Lithuanians are in awe with 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 manage 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).
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.
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 (watching games on TV is more popular). With the exception of major events, even the basketball and football matches 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.
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 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.).
Basketball, “The second religion of Lithuania”, attracts the largest crowds to arenas and TV screens.
Lithuanian national team matches in the Championships are the most followed. There is a championship every year: biennial European championships (Eurobasket), and once every four years the World championship and the Olympic Games basketball tournament. With a few exceptions Lithuania managed to qualify to all of them in past 20 years so the nation is rarely left without these events that unify it every summer or early September.
From autumn to spring the season of basketball clubs takes place. The two teams that are most followed are “Vilniaus Lietuvos rytas” and “Kauno Žalgiris”. These teams, representing two largest cities of Lithuania, are major rivals (at least their fans are) and they both play in multiple leagues: Lithuanian Basketball League (LKL), Baltic Basketball League (BBL). Depending on the season, one or both of these teams also compete in Euroleague, the most prestigious league where the richest teams of many European nations fight for the title. Recently, however, the duopoly of Lithuanian club basketball has been joined by "Klaipėdos Neptūnas" team from the third largest city.
Unlike the national team, which has never been out of Top 10 at the official FIBA rankings, the Lithuanian clubs are somewhat weaker. Cheaper tickets and less advertisement revenue rarely let them compete against the might of the top Spanish, Israeli and Western European teams in hiring the best basketball players. Therefore the best Lithuanian talent usually plays abroad. Still however, with budgets less than 10 million euros per year “Žalgiris” and “Lietuvos rytas” usually perform remarkably well, with “Žalgiris” even having been the Euroleague champions in 1999 and “Lietuvos rytas” winning other international trophies.
History of Lithuanian basketball
Basketball was brought to Lithuania as early as the 1930s by Pranas Lubinas (known in the USA as Frank Lubin), a Lithuanian emigrant who returned to his homeland from America. Under his coaching, Lithuania became the European champions in 1937 and 1939. The Soviet occupation in 1940 destroyed the plan to host 1941 European championship in Lithuania and removed the Lithuanian national team from the basketball geography.
Basketball remained strong in Lithuania despite the sad political events. In the 1980s, half of the members of the Soviet Union national basketball team were ethnic Lithuanians. The battles between “Kauno Žalgiris” and “CSKA Moscow” team were seen as battles between Lithuanians and Russians and therefore very important.
Once Lithuania regained independence its national basketball team was its best advertisement abroad. The best Lithuanian players managed to join the NBA (e.g. Šarūnas Marčiulionis, Arvydas Sabonis). Many other good basketball players played in Western European leagues as the gap between European and American basketball was dwindling with salaries in Europe sometimes even surpassing NBA ones. In the 1992 Barcelona Olympics Lithuania lost to the USA national team at more than 40 points. In 1996 Atlanta games Lithuanians broke their own record with 22 points (this was the best result ever for any team at the time). In Sydney 2000 Lithuanians lost by mere 2 points as the American NBA stars barely escaped a defeat in semifinals. What was inevitable happened in 2004 Athens when Lithuanians became the first European team to defeat the US “Dream team” and this marked the end of American basketball dominance.
In 2011 Lithuania hosted the European Basketball Championship and this led to a major craze. Many publicity stunts and tributes were dedicated to the championship, including an oratorio, a life-size statue of basketball player made of live flowers, theme-painted trash cans and the restaurant of Vilnius TV Tower turned into "the world's largest basketball net" that glowed in the dark high above the city. In the months leading to the championship, 13 balls were dribbled to every town and many villages of Lithuania by hundreds of volunteers (akin to the Olympic fire and reminiscent of centuries-old religious processions). Afterward these 13 balls were given to the Lithuanian national basketball team (12 players and the coach) during the most expensive live TV show in Lithuanian history.
Lithuanian basketball players continue to be the only Lithuanian professional sportsmen to earn millions of dollars per season.
