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Belgrade, Thursday, April 20, 1000gmt


It’s not very often that you see the likes of Bob Beamon, Mike Powell and Javier Sotomajor headlining a marathon preview, but the boys in Belgrade have, with some notable exceptions, had to make a virtue of their lack of elite runner star appeal, due to the major problems they have had in maintaining a presence on the streets of the Serbian capital.

That the Belgrade Marathon has survived to celebrate its 30th birthday this coming Saturday (22nd) is something of a minor miracle in itself, as well as being a tribute to the tenacity of Race Director Dejan Nikolic and his team. During that time, they have also staged, albeit sporadically the hugely popular Belgrade Race Through History, so called by dint of being run around the ancient Kalemegdan Fortress which stands on the confluence of the Danube and Sava Rivers, which marks the old borders between West and East.

While the Race Through History has featured stars like Paul Tergat and Stephen Cherono, aka Saif Saaeed Shaheen, the Belgrade Marathon itself has endured the economic deprivation which accompanied the Balkan conflict and its aftermath. Indeed, the 1999 event was run by a few dozen hardy souls during the period of bombardment of Belgrade by NATO forces. There followed another trauma when Nikolic and crew had to suffer the intense City of Belgrade politicking which saw the race ‘stolen’ from them by political rivals a decade ago. They finally managed to retrieve it; and duly celebrate their 30th edition on Saturday.

Belgrade has had nothing like the budget enjoyed by events in similar sized cities throughout Europe, but they have enthused their national media and citizens with an unusual initiative, that of inviting stars of world athletics – not necessarily marathoners – to be ‘promoters’ of the race. This year’s 30th omnibus edition thus sees a collective invitation, accepted by Beamon, Powell, Sotomajor, Lasse Viren, Rosa Mota, Galina Chistyakova, Kevin Young and Stefano Baldini. The current and former world record holders and/or Olympic champions will be making personal appearances and conducting seminars for senior and junior athletes.

As for the marathon itself, the tough course has been slightly modified this year, to take in the spectacular new bridge over the Sava River, which also flies over the eco-island of Ada Ciganlija. Local hero Olivera Jevtic will make her 13th appearance in either the half or the marathon. Now in her maturity, she is unlikely to challenge the women’s record of 2.29.44 by Romania’s Cristina Pomacu, set in 2001. Likewise, Kenyan Japhet Kosgei’s 2.10.54, from 2006 is set to last another year.

Having retrieved their asset, the organisers are making a big push to popularise the event. Competitor numbers in the half-marathon and marathon are already almost twice what they were two years ago, with over 7000 expected on the streets of the Serbian capital on Saturday.

Another initiative, long lauded by the European Athletics Association, has been the Children’s Marathon, all 230 metres of it, run around the Elephant Enclosure at Belgrade Zoo, usually the weekend before the marathon. In the 23 years of its existence, close to 400,000 youngsters up to the age of ten have been introduced to competitive running. This year, the Children’s Race is to be next Saturday, April 29. Target for this year’s competitor in the new course record of exactly 36sec, by last year’s winner Andrej Nikolic, who broke a 20 year old mark.