Martins Dukurs on the pressure of being Lativa's skeleton Superman

The six-time world champion has had to deal with some agonising losses in his career, and will be relying on his inner superpower ahead of the Winter Olympics, where he continues his quest for Olympic gold.

7 min By Andrew Binner
(Picture by 2019 Getty Images)

It’s easy to see why skeleton athlete Martins Dukurs is nicknamed ‘Superman’.

The Latvian is a six-time world champion and has won the overall Skeleton World Cup title in 10 of the last 12 seasons. Quite simply, he is one of the most dominant winter sports athletes of all time.

However, there is one accolade missing from his impressive resume: Olympic gold.

The Riga native came agonisingly close to winning Latvia’s first-ever Winter Olympics title at both Vancouver 2010 and Sochi 2014, finishing with silver both times.

Those near misses only spurred him on to greater domination in the following cycles, and the 37-year-old is now on a mission to complete his collection at Beijing 2022.

Martins Dukurs has two Olympic silver medals to his name.
Martins Dukurs has two Olympic silver medals to his name. (2018 Getty Images)

Martins Dukurs' sliding DNA

There is a favourite question journalists love to ask skeleton athletes: "What was it that first made you want to go head first down the track, potentially reaching speeds of up to 145 km/h with your nose just inches from the ice?"

For Dukurs, that reason was his father.

Daina Dukurs is a former bobsleigh brakeman, and managed the Sigulda track - which has hosted a leg of the IBSF World Cup since 2000 - for 26 years.

After seeing skeleton for the first time, Dukurs Senior decided to bring a third discipline (to two-person bobsleigh and luge which were already taking place at Sigulda) to his track. He brought a skeleton sled and gathered some brave volunteers to try it, including Martins and his elder brother Tomass Dukurs.

“When my father saw that we were both interested, he took the skeleton more seriously,” Martins told Jauns. “At the beginning, there were no thoughts of victory, only various small goals, for example to drive straight on the track without hitting the boards. So we went step by step, and when the skeleton was included in the Olympic programme, the goal was to go to the Olympic Games.”

Martins Dukurs (left) and Tomass Dukurs (right) celebrate on the podium at the 2016 Skeleton World Cup in Koenigsee, Germany.
Martins Dukurs (left) and Tomass Dukurs (right) celebrate on the podium at the 2016 Skeleton World Cup in Koenigsee, Germany. (2016 Getty Images)

In 2010, a 26-year-old Martins won the first of his 11-consecutive European titles.

Meanwhile, Tomoss’ one and only continental crown came in 2016 - a joint first-place with his brother. Tomoss has had to settle for five European runners-up medals to date, while his best finish at Worlds was bronze in 2015.

The pressures of being Latvia’s Superman

As the only Latvian ever to win the World Cup standings in any individual winter discipline, Martins Dukurs has become a hero in his native land.

After winning Latvian Athlete of the Year for the first time in 2010, he has gone on to win it another six times since.

He was also awarded the Order of the Three Stars in 2010, Latvia's highest honour which is usually reserved for heads of state, royalty and other dignitaries.

Skeleton fans around the world started calling Dukurs ‘Superman’ due to his heroics on the ice, and his star shone even brighter in their eyes when he donned an actual Superman outfit after securing the 2012 skeleton World Cup overall title.

While his hard work and dedication is undoubted, Dukurs sees his career as a case of good fortune, because the sport is both a job and his passion, meaning that he has never struggled for motivation to perform.

"If you are lucky enough to find a thing so close to your heart, you can reach the top the mountains. That's the key," he told SportLand. “Without butterflies dancing in your stomach, it wouldn't make sense. It is a feeling that cannot be caught on a daily basis. It is tiring, but it makes it worth it.

“This moment is short, but you feel powerful. When I stand on the highest step of the podium representing my country, it increases my patriotism.

That feeling of pride swells when Dukurs is winning, but it can also become burdensome shouldering the responsibility to win titles for his nation when he isn’t performing at his best.

“In my country, second place is not a place for me,” Dukurs revealed to Sandiegouniotribune. “They’re just waiting for me to win, and that’s tough. I’m trying. Big, big pressure. I need to find some way to get out of all this.”

