Much has changed in the Latvian capital since its last international athletics championships in 1999
This weekend Riga will stage its first international athletics championship for almost a quarter of a century. In 1999 the Latvian capital held the European Junior Championships whereas on Sunday (Oct 1) it hosts the World Road Running Championships. It’s fair to say much has changed during those 24 years too.
Only eight years after regaining independence from Russia, Latvia still resembled a bleak, archetypal Eastern bloc nation when it welcomed Europe’s top under-20 athletes in 1999. The city’s first McDonald’s had only just appeared and the medical vehicle at the Daugava Stadium looked like Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses with the word “Medicīniskā” emblazoned on the rusty bodywork in crumbling red letters.
“As the driver chugged his emergency vehicle slowly off the track,” I wrote in AW, “for a moment you thought the injured athlete would have to get out and give it a push,” adding: “This is athletics is Riga. Crazy as hell. Yet proud as punch. And you need a Tardis to get there.”
Today, Riga is a vibrant city full of picturesque parks and a perfect blend of modern buildings and historic castles and churches. A lingering sense of unease relating to the nearby war in Ukraine acts as a stark reminder of the years spent under Soviet rule. Generally, though, the city is thriving as a popular destination for tourists looking for a scenic short break. This weekend many visitors are combining sight-seeing with running, too, as they take part in the mass races that complement the elite one mile, 5km and half-marathon events.
“Riga is making history,” said Seb Coe at the pre-event press conference. “We haven’t had a new world championships since 2014 (world relays) and it’s the first time we’ve really brought a unique global running festival to market.”
Coe spent his 67th birthday on Friday (Sept 29) with a busy day of ambassadorial duties and he added: “We’re working with a very good federation and an exceptional organising committee and this is a celebration of running at its best.
“From a personal perspective I’m very pleased we’ve been able to formally enshrine the mile in a championships too. Not only is it one of the most accessible distances but it has an extraordinary and lustrous history.”
Coe’s last visit to Riga before this weekend was in February when he agreed to test out the mile course. “We woke up to a foot of snow, though,” he said. “So it’s very nice to be able to walk around Riga in such lovely weather now.”
The attraction of winning global medals along with the appeal of Riga itself has helped draw a truly world-class line-up of athletes. They include multiple world record-holder Faith Kipyegon plus athletes of the calibre of Peres Jepchirchir, Jacob Kiplimo and Yomif Kejelcha.
Jess Hull of Australia was among the athletes at the pre-event press conference on Friday and she is one of a small number of runners who have competed at world championships in Bathurst, Budapest and now Riga this year. She explained: “When you have opportunity to wear green and gold colours three times in a year, I’m going to take it!”
Aigars Nords, head of the local organising committee, has done a brilliant job with his team in getting Riga ready for this weekend’s event. As well as the races on Sunday there is a global running conference and children’s events on Saturday. When it comes to the mass races on Sunday, meanwhile, Latvian locals will dominate the fields but Nords told AW that the No.2 nationality when it comes to entries is probably Britain.
“There are several historic firsts,” Nords adds. “It is the first World Athletics series event that has happened in the Baltic nations. It’s the first World Road Running Championships (combining mile, 5km and half-marathon) and it’s the first where the mass race runners can run with the elite, which is unique. I’m proud our team has been entrusted with being able to write a new page in road running.”
Nords and Coe will hope that the championships create a strong legacy, adding to the interest and excitement that the city already has each May when the Rimi Riga Marathon takes place.
Away from road running, though, when it comes to track and field athletics the city is not exactly thriving. The Daugava Stadium – the venue of the European Juniors in 1999 – is in a sorry state, with the track badly in need of repair. Hockey and basketball still rule as the No.1 sports in Latvia, although they will be briefly knocked off their perch on Sunday.
Jeļena Prokopčuka, the New York City Marathon winner in 2005 and 2006, is Latvia’s best-known runner and is an ambassador for this weekend’s championships in Riga. She said: “Latvia is very rich when it comes to good athletes and runners and we have won a lot of world and Olympic medals.”
Possibly the greatest of all Latvian athletes is Jānis Lūsis, who won Olympic gold in the javelin in 1968 (plus silver and bronze in 1972 and 1964) and four European titles, although he died three years ago aged 80.
The brightest light in Latvian athletics in 2023 is Agate Caune. The 19-year-old stormed to victories in the 3000m and 5000m at the European Under-20 Championships in Jerusalem this summer and caught the eye in Budapest with a front-running performance in her 5000m heat, although she later withdrew from the final there, plus these championships, with injury.
“She is an amazing girl,” says Prokopčuka. “She has a big future and I think she can beat my records.”
Caune is prodigiously talented and the hope will be that she can continue her results into 2024 and beyond. But as those 1999 European Under-20 Championships taught us, making a successful jump from junior to senior ranks is fraught with difficulties.
Irina Latva from the host nation won the women’s 800m at those championships in 1999 but did not progress as a senior. Sina Schielke, a German sprinter who won gold in the women’s 100m, 200m and 4x100m, was arguably the star of the championships but she struggled with injuries and partway through her senior career became better known for her modelling in Playboy than her athletics exploits on the track.
Of course some athletes did progress, though. Tosin Oke won triple jump gold for Britain before later winning the Commonwealth Games crown for Nigeria. Other Brits in action in 1999 included Jade Johnson, Mark Lewis-Francis, Nicola Sanders and Chris Baillie, with the latter sharing sprint hurdles gold with Felipe Vivancos of Spain.
Who will etch their names into the history books this Sunday? Riga’s long wait to stage a major athletics championships is almost over.
READ MORE: AW’s Riga 2023 coverage
(local times below; the UK is 2hr behind)
11:50 Women’s 5km
12:15 – Men’s 5km
13:00 – Women’s mile
13:10 – Men’s mile
13:30 – Women’s half marathon
14:15 – Men’s half marathon
» BBC Sport has live coverage from 9:40 BST on BBC Red Button, iPlayer and BBC Sport website, whereas World Athletics is streaming the event for a number of other regions
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