Where to see basketball in Lithuania
To see basketball in Lithuania, your best is are Vilnius and Kaunas arenas. In winter, later autumn and spring international club matches are held there weekly or more frequently, with Žalgiris and Lietuvos rytas attempting to hold off the foreign teams. Summer is the holiday for basketball players and a time for national team events, which typically take place outside Lithuania (except for several friendly matches).
Žalgiris vs. Lietuvos rytas games are the pinnacle of local Lithuanian club basketball. They take place some dozen times a season (in different leagues). It is usually possible to acquire tickets before the match at the arena, but it is better to buy them in advance to be on the safe side.
Local matches of non-major teams occur in many cities and towns. LKL is the major league, NKL is the minor league (also professional) while RKL is a largely amateur third league.
You may also visit the basketball museum in Joniškis. There are several monuments to basketball in Lithuania: the one near the Vilnius arena became the symbol of Lithuanian basketball federation (unveiled in 2007). A more modest one was built in 2011 in Švėkšna (Samogitia region).
Two feature documentary films are created on Lithuanian basketball: US-made "The Other Dream Team" depicts how basketball epitomized the Lithuanian fight for independence (1984-1992 period), while "Mes už... Lietuvą" ("We are for... Lithuania") shows the Lithuanian team preparation for Eurobasket 2011.
When one French journalist saw a full basketball arena (where “Lietuvos rytas” fought in ULEB cup semifinals) close to an empty stadium (where a Baltic Football League match took place) he published an article that Lithuania is a land where “the king of sports” has to live in basketball’s shadow.
In reality, the popularity of football is on the rise and the very few games that are on par in terms of quality with the ULEB cup semifinals also attract full stadiums as well as a TV following. This craze is mostly imported from other European nations, such as England, where many Lithuanians emigrated since the country has joined the European Union in 2004.
However, very unlike basketball, Lithuanian football is weak. The national team never even qualified at the European Championships let alone the World Cup. In football the element of luck is bigger than is basketball, therefore there were times when the Lithuanians scored draw against major teams such as Germany, Italy or Spain. However, defeats to the likes of the Faroe Islands or Liechtenstein soon afterward dash the hopes of Lithuanian fans and decrease the popularity of football.
Football clubs of Lithuania attract less funding than their basketball counterparts and so they are weak, relying on Lithuanian players and foreigners who didn’t manage to get a hold into their national leagues. Not a single Lithuanian team ever took part in main stages of the Champions’ League or the UEFA Cup. Moreover, the Lithuanian national football league (“A lyga”) is frequently dipped into scandals of betting fraud. “Panevėžio Ekranas” from Panevėžys long dominated this league in the early 2010s, amassing a yearly budget of 2 million Euro (yes, this was the richest football club in Lithuania). “FBK Kaunas” used to prevail in the 1990s and 2000s (the Kaunas’s team left "A Lyga" amid controversies in 2009). “Vilniaus Žalgiris” was the best Lithuanian team in the 1980s and still has a larger fan base than other Lithuanian football clubs. It has recently returned to prominence.
Some of the major football clubs, including both FBK Kaunas and Žalgiris, are or were owned by controversial Russian businessmen whose irregular investments brought the clubs to the verge of collapse at one time or another. Vilniaus Žalgiris was saved only by its fans establishing an alternative club under the same name. In 2009 the A lyga was rejuvenated by accepting numerous clubs from minor towns (less than 20 000 inhabitants) that did not meet the official criteria but were arguably managed more transparently, such as "Banga" from Gargždai or "Kruoja" from Pakruojis.
Unable to see quality football in the local stadiums many fans follow leagues like England’s Premier League on TV (or, of course, the European Championships and the FIFA World Cup). The stadiums, which are not as modern as in the Western Europe, are thus left to the ultras. In the fields, however, football is a popular pastime.
Lithuania's largest stadium (S. Darius and S. Girėnas stadium in Žaliakalnis borough of Kaunas) has 9180 seats, while in general "A lyga" stadiums have some 1500-4000 seats each. Seating is typically only on a single side of the stadium and the football field is combined with an athletics track. Even these stadiums get full only during some national team games and rare matches against powerful Western European teams that usually end the UEFA tournament qualification bids of Lithuanian clubs.
