We often associate certain events in athletics with particular nations. Mention the steeplechase and Kenya springs to mind. Talk about sprinting and Jamaica will certainly come up. See a pole vault competition and chances are there’ll be a French or German athlete to the fore.
Thanks to the work of 2013 European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award winner Valija Drauga, Latvia has resurrected a dormant tradition in the javelin that warrants the country’s mention in the same breath as the event’s other European powerhouses such as Finland and the Czech Republic.
Herself a former national champion in the javelin, Valija was the initiator, then the president and is currently a board member of the Latvian Javelin Club, which over the last 20 years has been so successful with its promotion efforts that the event is now the leading track and field discipline in the Baltic nation.
Latvia’s list of sporting heroes includes the names of great javelin throwers such as Olympic champions Inese Jaunzeme, Janis Lusis and Dainis Kula (who all represented the then Soviet Union) but after Kula’s gold medal at the 1980 Games in Moscow, international success in the event became harder to come by.
With Valija’s vision and energy, the Latvian Javelin Club has led a resurgence that has seen country’s athletes bring home no fewer than 28 medals at the Olympics, World Junior Championships, World Youth Championships, European Athletics Junior Championships, European Athletics U23 Championships and the European Youth Olympic Festival.
“I had the idea that this long standing tradition of the javelin throwing must be paid particular attention and I decided to start working seriously in that direction to rebuild it once more,” Valija explains, “all today’s success of the club is strongly based on tradition and because of this we have high level experts available here to help the next generation.”
Valija’s enthusiasm for the javelin stems from a childhood spent throwing stones and her talent for that activity being recognised by her sports teacher. “I enjoyed the moment when the javelin flies,” she recalls. “It still seems such a magic moment, with so much beauty captured.”
The fact that after her retirement from active athletics she wound up working as the deputy head of the Latvian sports administration meant that she had the resources and contacts to make something happen in her sport.
“During this process I have been the main engine and organiser, involved in selection, training, sports work, development of the competition calendar, organiser of competitions and more,” she says. “Latvia is small, we are less than two million people, so therefore it is critically important to find talent. But it is hard.”
With her sporting experience and administrative knowledge, Valija came up with the approach of establishing short-term training camps across the country’s regions to help identify and nurture throwers with ability.
The results of her efforts are there for all to see, with more and more youngsters taking up the event and developing into proficient performers. In addition to all the medals won, Latvia sent a full complement of throwers to the in 2012 Olympic Games in London showing that there is a reservoir of talent in the country.
Ieva Zunda, the General Secretary of the Latvian Athletics Federation, confirms that Valija’s work is hugely appreciated: “She has provided a stable base for new javelin throwers and high-class athletes. She encourages them to dream and that is why javelin throwing still develops for all age groups in our country.”
Speaking of her European Athletics Women’s Leadership Award, Valija says: “I am glad that my work is appreciated. A smaller percentage of women are involved in sports in our country, especially in athletics, which is not an easy sport.”!
And that makes Valija Drauga’s success all the more remarkable.
The European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards
The aim of the European Athletics Women's Leadership Awards is to recognise the behind the scenes work and accomplishments that have helped to make the winners role models for other women in athletics. Coaching young athletes, officiating, setting up and managing clubs . . . their achievements are as varied as the individuals themselves.
In 2013, 26 women, including Valija were selected for the award by their national athletics federations.