Much has changed in the Latvian capital since its last international athletics championships in 1999
This weekend Riga will stage its first international athletics championship for almost a quarter of a century. In 1999 the Latvian capital held the European Junior Championships whereas on Sunday it hosts the World Road Running Championships. It’s fair to say much has changed during those 24 years too.
Only eight years after regaining independence from Russia, Latvia still resembled a bleak, archetypal Eastern bloc nation when it welcomed Europe’s top under-20 athletes in 1999. The city’s first McDonald’s had only just appeared and the medical vehicle at the Daugava Stadium looked like Del Boy’s van from Only Fools and Horses with the word “Medicīniskā” emblazoned on the rusty bodywork in crumbling red letters.
“As the driver chugged his emergency vehicle slowly off the track,” I wrote in AW, “for a moment you thought the injured athlete would have to get out and give it a push,” adding: “This is athletics is Riga. Crazy as hell. Yet proud as punch. And you need a Tardis to get there.”
Today, Riga is a vibrant city full of picturesque parks and a perfect blend of modern buildings and historic castles and churches. A lingering sense of unease relating to the nearby war in Ukraine acts as a stark reminder of the years spent under Soviet rule. Generally, though, the city is thriving as a popular destination for tourists looking for a scenic short break. This weekend many visitors are combining sight-seeing with running, too, as they take part in the mass races that complement the elite one mile, 5km and half-marathon events.
“Riga is making history,” said Seb Coe. “We haven’t had a new world championships since 2014 (world relays) and it’s the first time we’ve really brought a unique global running festival to market.”
Coe spent his 67th birthday on Friday (Sept 29) with a busy day of ambassadorial duties and he added: “We’re working with a very good federation and an exceptional organising committee and this is a celebration of running at its best.
“From a personal perspective I’m very pleased we’ve been able to formally enshrine the mile in a championships too. Not only is it one of the most accessible distances but it has an extraordinary and lustrous history.”
Coe’s last visit to Riga before this weekend was in February when he agreed to test out the mile course. “We woke up to a foot…