Serbia’s Paralympians Aim To Inspire A Generation

Olympic fever has taken hold and athletes lucky enough to qualify for a place in London are putting the finishing touches to their lengthy training programmes. With less than one hundred days until the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, we have become used to hearing the medal dreams of household names. The stories of Paralympians and the spirit of inspiration they embody are not heard so widely.

One such tale of coming back from defeat and committing to succeed regardless of what others say comes from Serbia’s Paralympic medal hope in women’s javelin, Tanja Dragić. When Tanja takes to the field in London’s Olympic Stadium, she will be battling memories of a trouncing in Beijing to prove her right to a Paralympic medal. Hers is one story among many of people who can inspire a generation.

Bojan Jaćimović, Secretary General of the National Paralympic Committee of Serbia was keen to share a story of determination, when he met W!LD RooSTeR at the committee’s Belgrade headquarters. “Tanja came back from Beijing without getting a result,’ he said. “In fact, she was last.

“Obviously she was very frustrated and the head coach suffered criticism from other members of our team. But he said, let her do her best and we will see her development. And it paid off. After the disappointment of Beijing, she won gold at the World Championships in 2011, setting a new world record with a result that was about 25% better than the previous record. She was very determined and used the frustration to drive her on to achieve what she wanted. And now she will have the chance to prove herself in London. We have a high hopes for her.”

Tanja is just one of many dreams for Serbia at the London 2012 Paralympic Games, as Bojan explained. “We have five or six really top level athletes competing at the Paralympics, in athletics and table tennis,’ said Bojan. “I hope that we can get four medals but we should get at least two minimum. That is being quite realistic. Obviously we would hope for more. When you take into account the pace of development in Paralympic sport, I would say that even one medal for a country as small as Serbia is a great success. We came home from Beijing with two silver medals, in table tennis and discus, and two fourth places. We can do even better this year.

“In athletics we have world record holders, and we have two top-level table tennis players. We will expect medals from some of them. Then we have a great shooter. He won gold medal at the World Championship in Croatia last year and then achieved the World record. We also have some good road cyclists and hopefully we will do quite well there too. So, as you see, I am quietly convinced of four as an absolute minimum. Now we just have to decide who will be the flag bearer at the front of the Serbian team. That will be the biggest fight we face, I think. Everyone wants that honour but only one can carry it.”

To compete with the best to medal-winning level, athletes need world class facilities and sufficient funding. That is not always easy to secure, said Bojan: “The quality of training in Serbia varies a lot. In sports such as table tennis, shooting and field athletics, where Serbia has a strong tradition inherited from the former Yugoslavia, training venues are quite good actually. But that is not the case in many other sports. For instance, in Serbia we don’t even have a proper velodrome so all our cyclists must compete in road races only.”

The London 2012 Paralympic Games will take place 29 August until 9 September, with athletes competing in twenty sports, including archery, shooting, football, cycling, judo, swimming, sailing and athletics. Of preparations for the Games, Bojan had only good reports. “My Chef de Mission has visited facilities in London and he tells me everything is perfect and seems very well organised. This is a huge event for Britain and for the sporting world.”

That is not to say that attending such a global event comes without a few hurdles. “Organisation is a little bit different compared to the Beijing 2008 Paralympic Games,’ Bojan said. “The timelines are quite different this time round. For example, we had to buy tickets and book hotel rooms for our officials last year but we would get the money from our ministry until this year. That has caused problems for us. It has been more than an inconvenience, it is true. But the organisers in London have been very understanding. We have been able to sign agreements and, of course, we will honour those. It just took a little creativity and good communication.”

Facilities at the Olympic Village in Stratford can only stretch so far, meaning that additional arrangements have to be made with the London Olympic Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (LOCOG), said Bojan: “Our athletes, coaches and technical staff will stay in the Olympic Village but, because capacity there is limited, some officials will have to stay in hotels outside the village. LOCOG have booked some very nice hotels, we have made choices from their recommendations according to our needs and funds. I am sure everything will be ready for when we arrive in London.”

There is a lot of work to be done before the athletes can move into the Olympic Village, and help is on hand to make the ride as smooth as possible, as Bojan explained: “Our situation worried me a bit at first because we did not have enough money available when they wanted it. They wanted us to commit to pay upfront. But LOCOG have been very helpful. We have very good communication with them and everything is possible. They help a lot by giving us advice and helping us to find a training camp, too.

“We are not a big team so we would like our athletes to be together, preparing at the same training venues. But it has been a little difficult to find venues that can cater for all sports. We have a mix of athletes in our team, including shooters, archers and cyclists. It has taken us time to find somewhere that could accommodate all of these sports in one place.

“Kindly, the British Government have donated £25k to all National Paralympic Committees with less than fifty athletes. That money is to help us prepare in Great Britain, to book hotels and use training facilities there. We should pay only air tickets and everything else will be covered. This is really nice. It helps us a lot. I know that we will make good use of that grant. Where would we be without it?”

Like all sports but perhaps greater than some, Paralympic athletes often face problems attracting sufficient cash to finance their training and compete against better funded national teams. “We have had a lot of trouble with funding, that is true,’ said Bojan. “Our needs are a lot bigger than the money we get from government. Paralympics is not profitable, of course, and we have really a lot of difficulties but somehow we manage. Very few people here in Serbia have enough money and Paralympic sports are not that important to them. That is a problem for us.

“We have support from our Ministry of Sport and athletes in Belgrade also get very good support from the City of Belgrade. Paralympic athletes are seen as quite the same as Olympic athletes in Belgrade, which is important for us. But outside Belgrade the situation is not very good. During previous years a lot of our athletes, including some from Vojvodina, were funded by local governments. But at the moment that is not the case. Local governments have a lot of trouble even funding their other needs. They have other priorities, I think. We have to be quite clever with our money.”

As well as local and national government grants, a little effort can access additional finance channels. “We got a promise from the British Ambassador about promoting the Paralympics in London, so we had a very nice reception at the residence of HE Michael Davenport,’ said Bojan. “That was very important for us because they invited a lot of people from the sporting establishment here in Serbia. They have a good PR office at the Embassy so the event received lots of coverage, including focus on our Paralympic athletes. That has helped us a lot and opened lots of doors. Everything helps.”

Public interest in the glamour of Olympic stars and national sporting heroes rarely reflects on paralympians, though, and the comparatively limited interest in Paralympic sport can be a barrier to greater funding, as Bojan explained: “I hope that during this year we will get more support, but I am not wholly sure about the sensibility of the Serbian public towards Paralympic sports. They know much more than they did five years ago but there are a lot of troubles everywhere so they do not see the Paralympics as a priority. That is unfortunate for us, of course. I hope that people and our government realise the importance of this kind of promotion of Serbia. Competing at this level is very important to us as a country. By winning more medals and creating success stories, we will see the change we need.”

·      London 2012 Paralympic Logo and the Mandeville mascot used under editorial policy of London 2012.

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