VILNIUS (Reuters) - When Virgilijus Alekna is not acting as a bodyguard to Lithuania’s former president, he is training to win a third Olympic discus title in Beijing.
“In Lithuania, most people expect me to win a third gold medal and it would be wrong to say I am going there only to take part. I am going after the highest award,” he told Reuters.
The first sporting dream of Alekna, 1.98 meters tall and with a two-meter arm span, was to play basketball, the most popular sport in Lithuania. But he started too late at the sports school he attended in northern Lithuania.
He then tried javelin, which he did not like, before moving to discus.
There were times when he was at a risk of being excluded from the school for not performing well enough and when Lithuania regained its independence in 1990 from the former Soviet Union, sport was not his first priority.
He drew inspiration from discus thrower Romas Ubartas, who won Olympic gold in 1992, the first for independent Lithuania.
“My sportsman’s path began when I ended fifth at the Atlanta Olympics in 1996,” said the square-jawed Alekna.
At the next Olympics in Sydney, Alekna beat German defending champion Lars Riedel with a throw of 69.30 meters to win his first gold.
In the same year Alekna achieved his personal best of 73.88 meters, just behind East German Juergen Schult’s world record of 74.08 set in 1986.
Alekna finished second at the Athens Olympics in 2004 but Hungarian Robert Fazekas was stripped of his gold medal for failing a doping test and the prize went to Alekna with an Olympic record throw of 69.89 meters.
“It is good that justice prevailed. It is very important in sports and, I think, anti-doping rules have to be made even stricter to discourage anyone from trying (doping),” he said.
In Beijing in August, Alekna faces challenges from another Balt, Estonia’s Gerd Kanter, and Iran’s Ehsan Hadadi.
He concedes his age, 36, might not help his cause but his experience of the Olympics will be a great advantage.
“The Olympics put huge psychological pressure on an athlete, and that’s why setting new records is quite tough...Maybe it (the Olympic record) can be improved by centimeters, but not meters.”
Kanter beat Alekna at the world championships in Osaka last year while Hadadi left Alekna in second place at the Berlin Golden League meeting on June 1.
“He (Hadadi) is already a very strong and a very difficult competitor. If he improves more, it will be quite tough to beat him,” Alekna said.
Alekna said his fourth place in Osaka was like “a cold shower” although he was suffering from a calf injury. Before then, he had not lost for 37 consecutive competitions.
“I had to reconsider everything.” He decided to train less and give his body more time to recover.
“I am in a good shape now,” Alekna said.
He expects Beijing to be his last Olympics as he will be 40 by the time the London Games come around.
“When the time comes to quit, I will have nothing to regret. I have an impressive collection of medals.”
Alekna joined the state bodyguard service in 1993 and has been assigned for a long time to former President and Prime Minister Algirdas Brazauskas.
“Of course, psychological stability and concentration are needed in this job and at the stadium,” Alekna said.
Editing by Robert Woodward