By Estelle Shirbon
LONDON (Reuters) - Latvians Martins Plavins and Janis Smedins won bronze in the men's beach volleyball on Thursday by beating Dutchmen Richard Schuil and Reinder Nummerdor, a surprise result for the Baltic state emerging as an unlikely force in the sport.
The match was tight but in the end youth won out over experience as the Latvians overcame the veteran Dutch pair 19-21 21-19 15-11.
Plavins and Smedins received a call from Latvian President Andris Berzins minutes after their win and briefly broke off from answering reporters' questions to receive his congratulations.
They joined a select club of just six other nations who have won medals in men's beach volleyball since the sport made its Olympic debut in 1996.
"In 2008 Martins was the first Latvian to play beach volleyball in the Olympics, and now it's his second Games and my first. It's just amazing to get third place," said a delighted Smedins, 25.
Both teams were at the top of their game and the 15,000 spectators at Horse Guards Parade in the heart of London were entertained with one gripping rally after another.
The Dutch took the first set but the Latvians raised their game enough to keep just ahead in a contest where every point was hard-fought.
Plavins, 27, had already staked his claim to fame when he and former team mate, Aleksandrs Samoilovs, beat U.S. pair Todd Rogers and Phil Dalhausser in the pool phase at the Beijing Games in 2008.
The then world champion Americans recovered and went on to win gold as expected but the Latvian victory, which sparked a surge in the sport's popularity there, remains one of the biggest upsets in beach volleyball.
Plavins and Smedins were once again the scourge of Americans in London, beating in-form pair Sean Rosenthal and Jake Gibb in the quarter-finals. Gibb and Rosenthal had been considered strong contenders for a medal.
Latvia had two men's pairs competing at the London Games and they collectively achieved far better results than the two pairs from the United States, which has dominated the sport since its Olympic debut in Atlanta in 1996.
It was a crushing defeat for the Dutchmen, who had hoped to win a place on the podium 16 years after Schuil had his first taste of Olympic glory.
"I feel terrible. I couldn't feel worse," said Nummerdor.
"We were winning the game, we just gave it away. I can't feel any worse than this. It was my last chance to get an Olympic medal so I cannot feel worse than this."
Schuil, 39, was part of the Dutch men's indoor volleyball team that won gold in Atlanta in 1996. A five-time Olympian, he switched from indoor to beach volleyball after his first three Games.
Nummerdor, 35, also played indoor volleyball with the Dutch national team in two Olympics, Sydney in 2000 and Athens in 2004, before teaming up on the sand with Schuil. The pair came fifth in Beijing in 2008.
"I love the game, but this is my last (Olympics). I will not come back, no," said Schuil.
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