“That was pressure for me. It was pretty hard,” he said. “They’re showing you as a Superman, and Superman can be second.”

The best winter athlete never to win Olympic gold?

This Superman does know how second-place feels.

With two silver medals at the Winter Olympics, why has Dukurs never been able to land the one title he so desires?

The reality is that skeleton, as with all sliding sports, is won and lost by milliseconds which can be gained and lost with the smallest of mistakes, equipment malfunctions or even a change in temperature. All of which makes Dukurs’ consistency over such a long career even all the more impressive.

There is also a question of track preference. The Konigsee track would appear to be Superman’s kryptonite, as he has not won a World Cup race there since 2015. At the other end of the spectrum, he has been unbeaten in Igls since 2010.

Then there is the small matter of his world-class competition to contend with.

Germany’s two-time reigning world champion Christopher Grotheer has never found too much success in the World Cup, but seems to specialise in rising for the biggest occasions.

Grotheer’s compatriot Alexander Gassner is a regular feature on World Cup podiums, while ‘Russian Rocket’ Alexander Treytakov has enjoyed a career almost as long and as successful as Dukurs'.

The global pandemic and injury may have limited the opportunities of reigning Olympic champion Yun Sung-bin over the past Olympic cycle, but a world bronze in 2019 served as a stark reminder that Korea’s ‘Iron Man’ can still compete at the top table of the sport.

(Back row L-R) Martins Dukurs, Yun Sung-bin, Axel Jungk, and (front row L-R) Tomass Dukurs, Christopher Grotheer and Alexander Tretiakov after the 2017 Skeleton World Cup in Park City, Utah
(Back row L-R) Martins Dukurs, Yun Sung-bin, Axel Jungk, and (front row L-R) Tomass Dukurs, Christopher Grotheer and Alexander Tretiakov after the 2017 Skeleton World Cup in Park City, Utah (2017 Getty Images)

Lighting the fire

Showing the spirit of a true champion, those near Olympic losses only served to fuel Dukurs’s fire.

Having initially planned to retire after the PyeongChang 2018 Games, missing the podium entirely meant that he was not yet done with the sport. In 2019 he roared to the European and World Championship titles.

“That’s the reason why I didn’t retire,” he told IBSF. “If I won a medal I would have said enough. The feeling was I had more to give and the 2019 season was incredible. We did a lot of testing, some things worked out and some things were painful but that’s the way.

“That’s why sports are interesting. There is no formula for age meaning that you will or won’t be successful, every race is different.” - Martins Dukurs to IBSF.

Martins Dukurs: Philosopher & economist

Anyone that has listened to one of Dukurs' interviews will have noticed that he is more than just an athlete.

The economics graduate is eloquent and thoughtful, and believes there is much more to life than simply winning. For without the intrinsic enjoyment the sport brings him, he would not be able to continue fighting for his dream of landing Olympic gold year after year.

“For me, medals are not the most important thing,” he continued. “I value the path and the process more. If there were no medals, I would still be participating,” he continued.

“Victory gives self-confidence, but loss motivates you to try again. Therefore, the euphoria of victory is balanced by the need to dig-deeper in order to succeed sometimes.”

“I’m always learning something new. Every year I drive to the track and notice new things, despite having driven for over 10 years!

Finding the next Dukurs

The success of the Dukurs siblings, combined with a world-class facility in Sigulda means sliding sports are on the up in Latvia.

At the 2020 Youth Olympic Games on the natural ice track of St. Moritz, skeleton athlete Elvis Veinbergs won silver. Elsewhere in luge, Gints Berzins took gold, while Kaspars Rinks and Ardis Liepins claimed silver in the boy’s luge doubles, and Viktorija Ziedina and Selina Zvilna the bronze in the girl’s event. Berzins, Liepins, Rinks and Justine Maskale then combined to won bronze in the team relay event.

“Young people don't have to reinvent anything anymore - we've already gone through it all and tried everything,” he said to Jauns. “All they have to do is come and train. We are always ready to give advice and we will definitely not keep any nuances a secret. If we can help in any way, we will help.”

It would appear to be a case of ‘when’ and not ‘if’ Latvia will have its first winter Olympic champion.

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