Olympic fever has swept through a small town in Serbia, thanks to the efforts and achievements of young Serb middleweight boxer Aleksandar Drenovak. While the international spotlight is focused on London, celebrations will be kicking off in the spa town of Vrnjačka Banja, where Olympic excitement has become very personal.
Since winning his place to compete under the Serbian flag at London 2012, Aleksandar, aged 28, has become something of a local hero in the popular spa town in the Raška District of southwestern Serbia.
“Only about 20,000 live in Vrnjačka Banja so we are all like one big family,’ he told Wild Rooster. “Everybody there is very excited about me being at the Olympic Games. They will watch my matches on big video screens in the centre of town.
“I am very happy that I made them all so proud by getting this far. Because of me they are in some way a part of the Games. I hope that I can do them proud with my performance.”
Support of Family & Friends
But while the town will be turning out to support Aleksandar, there could be some notable absentees from the crowd: his family. “My family hardly ever look at my matches because it is a big pressure for them,’ said Kraljevo-born Aleksandar. “Even my father, who is my personal club coach and a former boxer, finds it too much to watch.”
The support of family and friends is of great importance to Aleksandar, especially when he is competing so far from home. “I am from a very normal family,’ he said. “I have a younger sister who is a great student. My father was a boxer but now he has his own firm and my mother works there, too. I am lucky that I don’t need to box for a living. I do it only because I love it. We are one loving family. I am proud of that.
Being from such a strong family can only make it more difficult when your career or sport takes you away from home for long periods, as Aleksandar explained. “This year, my training programme meant that I was only home maybe twenty days. That was probably the biggest challenge for me. I always miss family and close friends when I am away from home, but I use Facebook a lot. It helps very much to be in contact with friends and family and to show them a little spirit of the Games with photos and videos. Sometimes I miss Serbian cooking, too, but Facebook cannot help me with that.”
Twelve Years In The Wilderness
By qualifying for the London 2012 Olympic Games, Aleksandar is taking Serbia back into the Olympic ring for the first time since 2000. With so much attention being poured on him and the job he has done for Serbian boxing, Aleksandar is lucky to have such strong shoulders to take the strain. “I am proud to be representing my country, of course,’ he said. “But that responsibility does not weigh heavily on me because I feel that everything I achieve here is a bonus. I already make good result for the sport of boxing in Serbia. After 12 years away for the sport, I have made it possible for us to compete again in the biggest event there is, the Olympic Games.”
“Boxing is not as popular as football or basketball in Serbia but, by qualifying for the Games, it is going to become more popular than it is now, like it was before when we had a great champions. For sure people recognise me now more than before but that is not important. What is most important is to take this chance and to make a good result here and than my whole life will change.”
“I qualified for the Olympic Games in October, when I took fifth place at the World Championships in Baku, Azerbaijan. When I won my third fight against the Chinese boxer, I felt like this is what I have waited for my whole life. I couldn’t believe what I had done. Now that I am here, it is like a dream come true. I am at the Olympic Games! This is the crown of my boxing and sport career. When I walk into the Olympic Stadium at the Opening Ceremony, that will be the greatest moment of my life.”
Aleksandar recalls being inspired by another young boxer, Team GB’s Amir Khan, who won Olympic silver in 2004. Amir went into the Athens Games as an underdog but come out stronger. However, Aleksandar also believes that the British boxer’s glory days could be over. “I remember watching Amir Khan win silver,’ said Aleksandar. “He was the upset of the games. He was very young then and nobody believed he could take a medal. But he went all the way to the finals. He was great amateur and he made solid career. He was World Champion but I think that his best time passed. He still is a good boxer, but I think that his chin is not so good.”
Brushing off earlier injury worries, Aleksandar is keen to express that he is fighting fit and raring to get in the ring. “We had good preparations through the whole year,’ he said. “I had some problems with injuries but that is all in the past. I am in the best form in my life now and I expect a good result here.”
“My greatest competition will be Ievgen Khytrov,’ said Aleksandar. “He is World Champion in my weight and he beat me in the Quarter Finals of the World Championships before he went on to be the winner. I would like another chance to fight him – but in later rounds.”
Now that the time for training is over, Aleksandar has his sights set beyond the boxing ring and on the medal podium. “My dream is to take a medal, of course,’ he said. “No matter what colour, I want to win. But all I can do is give my best and I’ll have to see if that is enough to get a medal.”
