Meet the Match
A Latvian Creative Spreads the Message of Paralympic Sport
Toms Bergs always loved spending time in the outdoors. So, as a university student with a penchant for adventure, he didn’t hesitate to accept when a classmate invited him on a 10-day scooter trip in Latvia’s Gauja National Park.
The trip, however, was not your typical nature excursion. Toms’ classmate was dating a woman who was a wheelchair user, and the couple was involved with Apeirons, the largest disability organization in Latvia. As part of the project, Toms and other non-disabled participants would rent a scooter and ride with a participant with a disability around the park, examining the accessibility of the different trails, hotels, cafes and restaurants in the area.
“We stayed in tents together, ate together, did everything together for 10 days,” Toms recalls. “The point was that we’re all the same. We wanted people to think disability in a different way.”
Born in Riga, Toms spent much of his early childhood with his grandparents in the countryside, where he rode bikes and played in the woods. In 2006, he moved to Valmiera, a small city in the north of Latvia, to attend Vidzeme University, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in communications and public relations. He stayed in the city after graduation, preferring its closeness to nature, and the ease with which he could participate in sports he came to love like mountain biking and snowboarding.
After the Gauja National Park trip, Toms stayed on as a volunteer with Apeirons. Once he finished university, he had the idea of utilizing his specific skillset to support the organization’s work. In 2012, he pitched the idea of launching a television program to show the positive actions and achievements of people with disabilities in sports, music, theater, art and more. The show, Three-Fourths, is a now a monthly, nationally-broadcast show, and has been a big success. While Latvian media outlets previously addressed disability from the perspective of sympathy, Toms’ show informs, supports, and motivates. The production team works closely with the Latvian Paralympic Committee, which has allowed Toms to cover major events, such as the Rio Paralympics and the London Para-Athletics World Championship.
“Sport is one of the best ways to get people together,” Toms says. “Of course, we are Latvians, northern people, so we are a little colder inside. But when it comes to sports we also become very passionate.”
During the Rio Paralympics, Toms and his colleagues reported everyday on the stories of athletes, showing a Latvian audience the achievements of its Paralympic athletes, who won four medals compared to none by Olympians. This reporting work was also as an opportunity to promote adaptive sports and aid in recruitment for the National Paralympic Committee, which has invested in facilities for athletes to come and train.
In recent years, Latvia has made a push toward accessibility. According to the most recent government data in 2015, there are approximately 175,000 Latvians with disabilities. Yet, while the government improving facilities and transportation, the NPC faces challenges recruiting new athletes. Although the organization is working to create a Paralympic center by 2020 where all athletes can train together in the same facilities, and other adaptive sports are organized nationwide, Toms says this news fails to reach and engage large segments of the disability community.
Through his participation in the U.S. Department of State Global Sports Mentoring Program, Toms discovered innovative and impactful ways to communicate messages about Paralympic sports to Latvians. On the program, he partnered with Adrienne Rochetti, director of strategic marketing and partnerships, and a mentorship team from LeadDog Marketing Group, a full-service agency that has worked with brands such as Coca Cola, Reebok, REI, and Cirque du Soleil. As his mentors exposed him to the U.S. sports system and the far-reaching and creative strategies for communicating about sports’ power for social good, Toms acquired the tools to make a substantial impact in the cultivation of the adaptive sports movement.