published 29 Jan 2015 by Bernhard Katzinger in Latvia 5 minutes 8 seconds to read

From the street to the Olympic Games

For Maris Slezins, founder of the World Street-Workout and Calisthenics Federation, sports turned around his life. But not only his own: his social project for street-kids has become a global sport phenomen with high ambitions.

It all started when Maris' road-and-bridge design business soured during last decade's financial crisis. He needed an outlet for his pent-up frustration and negativity so he decided to return to a tried and true method from his youth – physical exercise – that had once helped him transform himself from a troubled Latvian street kid into a successful young businessman.

In more detail this means: Maris joined a couple of friends who were doing Street-Workout – variations on basic forms of  calisthenics such as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups and leg lifts, taken out of the gym and adapted to the outdoor public park environment. As Maris and his friends quickly learned more athletic, even acrobatic moves, as well as teamwork elements, they attracted the attention of local street kids. “At first, they were afraid to come closer, but after we finished they tried to copy our moves,” Maris remembers. “So I said, why not let them train with us.” As more and more kids joined, Maris saw the potential of his sports movement to help making their lives a bit better.

Video success without tabu

Maris founded the Latvian Street-Workout Association as an NGO and uploaded a short video on YouTube and a Latvian video platform. "Within a day, we got thirty-thousand views and a couple of thousand comments, most of them basically asking: Where can I join up?"

The video got the attention of Latvian TV, which featured Maris’ Street-Workout programme on a show called "Bez Tabu" (Without Tabu). "I think the TV-show, one of the most popular in the country, triggered a snowball-effect that made our movement really famous," says Maris. Invitations to festivals, tournaments and interviews followed, together with industry-sponsored events that created revenue. In 2010, Maris' street-workout group even won the "Latvia's Gold Talent" national TV contest. However, Maris says that within one year, “we felt we had been everywhere, and there is nothing more to do in this small country of Latvia."

No pain, no gain

Asked about setbacks in these early stages, Maris chuckles: "Funny to think of it, we mainly ignored possible risks or dangers. There were only two options: Be afraid and quit – or feel the positive energy of the people, believe in yourself and just go on."

We mainly ignored possible risks or dangers. There were only two options: Be afraid and quit.

There were difficult moments, though. At one event at a school, a 13-year-old kid tried some acrobatic moves and fell off a pull-up bar, crashing his head into a wall. He lost consciousness and was rushed to the hospital. "The two hours before we finally heard the kid was OK were perhaps the longest hours of my life," Maris remembers. "The incident made us become more aware of safety issues, but did not stop us."

What they could not ignore, were financing issues. "We were paying almost everything out of our pockets,” says Maris. “When we needed anything – like a portable pull-up-bar – we tried to involve friends who had knowledge or connections in that area. We weren't asking anyone for money. Often, we paid for things 'out of the fridge,' which means cutting back on our basic living expenses.”

Going global

It was international exposure through social media that made Maris and his team come up with the idea of a World Championship. The World Street Workout and Calisthenics Federation was founded. But the first World Championship planned in 2011 nearly became a full-blown disaster. Sponsors dropped out when they heard there was a problem with the necessary permits. "At the event, police showed up and wanted to stop the whole thing. It took a lot of convincing to go through with the championship and there was the possibility we’d have to pay a huge fine afterwards." However, Maris had supporters, even amongst the authorities. The fine turned out to be only 20 euros.

Although the event had been very difficult to plan and execute, it was hailed a success by sports fans and media all over the world. "It was their feedback that kept me going after the  near fiasco of the event itself," remembers Maris.

Next step: getting more professional as an organisation

We stand for athletic professionalism, honesty, politeness, and teamwork, and we are against hatred and violence.

Whereas street-workout nowadays is practically a professional sport, WSWCF as an enterprise is still in its amateur stages. "We’ve only just started to pay salaries to our workers, excluding me and the other management board member Raivis Leimanis," says Maris, who has kept up his road-planning work all along to make a living. "In fact, the next steps for us will have to be turning more professional and more commercial, without losing the social aspects," says Maris. "We have a lot of hard-working people who shouldn’t have to keep working for free. Only if you can make a living out of it, you can dedicate your time fully to your job."

Money, he hopes, will come through more industry sponsorships: "We always look for connections to corporations and, as a global movement, we become increasingly interesting to them. Because we stand for athletic professionalism, honesty, politeness, and teamwork, and we are against hatred and violence, we are perfect brand ambassadors."

The entrepreneur's vision

Maris explains his creed as a businessman: "I am used to the fact that nothing comes from nothing. I am a firm believer in hard work. I grew up in an environment where nothing is handed to you on a silver-platter. It is good to dream, but never forget that it is always hard work between envisioning and reaching that dream."

And what is his biggest dream for his movement? 31-year-old Maris Slezins says he will never be satisfied with success. But he can't be sure until he has sat in a stadium full of people and, together with his kids, has watched the first Street-Workout competition at the Olympic Games. "I envision it to be the summer Olympics of 2028 or 2032."

Be sure to look out for it!

Latest

Profiles

Geoprospectors

15 Jan 2016

Thanks to technologies also used in archaeological prospection, Austrian startup Geoprospectors aims to improve the world of agriculture an…