For its small population and limited funding opportunities, Estonia has done surprisingly well in athletics over the past few decades, with a respectable medal tally from Olympic Games, and World and European Championships. The seeds of this success lie in a rather unique initiative – Estonian Public Broadcasting's long-running youth sports program TV's 10 Olympic Starts, which started its 45th season last week.
The televised competition series has inspired generations of Estonian children and if the enthusiasm displayed by the organizers, supporters and competitors alike at the season's launch on Thursday is anything to go by, will inspire many more.
The track-and-field combined events competition, which this year invites up to 14-year-old youngsters with a slogan “Get set – Olympic Games await”, includes a number of county-based preliminary rounds, and five national televised ones – two indoor and three outdoor legs.
The first national round will take place in Võru, southern Estonia, on December 5. A summary of it will air on ETV2 a day later, on December 6, at 19:30.
The show was born in 1971 as a joint effort the public broadcasting's sports division. The pilot, hosted by former volley-ball player Tõnu Tammaru, aired on October 12, 1971.
Tens of thousands of children have participated in the competition over the past 44 years, with several top Estonian athletes, not just in track-and-field but in all kinds of different sports, making their start on the show.
“It really is quite shocking – I don't know another sports program that has ran for so long,” Tammaru said. “It's a pleasure to see how many good athletes have grown out of it.”
So, what's the secret of its longevity and success?
“It's the competitive edge it provides. An opportunity to measure yourself against others is the driving force in sports,” one of Estonia's best-known athletes Gerd Kanter, who grew out of the series and won the 2008 Olympic Games in discus, explained.
Janek Õiglane, who this summer won a bronze medal in decathlon at the European U23 Championships, said the second place he won in a national round in 2006, at the age of 12, “was probably the most awesome thing that had happened to me in my life at that point.”
Others too fondly recall the first taste of fame and the prizes that came with a victory. Rasmus Mägi, a hurdler and Estonia's Male Athlete of the Year who won silver medal at the 2014 European Championships, said the program gave him much-needed experience for the future: “I remember how unique and attractive the competition felt because of the chance to watch yourself on the TV later, or even give an interview.”
Estonia's decathlon talent Hans-Christian Hausenberg too kick-started his career TV's 10 Olympic starts, when he set a new long jump record in the 14-13 boys age group. Hausenberg caught public's attention for his preference of jumping barefoot.
“That’s when he knew that he had a future in the sport,” he once said in an interview for IAAF.
Now, though still in high school, he has repeated his feat on the international scale. In March, the 16-year-old smashed the world youth best for the indoor heptathlon in Tallinn, the same venue where Ashton Eaton broke the senior record for the event in 2011.
Hans-Christian Hausenberg interviewed now and in the show five years ago (Photo: Siim Lõvi/ERR).
Yet, the results also show that a good junior does not necessarily make a senior champion. For instance, Kanter appeared once, but was one of the worst in his age group. Erki Nool, Olympic champion from 2000, too was rather mediocre.
Gerd Kanter and Erki Nool (Photo: Siim Lõvi/ERR).
Not just a family affair
The first competitors were born in 1959, so it is not unusual for generation upon generation of family members to have been part of the show.
According to producer Anu Säärits, there are over 10 sets of parents and children who have won medals in the contest, and the all time record tables giving many more a change to compare their records with those of their older/younger friends and family members.
For example, Marit Kutman, the new record holder for girl's combined event from last season, is the daughter of Martin Kutman, who won boy's enneathlon at the first season back in 1972. Kutman recalls how back in the day he used bamboo poles for pole vault. These were not very durable, so his father, who was also a pole vaulter and a coach, had to keep making new ones, using a torch.
Marit and Martin Kutman (Photo: Siim Lõvi/ERR).
Jaak Uudmäe, triple jump Olympic champion from 1980, too said he has watched all of his five children compete on the screen. Three youngest still have a place in the competition's record books.
“It all starts with the family, then school and finally the society's overall attitude to sports,” Uudmäe said.
So, it's not just the competitive and preparatory qualities that make the program important for Estonia, the show has helped to build up an entire infrastructure and molded public opinion of athletics and sports in general. Many of the tens of thousands of participants have ended up in town and city councils, and even in the Parliament, said Raul Rebane, who hosted the show from 1977-1991. “And when it comes to voting, they always vote for sport,” he explained.
Rebane called it “one of the most innovative sporting system in the entire world.”
Love for sports
If in the old days children used bamboo sticks to pole vault and taped ski poles together to form a high jump bar, these days they enjoy all the benefits of professional athletes.
Yet one thing has stayed the same: no pain, no gain. Säärits recalls how Tanel Laanmäe, who this summer won the Summer Universiade and was 13th in men's javelin competition at IAAF World Championships in Beijing, broke his arm when dripping over hurdles in his first ever start in the show.
Nevertheless, the real champions have one, simple message for their young opponents: Enjoy!
“Sports should above all else give children joy and happiness,” Nool said.