Sports in Lithuania: Introduction | True Lithuania
True Lithuania

Sports in Lithuania: Introduction

Lithuanians are in awe of sports and especially their professional sportsmen. Should you get into a conversation with Lithuanian men you are likely to hear them claiming that for such a small country with a mediocre economy the achievements in sports are indeed spectacular.

Since the restoration of independence in 1990, Lithuanians have managed to score medals in every Summer Olympics. The most successful sportsmen are eagerly greeted by fans in the airports when they return. While such celebrations are the most massive for main sports, the players of less popular disciplines (such as wrestling or pentathlon), also get their fair share of public attention if they succeed. So much so that after five medals (two gold) scored in Sydney Olympics (2000) a street in Vilnius was renamed "Olimpiečių" (Olympians).

Lithuanian fans greet a basketball power forward Darjuš Lavrinovič in a welcome back ceremony on 23rd September 2013. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Basketball is the national sport. It is frequently referred to in press and conversations as the “Second religion of Lithuania”. Basketball is also the only one of the world’s main sports where Lithuania is certainly a Great Power. With three medals in Olympic Games, three European Champions titles, a constant place in the Top 10 of the FIBA national team ranking this “Great Power” title is certainly no joke.

Other popular team sports include football (soccer), ice hockey and rugby (in that order). Lithuanians are weak in all these, so their fans typically watch foreign matches.

Numerous Lithuanians express support by putting on national flags on their cars during the major sport (primarily basketball) events where Lithuanians participate. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

Formula 1 is also popular to follow, and mixed martial arts (MMA) competitions periodically held in the main arenas gained their popularity in the early 90s when TV started airing Japanese puroresu shows.

Despite the popularity of sports, relatively few fans visit arenas or stadiums for "regular games". With the exception of major events, even the basketball and football matches often are played in front of merely several hundred or a thousand live spectators.

"Major events" that attract larger attendances include Euroleague basketball, Žalgiris vs. Lietuvos Rytas basketball derbies, national basketball team games, football games where locals play against famous foreign opponents and various major international tournaments (of any sport) if they are held in Lithuania.

Lithuanian National basketball team friendly match against Greece in Lithuania's largest Kaunas arena. A bunch of such matches is played every summer to prepare for international tournaments. ©Augustinas Žemaitis.

The people of the main cities (especially Vilnius and Kaunas) have many local sports franchises to follow. Most prefer basketball, with football being the second choice. In the towns, however, the options are more limited and their inhabitants usually support the most powerful local team. So there are "basketball towns" and "football towns", an "ice hockey town", a "motoball town" and a "handball town".

Virtually all the athletes representing Lithuania are Lithuanian citizens-by-birth as the 10-year-long process of acquiring Lithuanian nationality has no shortcuts for sportsmen. Moreover, most Lithuanians see the countries that naturalize foreign players to be cheating, while the athletes who switch citizenship for financial or career opportunities may be regarded as traitors. This does not apply to club sports where nationality is not required - however, even there the numbers of the so-called "legionnaires" (foreign players) are comparatively low.

Lithuanian Sports museum in Kaunas Old Town is a repository for Lithuanian sports memorabilia (medals, cups, etc.).

Article written by Augustinas Žemaitis

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