Should you wish to see a football game in Lithuania take note that unlike in some Western leagues the Lithuanian season is held in summer (i.e. from spring to autumn) with a rest period in winter due to harsh weather. In addition to the top "A lyga" there are lower tiers known as "I lyga" and "II lyga".
Older Lithuanians remember how popular ice hockey was in the Soviet Union and what a following the Soviet-Canadian matches used to attract. However, while the Soviet basketball team was dominated by ethnic Lithuanians, Lithuania had only two recent successful hockey players, both of whom joined NHL in the 1990s. These are Darius Kasparaitis and Dainius Zubrus, both from a town of Elektrėnai, where the only more successful Lithuanian ice hockey team “Elektrėnų energija” is also based.
Two players are far too few to make a strong national team. To make matters even worse Darius Kasparaitis opted for Russian citizenship after the Soviet Union collapsed. He represented Russia ever since. Lithuanian ice hockey team thus never even qualified to the main division. Unlike the neighboring Belarus, where ice hockey is immensely popular. Due to this “Elektrėnų energija” team plays in the Belarusian second league.
Lithuanian ice hockey league exists but it is amateur.
Rugby Union is more popular in Šiauliai but less known elsewhere. It is played solely at the amateur level.
Baseball, once banned in the Soviet Union as a capitalist sport, is even less visible. Cricket is not played at all with no stadiums available in Lithuania. Lithuania has no cricket national team.
These differences in popularity are well reflected in TV news with Rugby World Cup or national rugby club finals getting an occasional mentioning. In the case of baseball, only MBL World Series results are considered to be worth mentioning while cricket probably never made it into Lithuanian sports news or newspapers whatever would happen.
Another team sport where Lithuania has a local league and a national team with moderate international success in handball. The national team consists largely of players playing professionally abroad. It qualified at international championships but failed to achieve significant results there.
A more exotic team sport followed in some areas of western Lithuania is the motoball, also known as motorcycle football. Two Lithuanian motoball teams exist (in Kretinga and Skuodas) and they play in the Central European league against opponents from Belarus and Ukraine.
Lithuania had some remarkable talents in several non-team sports over the time.
Recently Lithuania excelled in modern pentathlon and discus throwing. In the discus, 3 of the 4 men gold medals in 1992-2004 Olympic games were awarded to Lithuanians (Romas Ubartas and Virgilijus Alekna).
The strongmen of Lithuania excelled in most competitions, led by Žydrūnas Savickas, who won the title of World's Strongest Man on many occasions. The strongmen events in Lithuania are regarded as family-friendly sports entertainment, many have free entrance.
Winter sports are less popular partly due to a relatively warm climate and lack of mountains. Independent Lithuania failed to receive even a single medal in Winter Olympics. However, alpine skiing and skating are quite popular pastimes. Many travel to foreign ski resorts, but modern indoor rinks/arenas are available in Lithuania.
Other recently popularized pastimes are running an cycling, both having a multitude of regular amateur competitions.
Tennis attracts media attention, but the best players of Lithuania Ričardas Berankis and Laurynas Grigelis are only in some 100 - 200 places of the ATP rankings.
After the 1990 restoration of independence and the end of Soviet censorship, any foreign TV shows used to attract unbelievably large audiences. Lithuanian TV stations acquired broadcasting rights to Bushido and Rings puroresu promotions shows, turning their largely Japanese fighters into household names. "Bushido" became a generic name for MMA in Lithuania, and "Rings" trademark was even acquired by a Lithuanian company. Lithuania now has some good MMA fighters and regular shows.
Watching Formula 1 is popular among some automotive fans but Lithuania never had world-famous racers. Aerobatics is a different case. Under the Soviet occupation, ethnic Lithuanians were barred from becoming commercial pilots, so many chose aerobatics instead. The entertainment/sports limit is arguable however with flights under bridges becoming such a popular publicity stunt ~2000 that pilot-politician Rolandas Paksas flew under one in his presidential campaign.