While basketball is generally accepted to be the national sport of Lithuania, the country should be celebrated for punching well above its weight in another sport – discus throw.
This summer has been particularly successful for Lithuanian track and field athletes. Not one, but two discus throwers stepped on the podium at the World Athletics Championships: Mykolas Alekna won silver and Andrius Gudžius bronze.
They are adding two more medals to Lithuania’s collection: its discus throwers have already won 5 Olympic, 8 World, and 6 European Championship trophies. For a country of three million, it is a decent achievement.
A historic moment
The two medals at this year’s World Athletics Championships also hint at a good future. For 19-year-old Alekna, this was a debut in the adult competition, while Gudžius made a comeback after recovering from a string of setbacks.
“Second and third place are like a burning bonfire. Not a small spark, but a huge celebration. Not only for the coaches but also for Lithuania. Such a small country, but we are trendsetters in the world. This is fantastic,” enthused Vaclovas Kidykas, the coach of Gudžius.
Gudžius himself poured praise on his fellow athlete Alekna.
“Mykolas is a global phenomenon. The first 19-year-old medalist, these are historic results. He is unique, there is no one to compare him with,” he said.
“It’s a good feeling,” shared Alekna himself. “Especially that two Lithuanians are on the podium and the tradition of discus throw continues. I hope it will continue for a long time to come.”
From generation to generation
This tradition has been passed from generation to generation, sometimes within the family. Mykolas Alekna is the son of Virgilijus Alekna, himself a two-time Olympic and world champion. In fact, Mykolas got his first gold medal at the age of ten, a present from his father who won it at the Sydney Olympics in 2000.
Meanwhile, Gudžius, who won World Championships in 2017 and European Championships in 2018, is coached by another decorated discus thrower Vaclovas Kidykas.
Both Kidykas and Virgilijus Alekna represented Lithuania at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, where fans and organisers took note of the small Baltic country.
“In Atlanta, the Americans asked me: is discus throw compulsory in your country?” recalls Rimantas Kalibatas who used to coach Alekna Sr. “How come such a small country always has something to show?”
A hundred years of history
The history of discus throw in Lithuania began in 1921, at the first national championship. The first national record was also set at 26.36 metres. Later on, the result was bested many times by the likes of Viktoras Mikėnas, Anatolijus Pocius, Algis Baltušnikas, and Vytautas Jaras.
However, Eimantas Skrabulis, the president of the Track and Field Federation, believes that the turning point came in 1986 when Romas Ubartas became the European champion and Vaclovas Kidykas won the bronze medal.
“Since then, Lithuania has been mentioned among the best discus throwing countries in the world,” Skrabulis says. “Of course, the greatest contribution is that of our Virgilijus Alekna. Not only an athlete, not only an active person in the sports community but also a dad who gave us such talented children.”
In total, Lithuanian discus throwers have won 19 medals at the highest level of competition: 5 Olympic, 8 World, and 6 European. Nine of them are gold. And 11 have been won by members of the Alekna family.
“It’s great to see them follow in the father’s footsteps,” says Virgilijus Alekna. “I don’t remember how far I could throw the discus at the age of 19, but it wasn’t far. Mykolas has already achieved very much.”
“I think we have very good coaches in Lithuania,” he continues. “Maybe there is something in our genes. There are a lot of tall and strong people in Lithuania, and discus throwers keep turning up.”
Moreover, victories in international competitions make the sport more popular among Lithuanians.
“It’s a virtuous circle. Successful athletes draw in more people. And with more people, there’s more chance something will turn up,” says Gudžius.
The medal streak to continue
Lithuanian discus throwers have been among the world’s elite for almost four decades, although their training facilities are improving very slowly.
“Discus throwers need strength training, throwing sectors, fields so that they don’t hit someone in the head,” says Skrabulis, the Track and Field Federation president. “Sure, a champion can grow up in the countryside, too, but again it requires a lot of luck, talent, a good coach, and some minimal infrastructure. And a willingness to work, of course.”
Next month, Lithuanian discus throwers will continue their medal hunt at the European Championships in Germany.
“In the discus throw, six out of the eight strongest athletes are Europeans,” Skrabulis says, adding that the competition in Munich will be no less fierce.