Latvia’s skeleton Superman
Martins Dukurs possesses the most glittering record in world skeleton. Eight times an IBSF World Cup winner, having won 50 times on the circuit, the Latvian is also a five-time world champion and a nine-time European champion. Known by his fellow competitors as “Superman”, his quest for Olympic gold, however, remains ongoing. A silver medallist at Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, he missed out on the podium altogether at PyeongChang 2018, finishing fourth in a competition won by home athlete Yun Sung-bin.
Dukurs and his brother Tomass grew up a stone’s throw from the Sigulda skeleton track, managed by their father and coach, former Latvian bobsleigh champion Dainis Dukurs. “When I began working at the track in 1994, I had both my sons try the luge, bobsleigh and skeleton,” recalled Dukurs Senior, who is also a sled designer and Latvia’s national team coach. “When they lay down on the sled, they fell in love with the sport. And they just kept getting better and better.”
Though Tomass – the older of the two by three years – was the first to make his international debut, it was Martins who earned selection for the Olympic Winter Games Turin 2006. Taking a break from his economics degree to take on the world’s best, Martins finished seventh behind winner Duff Gibson of Canada.
The Dukurs family are a team on the international circuit and although Martins quickly established himself as the faster of the two brothers, their competitiveness has helped push him to the top. “There are no secrets between us,” he said. “Even though we’re competing against each other, if one of us finds a good line or makes a mistake during a run, we share that information.” Their rivalry is also an important source of motivation for Tomass: “It enables us to improve and pushes us to become better athletes.”
Olympic silver in Vancouver
After scoring his first World Cup win in Winterberg (GER) in February 2008, Martins recorded a series of top-three finishes the following season before securing the World Cup title in 2009/10, courtesy of four wins over the winter.
Given the honour of being Latvia’s flagbearer at the Vancouver 2010 Opening Ceremony, Dukurs Junior then registered a track record of 52.32 seconds in the first run at the Whistler Sliding Centre. Competing on home ice, Canada’s Jon Montgomery went fastest in the next two runs but still trailed the Latvian by 18 seconds heading into the final run. Montgomery then went fastest again, however, taking the gold by 0.07 seconds and relegating Dukurs to silver.
Overcoming his disappointment, Dukurs embarked on an extended run of success. Victorious in five World Cup races in the 2010/11 season, he topped that with seven wins in 2011/12 and came close to a clean sweep the following season, posting eight victories and a second place in nine races. He secured a fifth straight overall World Cup title in the 2013/14 campaign, recording six wins to top the standings ahead of his older brother, a runner-up for the second successive year. “I finished second in the World Cup and only second in my family,” commented Tomass.
The younger Dukurs underlined his status as the world’s premier skeleton rider by winning back-to-back world titles – in Königsee (GER) in 2011 and Lake Placid (USA) in 2012 – while also lifting five European Championship titles in a row.
“If I’m not on top form, if I only perform half as well as I usually do, and I end up with a silver medal, I’m definitely not going to be happy,” said Dukurs ahead of his third Olympic Games at Sochi 2014. “My aim is to be the very best.”
It was not to be for the Latvian, however, with Russia’s Alexander Tretiakov denying him Olympic gold. After going fastest on the first two runs and then seeing Dukurs shave 0.02 seconds from his lead on the third, Tretiakov finished the job off on the fourth, taking gold by a full 0.81 seconds.
“I did all four runs at my maximum,” said the vanquished Dukurs, once again an Olympic silver medallist. “Technically I was good and the sled was the best. Maybe my start wasn’t as good as it can be though. In general, I am very satisfied with all four runs. But competitors do exist, and you cannot know what their level will be. Alexander was just better today.”
Still on top
After turning 30 in March 2014 and having a stamp issued in his honour in Latvia, Dukurs continued to rack up the honours. A world champion again in Winterberg (GER) in 2015, he successfully defended the title the following year in Igls (AUT) and won the fifth world crown of his career in front of IOC President Thomas Bach in Königsee (GER) in February 2017.
In the meantime, the Latvian made it eight consecutive World Cup titles in a row by topping the standings in 2015, 2016 (with seven wins and a second place in eight events) and 2017. He scored his 50th World Cup victory in Innsbruck (AUS) in the countdown to PyeongChang 2018, in becoming European champion for the ninth time running.
A near-miss in Pyeongchang
Nicknamed “Superman” on account of his unlikely feats, Dukurs suddenly found himself upstaged by the Republic of Korea’s Yun Sung-bin in the 2017/18 season. Ten years his junior, Yun ended the Latvian’s long reign in the World Cup, claiming the title for the first time.
Not content with that, Yun also claimed Olympic gold in front of his fans at PyeongChang 2018, going fastest in all four runs and beating the track record at the Alpensia Sliding Centre on three occasions. Asia’s first Olympic champion in the event, Yun won by an impressive margin of 1.63 seconds from Olympic Athlete from Russia Nikita Tregubov and Great Britain’s Dom Parsons.
As for Dukurs, he recovered from fifth place after the first run to climb into the medal positions, only to then make too many mistakes on his final descent and finish fourth, 1.76 seconds adrift of Yun.
“I’m not happy with my second day,” he said afterwards. “My first run was good, but the second was full of mistakes and cost me everything.”
Shaking off his disappointment the following month, he looked ahead to a possible return to the Olympic stage at Beijing 2022. Refusing to give up on his dream of winning gold, he said: “I’m ready to make a lot of sacrifices and to keep taking blows on the head to achieve what I’m looking for.”