The first Estonian mentioned in the Guinness Book of Records
was a sportsman.
In the Olympic Games of 1912 in Stockholm, the Finn Alfred Asikainen and the Estonian
Martin Klein wrestled for a record 11 hours and 40 minutes. Klein won, and
"Russia" was given as his country of residence .
The first chance to rectify this mistake came in 1918 when the Republic of Estonia came
into being for the first time. Martin Klein was the first Estonian Olympic medal winner.
Among other Estonians, the heavyweight wrestlers Georg Lurich, Aleksander Aberg and Georg
Hackenschmidt were famous at the turn of the century. The Guinness Book of Records writes
about the latter: "Georg Karl Julius Hackenschmidt (1877-1968) suffered no
defeats in the period 1898-1908)." Later, Georg Hackenschmidt lived in England and
acquired a reputation as a philosopher. Georg Lurich, another sportsman who excelled both
in body and in mind, was later to become a leading figure of our nation.
Before independence, Estonians were the best in the whole Russian empire in athletics
(16 records out of 29), wrestling and weightlifting.
Estonian sport was therefore born before the independent state. Furthermore, it was an
important factor in our national awakening. Several great figures of national politics,
among them the first president Konstantin Päts, belonged to the sports association
"Kalev" (1901). It is thus no surprise that sportsmen have always been held in
high regard in Estonia.
The best example is the fate of Kristjan Palusalu (1908-1987), the heavyweight wrestler
who won two gold medals at the 1936 Olympic Games in Berlin. For this achievement, the
athlete who came from the peasantry, received a farmhouse from the state. After the Soviet
Union occupied Estonia in 1940 and war broke out, Palusalu was deported to Russia. He
managed to escape, was condemned to death, escaped again and finally reached home. After
the second invasion by the Soviet Union, Palusalu was arrested and was obliged to lead a
reclusive life. But he was not forgotten by the people. Perhaps because his life reflected the
fate of the whole nation, Kristjan Palusalu has remained the most popular sportsman in
Estonia throughout history.
And who was elected the most popular Estonian of 1996? Erki Nool, the European champion of the decathalon.
Organised sport in Estonia began in 1888 with the establishment of a heavyweight club
in Tallinn. After that, numerous societies of gymnastics, cycling, swimming, football and
skating sprang up all over the country. Hundreds of Estonians, men and women, performed in
world circuses as professional wrestlers, weightlifters etc.
In 1923, all societies were united into one central sports association - The Union of
Estonian Sport. The Estonian Olympic Committee was established in the same year.
In Antwerp in 1920 two silver and one gold medal were won. Estonia had already taken part in the Olympic Games two years previously. During the first period of independence, between 1918-1940, Estonians won 21 Olympic
medals in all; they never fell below 16th place regarding points. In championships,
medals were won by Estonia's ice-boat sailors, wrestlers, weightlifters, boxers. The chess world
saw the meteoric rise of Paul Keres, known for four decades as the eternal second.
Palusalu's example was followed by Johannes Kotkas who became the best heavyweight
wrestler in the world for several decades.
Estonian sport, alongside economy, was on the rise until the Soviet forces put an end
to it all.
During the following war and repressions, Estonia lost one tenth of its population, the
more enterprising part. The love for sport, however, remained intact. In the Soviet Union,
Estonians were among the best in wrestling, sailing, swimming, tennis, shooting, table
tennis etc. Estonians took part in the next Olympic games in Helsinki in 1952.
Although they officially competed as members of the Soviet team, they won 1 gold, 3 silver and 1 bronze medals. Johannes
Kotkas was the world's strongest wrestler.
Between 1940-1988, Estonians won 11 gold medals at the Olympics. At the chess Olympics,
Paul Keres received a team gold medal 7 times. The Soviet Union naturally took credit for
all of these achievements.
But things were about to change. When the basketball player Tiit Sokk and cyclist Erika
Salumäe won gold medals at the Soul Olympics, it was considered one of the signs of Estonia's new
awakening. Both sportsmen were presented with a house, just like Palusalu many years
Independence arrived in 1991. But as early as 1989, the Estonian Olympic Committee had
resumed work and the Central Union of Estonian Sport started in 1990. Estonian sport soon
regained its position in world sport.
The same occurred in Olympic sport. In honour of Erika Salumäe's victory in Barcelona, 1992, the
Estonian tricolor was hoisted once again, after 56 years.
Now that the first exhilaration of independence is dying down, the economic
difficulties are also decreasing. Estonian sport is conducted as in any open society. There are numerous sport clubs and societies. Various unions maintain international relations. Our best sportsmen take part in the world and European
championships; they also compete for Estonia in the Olympic games. At the Atlanta Paraolympics, Estonians won quite a
The central body of Estonian sporting life is the Estonian Olympic Committee; it
unites all clubs and societies. The sporting activities are mostly financed by the
Ministry of Culture.
The most popular fields of sport are light athletics (Olympic winners Jüri Tarmak and
Jaak Uudmäe); basketball (Olympic winner Tiit Sokk, Martin Müürsepp in NBA); chess
(grandmasters Jaan Ehlvest and Lembit Oll); sailing (double Olympic winners Tõnu and
Toomas Tõniste); and cycling (Olympic winners Aavo Pikkuus and Erika Salumäe). Basketball is the most popular ball game in Estonia, and it is in this sport that the best results have
been achieved. Though Tiit Sokk fought for the gold at the Seoul Olympics as a member of
the Soviet team, he did it for his people.
Those who participate in sports for recreation, belong to the Estonian Health Sport Union. The Tartu skiing marathon is an
internationally known event; it is a part of the Worldloppet
series. There are always many running events going on all over Estonia. Hiking and tourism in general are also popular.
Under foreign rule, sport has always been a means for national self-expression and a
chance to establish relations with other countries. Now Estonians are again free, but the
historic role of sport has not diminished.
For this reason, Estonians have always considered themselves a sporting nation,
and the sportsmen - Lurich, Palusalu, Keres - our national heroes.
Many Estonian sports heroes have been immortalised in art. Amandus Adamson's
bronze sculpture of Georg Lurich, multiple World Champion in wrestling.
Kristjan Palusalu - his life was a reflection of the fate of the
The best Estonian sportsman and the most popular Estonian of
1996, was Erki Nool.
Paul Keres. It is unlikely that any nation other than
Estonians has put a chess champion on a bank note.
The symbol of the Estonian Olympic Committee
The Olympic gold medals of the cyclist Erika Salumäe and the
basketball player Tiit Sokk coincided with the beginning of the popular movement for the
restoration of Estonian independence. Their accomplishment strengthened the
self-confidence of Estonians.
Tiit Sokk - member of the winning team at the Seoul Olympics in
Estonians are a Northern people and skiing is a part of their life-style.
Thousands take part in the Tartu Ski Marathon, which is included in the international