During decades of Soviet rule, Lithuanian basketball became a proxy independence struggle. As geopolitical tensions in the Baltic states rise, the sport is once again a venue for political competition
Olympic games are never just about sport. The athletes who strive for glory, whether at the track, pitch or pool, do so under the banner of a flag and in the name of a nation. As a result, politics is rarely far away.
This is particularly true for former Soviet states. In the opening days of the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, Russia invaded Georgia. In the years since, other countries which border Russia – including the Baltic states – have looked nervously at their bigger neighbour. After Russia annexed Crimea in 2014, Lithuania introduced mandatory military conscription. And despite anger from Moscow, Lithuania, together with the other Baltic states and Poland, managed to convince Nato to deploy four multinational battle groups and strengthened a permanent Nato mission protecting Baltic airspace.
This summer, at the Tokyo Olympics, athletes from Russia and Lithuania may face each other in competition. At a time when worsening relations between Russia and the West are already being labelled the “second cold war,” geo-political tensions may seep into the sport. The most anticipated contest, for Lithuanians at least, will be on the basketball court.
That’s because basketball is Lithuania’s second religion. Children start practising throws in their first school years and, if you travel around the country, improvised courts hang on garage doors and in forests, even in the smallest villages. When the national team plays important games, basketball can stop the life of the entire country as its 3 million citizens gather round their TV sets.
Lithuanians like to joke that they are “a country of three million basketball experts,” each prepared to passionately criticise the national team when they fail to deliver outstanding results. Yet historically, the basketball court has been a battlefield on which a small nation faced its occupier – the mighty Soviet Union.
At the 1936 Olympics, in facist-run Berlin, a six-foot-seven American-Lithuanian called Frank Lubin, whose family had migrated a generation before, led the US national basketball team to their first ever Olympic gold.
In the US, the result did not get much attention but in Lithuania, a young and rural country which had only become independent from imperial Russia in 1919, people were captivated by the performance of their countryman. Lubin was invited to the land of his ancestors, and he was met like a hero.
Despite its relatively small size, and over 50 years spent under the Soviet rule between 1944 and 1991, the Lithuanian men’s basketball team would go on to win the European championship three times, Olympic bronze three times and, in 2010, bronze at the basketball world cup.
The origin of this success can arguably be traced back to a fateful accident – one of Lubin’s party broke her leg, meaning the US star extended his first visit to Lithuania. “Since I had to stay there for three-and-a-half months during the basketball season, they asked if I would train some of the Lithuanian athletes. So, I did,” Lubin later said.
In 1937, the Lithuanian team trained by Lubin surprised everyone by winning the second ever European Championship, hosted in a former factory in neighbouring Latvia. The victory sent the nation into euphoria.
“Since radios were still luxury, stories about the game, the news about being the best in Europe spread by word of mouth,” says Vidas Mačiulis, a legendary basketball commentator.
Jubilant crowds met the team in every train station as they travelled home. When the players finally reached Kaunas – the temporary capital – people literally carried the new European champions on their hands.
After 1939, when the Lithuanian team won the European championship for the second time in a row, the popularity of the sport exploded. Yet the triumphant mood was short. On 1 September 1939, the Second World War broke out. Lubin, together with thousands, followed the path of his ancestors years before, and fled the country in the face of the Soviet invasion.
Alongside many other nationalities absorbed by the Soviet Empire, hundreds of thousands of Lithuanians were exiled to Siberia. Thousands of people resisting the occupation were either killed, or deprived of their rights.
Basketball was no longer just a game. For the Soviet Union, it became a tool to spread ideology, gain political legitimacy and strengthen its power.
“The Soviet Union, as any other authoritarian political system, used sport as a tool of propaganda to divert attention away from political and social problems,” says Dainius Genys, a sociology professor at Vytautas Magnus University.
National Lithuanian representation in competitive events was forbidden, but since the Soviet regime wanted to demonstrate its superiority over the West on the international sport scene, it allowed basketball teams to develop in Lithuania, fuelled by their success in the interwar period.
By the 1980s, a generation of athletes had grown up under harsh repression, when any open expression against the regime could lead to a one-on-one meeting with a KGB officer, imprisonment, or worse. Dissatisfaction was growing. “Since any other form of resistance was suppressed, sport became the only way to fight against the Soviet Union,” says Jakubčionis.
In 1985, Lithuanian team BC Žalgiris was at the top of the Soviet Union Premier Basketball League. The only obstacle standing between them and the gold medal was CSKA Moscow, who had lost the championship only once in 16 consecutive years. “It was the only thing people were thinking and talking about,” says Mačiulis.
Access to the arena was an exclusive privilege – tickets were distributed by the Central Committee of the Communist Party – so the rest of the nation gathered to watch the final series on their TVs. “The streets were deserted,” says Mačiulis, who presented the game.
In the arena, police officers and plain-clothes KGB agents vigilantly observed the spectators, ready to quell all signs of patriotic sentiment. And yet, when victory came to BC Žalgiris, folk songs shook the walls and spontaneous demonstrations broke out across the country.
Sergėjus Jovaiša, a member of the Lithuanian Parliament and now aged 66, was one of the “golden generation” of BC Žalgiris players.
Like the rest of the Lithuanian star players, he was scouted by CSKA, the Moscow team, which had power to enlist any Red Army recruit, but avoided transfer through a loophole in Soviet bureaucracy.
At the game, Jovaiša recalled that people were too scared to openly shout political slogans. “But you could feel the patriotism in the air,” he says. “Our victory against CSKA was a form of resistance for the whole nation.”
From 1985, Jovaiša and the team won the finals against CSKA three years in a row. The players were celebrated as Lithuanian national heroes. “It ignited the spark of belief that despite being a small nation trampled on by the Soviets for decades, we can beat them,” Mačiulis says.