Since becoming a member of Team Serbia, Aleksandar has also forged a strong friendship with fun-loving Serbian shooter Ivana Maksimovic. “Yes, I know her the best of all Serbian Olympians,’ said Aleksandar. “We first met on some Olympic ceremony in Belgrade in November. She was always smiling. She is a very nice girl and a very good friend. I am very happy that I know her. I wish her all the best at the Games.”
Sadly, one friend will not be waiting for Aleksandar when he returns home from London 2012: his pet dog. “I like dogs very much,’ he said. “I had a boxer but he died after six years. That was terrible. It felt like a member of the family had died.”
With Serbia’s lack of recent success in boxing, Aleksandar could not call on former boxers for Olympic guidance, due to boxing being a minority sport in Serbia. “I am the first boxer since 2000 to represent Serbia, so in my sport I don’t have somebody who can tell me about what to expect, to give me advice.”
Like many athletes, Aleksandar turns to music to set his mood before every performance. “I listen to rap music,’ he said. “My favourite is Serbia’s best hip hop group, Beogradski Sindikat. I listen to them all the time and their songs motivate me for good performance and encourage me to give my best. I will be listening to them in London, definitely.
“Everyone has their own way for preparing on the day. I am quite calm and relaxed and that is how I prepare for every challenge when it comes. But I am trying to learn from other great athletes here, too, like Novak Djovoković. I am trying to find my mental power like he has.”
Thankfully, Aleksandar has not had to only observe from afar. Since arriving in the Olympic Village, he has been one of the many athletes in the Olympic Village – and not only from Serbia – who has taken any opportunity to be photographed standing alongside his hero Novak Djoković.
Praise For The Olympic Village
The Olympic Village in London was not the first British stop-off for Aleksandar. Before joining Team Serbia in London, he flew to a training camp in Cardiff, Wales. “The AIBA organised a training camp and they invited us to be part of it,’ said Aleksandar. “I think it was good for me because I had good sparing partners from the whole world there. That helped to improve my skills and form for the games. I was also able to get used to the British weather.”
Despite arriving during some of the UK wettest months on record, Aleksandar was able to see some of the capital city. “I only had one day off but, thankfully, it was nice weather that day so I had time to see the city and take pictures of interesting places and sights,’ he said. “The city isn’t very big but it’s very pretty.”
Now that he has arrived in London, Aleksandar has had only good experiences and he is keen to praise the Olympic Village and other facilities laid on for athletes at London 2012. “Everything here is perfect,’ he said. “The rooms, the food, the look of the Village, the hospitality of volunteers, it is all great.”
On Thursday, he even found time to get away from the Olympic Village to see the sights of London, including a symbolic stop at the Olympic countdown clock, reminding him of just one day to go before the Opening Ceremony.
“This is my first time in London and, if I had time, I was looking forward to seeing everything,’ he said, with excitement. “I wanted to see it all, from Big Ben to Buckingham Palace, from Trafalgar Square to the London Eye, London is one of the most beautiful cities in Europe and I want to enjoy it while I can.”
He has not yet had built up the courage to take on other athletes in the private games room at the Olympic Village. “I love snooker,’ he said. “I would like to play but, for now, I just like to watch very much. My favourite player is Ronnie ‘the Rocket’ O’Sullivan.”
Ronnie is not the only one to have a nickname, as Aleksandar revealed. “My friends call me Sugar because of Sugar Ray Leonard,’ he said. “They say I box similar like he did. Also, everybody says that I don’t look like a boxer. I tell that is because I am so good, I don’t take many punches. So they called me Sugar and the name stuck.”
Aleksandar won his fight against Ecuador on Saturday night and is through to the final sixteen. “I appreciate all the incredible support, especially from my family, close friends and everyone at home in Vrnjačka Banja,’ said Aleksandar after the fight. “The town was on fire tonight! People stayed up to cheer me on in the small hours. I knew I must not disappoint people back home, especially as today was the my town’s slava. I had to give a good push to give them even more reason to celebrate!
“My fellow athletes here in the Village have been so supportive, especially the handball players who left a good luck card at my door. I am proud that I am part of this team, I am proud to be a Serb and I am a proud Banjcanin!”