Destination of Excellence. Of course, it’s got other alluring qualities: friendly and warm people, beautiful outdoor landscapes, one of the oldest spoken tongues in the world and a broad historical spectrum of architectural traditions. Visitors are also drawn by affordable high-quality medical tourism, upscale resorts, hearty food and delicious beer. But topping it all off is Lithuania’s competitive sports scene, which has put the country on international maps as an exhilarating destination for physical recreation.
Proud Host of EuroBasket 2011
This year, for the second time, Lithuania will proudly host the 2011 EuroBasket – a premier European basketball championship – which will be played in six Lithuanian cities from the 28th of August through the 12th of September. The 2011 EuroBasket will be the 37th continental championship organised by FIBA Europe. Basketball fans from all over Europe and the world are expected to pour in to witness the tournament, the two winning teams of which are guaranteed spots in the 2012 Summer Olympic Games.
Why does Lithuania make a great host for EuroBasket 2011? The country already has 36 officially listed stadiums available for all kinds of field sports. Additionally, Lithuania’s first official national stadium is currently under construction in the capital city of Vilnius. In anticipation of Eurobasket 2011, three more new sports arenas are springing up in Kaunas, Klaipeda and Alytus.
EuroBasket 2011 will be an opportunity for Lithuania to showcase itself as a country that is fiercely proud of its own world champion sportsmen and athletes, like two-time Olympic gold medalist and two-time world champion discus thrower Virgilijus Alekna. Every season a few Lithuanian basketball players make it all the way to the American NBA. Lithuania’s own national basketball team is a three-time winner of EuroBasket and holds the bronze medal from the 2010 FIBA World Championship.
Sports in Lithuania, Then and Now
Since its independence from Soviet rule in 1991, Lithuania has been quick to embrace contemporary sports like cycling, canoeing and rafting, sailing, blokarting and waterskiing. There are even leagues for air-based sports such as parachuting, paragliding, sports-plane piloting and hot air ballooning.
The practice of all these relatively modern sports meets international standards and is open to travellers, but there’s also Lithuania’s commitment to its traditional sports.
Sadly though, while Lithuania has been known across the ages for more than 50 traditional folk sports and games, only a few remain alive today. For this, age-old competitions such as medieval weapons tournaments and field archery championships are still held in the present day, but other sports are more dance representations carried through time by the Lithuanian pagan games associated with the festivities around Midsummer Day and Užgavėnės (Lithuanian Mardi Gras).
One, however, is truly an athletic game. Called ritinis, it is played somewhat like rounders or baseball. The first written mention of the sport appears in documents dating back to the 17th century, when it was apparently indulged in not only by shepherd children but grown men too. Today ritinis is receiving more and more attention – the year 2011 will see the 50th local championship.
Horses too have long been a part of Lithuanian life and recreation, so much so that, according to historical sources, every year since the early 19th century has seen horse racing on Sartai Lake. Actually it is both a race and a folk art fair – a daylong celebration for the whole family. Travellers who love horses will easily find stud farms or farmsteads all across Lithuania, where they can ride horse or enjoy time in horse-drawn carriages.
Today, sports and games in Lithuania are an amalgam of those from the past and the present. What sports will children carry to later generations? In the schoolyard, basketball and soccer are common amongst boys, while girls favour jumping rope or a game known as ‘the class.’ For an adrenalin fix, hide-and-seek and tag are as popular as ever, while indoors, various local card games are supplemented by international favourites such as Monopoly, checkers and Settlers. Of course, video and computer games are kid-magnets in the home.
Winter Sports in Lithuania
Whereas the main summer sports for both adults and children are basketball, soccer and bicycling, the leading winter sports are ice skating, sledding, cross-country skiing and, ever since Lithuania’s independence, alpine skiing. Fortunately, sports infrastructure, especially for skiing, has come a long way since the early 1990s and, although Lithuania has no mountains, there are several ski centres. The three most important are the Lithuanian Winter Sports Centre in Ignalina, Liepkalnis in Vilnius and the slopes in Birstonas, Anyksciai and Alytus. A new indoor slope called Snowarena also opened in 2011 in the spa town of Druskininkai.