One Hundred Years of Success
Since 1912, when Dragutin Tomašević represented the Kingdom of Serbia on the Olympic Games in Stockholm, Serbian athletes were present on the important scene of this sport. Moreover, we always had one name among the best: the legendary Franjo Mihalić, the unmatched Artur Takač, the golden Vera Nikolić, the flying Nenad Stakić, the samurai Dragutin Topić, the uncompromising Olivera Jevtić… From July 23rd to 26th, young athletes should make their new steps, among which Ivana Španović, Tatjana Jelača, Mihajlo Dudaš…

By: Helena Duković

Serbia, as a sports nation, had entered the great sports family thanks to the ”queen of sports”. The Kingdom of Serbia participated in the Olympic Games in Stockholm for the first time in 1912, and our athlete Dragutin Tomašević was the first Serbian athlete who was in the race to get the medal, along with the best. On the marathon, which was organized on July 14th 1912, among 62 other athletes, he got the 37th place, with the time 2:47. This historical fact does not only show how athletics were important for Serbia at the time, and that the Serbian athletes were always keeping the pace with the time. It was in 1912 when The International Association of Athletics Federations(IAAF) was established and first world records were determined.


The beginning of athletics in Serbia is connected with Voivodina and the end of the 19th century. The first clubs, founded in Novi Sad, Zrenjanin, Subotica, have already celebrated the 100th anniversary of their work. After World War I in other towns of Serbian and former Kingdom of Yugoslavia athletic clubs and associations started establishing, and the ”queen of sports” was very popular among the young. The Yugoslav athletic association was established in 1921 in Zagreb, which was chosen to be the centre of this sports organization because the first athletic championship competition took place in it, in 1878, and the first athletic track was made in 1907. It was made of slag, 500 metres long, as a part of the football court.


With the development and the popularization of athletics on the Balkans, there was the idea of organizing a big competition. On the annual meeting of the Yugoslav Athletic Association in 1924, the idea of organizing Balkan Athletic Games first came up, which gathered athletes from the Kingdom of Yugoslavia and neighbouring countries. However, everything ended up only as an idea and enthusiastic wishes until 1928, when the Greek Association really reacted.
On a meeting in Amsterdam, right after the Olympic Games, the representatives of Balkan countries have decided to organize Balkan Athletic Games in Athens in 1929. There were competitors from Bulgaria, Greece, Yugoslavia, and Turkey. The propositions included that the athletic games were to keep every year and that the countries that competed were to send at least 20 participants and one manager. Between two world wars, our athletes have participated all other prestigious competitions, including the Olympics. 


After World War II began the real prosperity of all sports and of athletics, as well. Many names from this period will always remain remembered for great achievements and medals in all athletic disciplines. The General Secretary of the Athletics Association of Yugoslavia, Ivica Matijević, is speaking proudly of those days.
– The former country, the great Yugoslavia, with almost 25 million people, had a lot of potential. We systematically invested in sports, and in athletics, which all gave good results. Besides, in such a big country, we had more rivals, which is necessary for sports progress. When Yugoslavia was destroyed, it was expected that sports results in separated countries get worse. However, despite the circumstances, Serbia succeeded in keeping the pace with the rest of the world. We always had at least one name, which was highly rated among world athletes: Dragutin Topić, Stevan Zorić, Olivera Jevtić – says Matijević.


The story about the development of athletics in Yugoslavia would not be complete if we would not mention some of the best athletes and their success. Thanks to great results, some of them are almost legendary individuals in the eyes of many admirers of this sport.
A true living legend our athletics, now 89 years old, is Franjo Mihalić. He was champion of Yugoslavia for 14 times, he beaten Yugoslav records for 22 times, he was three times the champion of the Balkans. He won the marathon in Athens, Boston and Moscow, then the ”Cross des Nations” in Paris and the ”Midnight Race” in Sao Paulo, and on the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956 he won a silver medal.
”It was a very soggy day. It was hard to breathe, and we had white caps on our heads with white shutters on our necks. The French Mimoun and the Finnish Karvonen were the biggest candidates for the medals. I was also a favourite, because I won the Balkan Games in Belgrade those years, with 2:16. However, sometime later, it came up that the court, which was measured on a motorcycle, was shorter. However, I knew that I could compete for the Olympic trophies. I ran right besides the leading participants and I waited for the right moment. On some parts of the court, the trees made a small shade and Mimoun and I moved into the shadow just as the fish in shallow water are fighting for breath. After the 30th kilometre, the real battle began. Mimoun accelerated, I took the challenge, and Karvonen stopped. My mouth was dry, my leg muscles were cramping, but the wish to get the second place became stronger. Mimoun detached from the others and ran to the finish line, and Karvonen was about 400 metres behind me. I was determined in winning the second place and the silver medal. The stadium greeted me with enthusiasm, I forgot all my troubles, I won the silver medal and the people of Yugoslavia were so happy about it” said the famous Franjo Mihalić, besides many memories of the historic day, so vividly as it was yesterday.


For winning the first European golden medal for Yugoslavia, the young athlete Vera Nikolić is still our ”golden Vera”. This was on the European Championship in Budapest in 1966, when she won the first place in a race on 800 metres, when she was 17, beating the favourite, the experienced Zsuzsa Szabó.
As a junior competitor, the won crosses all around Serbia and Yugoslavia, and when she was 16 she became a representative and the champion of the Balkans. She made a true sensation in London, in 1968, when she foreran the biggest hope of British athletics Lillian Board, in a race on 800 metres in ”Crystal palace”, setting a world record 2:00.5. Vera’s results will remain in golden letters in history, as well as her bronze medal from Athens 1969, her gold medal on the European Championship in Helsinki 1971, the fifth place on the Olympics in Munich 1972, when she set a new Yugoslav record (1:59.5).


One of the best Serbian athletes of all times, maybe the best, is Dragutin Topić. When he was 19, he set a junior world record in high jump, 2.37 metres on the World Junior Championship in Plovdiv 1990. The record is still not beaten.
Since then, in the rich carrier of this athlete there were only victories. He was the European champion in Split 1990, and in 1993 he set a world record jumping 2.38 metres, placing himself among the best athletes of all times. He won the Universiade in Fukuoka 1994, the champion of Europe in Stockholm 1996, the third on the Championship in Paris 1997. He is remembered not only for his great achievements but also for his unique style of celebrating. After every successful jump, he would gesticulate as samurais when they take their swords. Moreover, there was really something of samurai characteristics in his exploits.


Now, Serbian athletics has several juniors who are the best in their categories and in whom we believe. Ivana Španović (long jump), Tatjana Jelača (javelin throwing), Mihajlo Dudaš (decathlon) – they are all making part of Serbian and world athletics. They will show their abilities from July 23rd to 26th in Novi Sad, during the European Junior Athletics Championship. They are expecting a true challenge in 2012 on the Olympics in London.

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