As champions of the Soviet Union, the Lithuanian players had the chance to participate in international club competitions and travel beyond the Iron Curtain. However, they were still not free: they could not be recruited by talent scouts, their telephones were wired, and interrogations by KGB officers were routine.
Meanwhile, in Lithuania, patriotic sentiment fuelled by the victories of BC Žalgiris started evolving into something much bigger.
After Mikhail Gorbachev became the Soviet leader in 1985, the policy of perestroika began, with the aim of reforming the struggling Soviet economy and political apparatus. Repression in civil society decreased and, encouraged by the sports victories, the Lithuanian independence movement started taking its first steps out of the underground.
“Basketball was a mobilising element, and a strong one. It helped reinforce and encourage the independence movement,” says Professor Giedrius Česnakas, director of Political Science Studies at the Military Academy of Lithuania.
In the face of massive independence rallies, the Soviet regime granted the request for Jovaiša and his fellow basketball player Rimas Kurtinaitis to represent a team in Germany, where they began to assert their Lithuanian identity.
“In the articles covering the games, local journalists would refer to us as Russians. To make them stop we even threatened to sue them,” Jovaiša remembers. “Obviously, the western world had no information about Lithuania and its freedom struggle.”
In the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics, they began to be recognised. Four Lithuanians led the Soviet basketball team to gold, overcoming tournament favourites the United States and Yugoslavia. “In a way, it allowed the world to find out about Lithuanian basketball and thus the country itself,” Mačiulis says.
Just a year later, in November 1989, the Berlin wall and the Iron Curtain fell. On 11 March 1990, Lithuania became the first country to break out of the Soviet bloc. A bloody crackdown by the Soviets on 13 January 1991 killed 14 and left hundreds injured. But the USSR was in its death throes and, by the end of the year, it had collapsed.
The Barcelona Summer Olympics of 1992 seemed the perfect opportunity for Lithuania – newly independent again – to shine on the world stage.
But the road to Spain was complicated. Lithuania was completely broke and in order to raise the money required to send its basketball team to the Olympics, the most famous basketball players, some of them already playing in the NBA, went from door-to-door in the United States to ask for donations.
Members of a US rock band – and avid basketball fans – the Grateful Dead, read about the struggle and licensed Grateful Dead images for production of psychedelic coloured t-shirts, featuring a dunking skeleton.
“I liked it. The music of Grateful Dead was just as rebellious as our team was,” says Jovaiša,
“To wear a jersey with the name Lithuania, to hold the national flag, I guess you can compare the feeling to what people feel when flying into space,” he says.
In Barcelona, the Lithuanian team played with wind at their back – only stopped by an NBA All-Star team in the semi-finals. In the bronze medal play-offs, Lithuania faced a team consisting of twelve of the fifteen former Soviet republics that still chose to compete together.
The symbolic match ended with a narrow victory to Lithuania, of 82:78.
Ditching their official team merch, Lithuanians showed up at the award ceremony wearing their lucky psychedelic Grateful Dead T-shirts, which are still popular among fans today.
Independent Lithuania went on to win two more Olympic bronze medals, in 1996 and 2000, the European championship in 2003, and third place at the 2010 Basketball world cup. Meanwhile, BC Žalgiris successfully competed in the Euroleague – the Champions League of basketball. Even though it won the competition only once, in 1999, and today has one of the smallest budgets in the tournament, until the coronavirus pandemic struck, it pulled in almost 15,000 fans for every game.
Basketball has changed, and is now more commercial. As in many professional sports, decisions about which players should represent a team appear driven by the prospect of t-shirt sales rather than their motivation or relationship to a club and its culture.
It is also less overtly political. “No longer is BC Žalgiris, or any other basketball team in Lithuania, a driving force of patriotism, or national identity,” says Giedrius Česnakas. The new generation Lithuanian basketball players see no issue with playing for the Russian teams, with Marius Grigonis, the most prominent BC Žalgiris player, recently announcing his potential transfer to CSKA Moscow next season. He had previously said he “would never play for a Russian team” – but perhaps the generous pay, and higher chance to win titles, were too tempting.
Still, politics has not entirely left the basketball court. In Tokyo, Russian athletes will be banned from representing their country, after a doping scandal. Instead, they will play under the title of ROC, or Russian Olympic Committee. No Russian flag will be flown, and no anthem played.
“The scandal confirmed that the Kremlin still cares to show its dominance over the Western world,” says Genys, a sociologist. It also feeds an anti-Western narrative within Russia. “The Kremlin will never admit it was their fault the cheating scheme existed. The population is simply told: look, the West is punishing us with sanctions for what we are and what we stand for,” Česnakas says.
In Lithuania, the Kremlin’s attempts to portray the democratic Western world as the enemy, as well as Moscow’s aggressive policy towards neighbouring countries, are taken very seriously.
“Soft power, disinformation, and propaganda on social media become increasingly important. It becomes the new battlefield,” Česnakas says. And so Soviet nostalgia, according to the professor, is increasingly important for the Kremlin.
“Russia wants to be seen as important and powerful. Unfortunately, contemporary history holds few achievements up to the present, while the Soviet times remind Russians of the time their country was the world’s superpower,” he says.
The Tokyo Olympics create the opportunity for another political battle on the basketball court. Lithuanians may no longer feel that the stakes of a game between their team and the Russians – if they should meet – are as high as they were in Barcelona. But if the teams do compete, Lithuanians will crowd round their screens to watch, wearing psychedelic shirts of yellow, green and red, emblazoned with a skeleton shooting a hoop.
Augustinas Šulija is a Lithuanian journalist based in Brussels, where he covers EU affairs for Lithuanian TV3 news.
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