The 32nd Summer Olympics in Tokyo, which were postponed for a year due to the pandemic, saw Serbian athletes win a record number of medals (3 gold, 1 silver, 5 bronze), while only a little was lacking for that success to have been much greater
The Tokyo Olympics represents the only Olympic Games in history to have been postponed for a year, the only ones to be held without spectators in attendance and the only Olympics to be staged under a special regime due to the COVID-19 Pandemic, which for the preceding year and a half impacted on the worldwide system of sporting competition and the system for qualification to participate in the Games.
All of this led to many athletes, sports experts and fans awaiting the Tokyo Olympics with a degree of scepticism, while there were even athletes who abandoned their trip to Tokyo and participation in the Games despite having qualified, and despite having spent an exceptional five years preparing.
We asked volleyball ace Vladimir Vanja Grbić, a three-time Olympian, Olympic champion from 2000 and Olympic bronze medallist from 1996, whether these factors ultimately had a negative impact on the quality of, and interest in, the Olympic competitions.
“No, they didn’t. But an Olympic Games with spectators isn’t the same as previous editions. However, the fact that one country, Japan, was nonetheless able to organise the Games under such conditions justifies the epithet ‘exceptional’.
These Games were also the “most democratic” to date, given that athletes from a record 206 countries and territories participated. Medals were won by Olympians from 86 countries – eight more than was the case in Rio – and in such fierce competition, the Serbian Olympic team’s record of three golds means it shares the ranking from 22nd to 32nd place, while it ranked 26th in terms of total medals (3 gold, 1 silver, 5 bronze), which is the best result since the country became independent. Does this confirm the “nation of sports” title that we gave ourselves, or do you think that we can and must do better?
I always observe the facts and try to be realistic. Considering the level of investment in Serbian sport, I think the result achieved in Tokyo is well beyond the realistic possibilities. If we add that a few more medals could have been expected – in judo, basketball, tennis, athletics or rowing – then we are talking about a potential that investing in would be fully justified.
France proved to be the most successful country in team sports in Tokyo, which was brought championship titles by its men’s and women’s handball teams and men’s volleyball team, silver by its men’s basketball team and women’s rugby-sevens team, and bronze by its women’s basketball team. Serbia, which was considered a superpower in team sports, can take pride in the gold won by its men’s water polo team, the bronze medals won by its women’s volleyball team and 3×3 basketball teams, as well as the women’s basketball team’s fourth place finish. The ladies and men’s handball teams, and the men’s football team, didn’t even come close to qualifying, while the men’s volleyball team also failed to quality, despite being European champions, as did the men’s basketball team, which is ranked second in Europe. Can we be represented in more team sports and more successfully in Paris in 2024, and will we be able to compete more convincingly with the French hosts?
The school sports programmes in France include the very sports in which they won medals in Tokyo. That’s why it comes as no surprise that they were so successful. We also used to have that… The approach must be much more serious in order for results to improve.
BEST OF THE BEST…
He was declared the country’s best athlete by the Yugoslav Olympic Committee twice, in 1996 and 2000, while he took the title of Best Volleyball Player in Europe in 2000, and made it into the FIVB world dream team in 2000 and 2006.
He entered the International Volleyball Hall of Fame in Holyoke (U.S.) in 2011, received the Fair Play Award of the Association of National Team Members in 2006 and was awarded the Order of Nemanja II Degree in 2000. He was proclaimed a Sports Ambassador of Yugoslavia, served as a UNICEF good will ambassador for Serbia and is now a global ambassador of the Special Olympics. He is a winner of the National Award for Special Contributions to the Development and Affirmation of Sport (2007).
His wife, Sara Perić, is a former university world champion in karate. Together they have three daughters and a son, while he is set to soon complete his doctoral studies at the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education of the University of Belgrade, where he graduated in 2014 and was an assistant professor in the subject of volleyball.
The IOC has left it up to international sports federations to decide the way countries qualify for the Olympic Games, and it thus differs from sport to sport. It seems that volleyball is the least fair, given that even continental champions aren’t exempt from qualifying. Could that be changed?
The qualification system has always been the same, and it is indeed unfair. However, if you want to go to the Olympics, you must beat the competition. The qualification system for Paris 2024 will be completely different. The best continental national teams and the nations with the best ranking, which is updated following each game, will participate in the Olympics.
We won medals in two of the five sports that made their Olympic debut. Jovana Preković became Olympic champion in karate, and the 3×3 basketball team won bronze after sustaining just one defeat. Skateboarders, surfers and sports climbers also appeared on the Olympic scene for the first time. How would you rate the IOC’s efforts to bring Olympism and sports closer to the youngest populations with the inclusions of these sports, as well as the fact that teenagers are now winning Olympic medals in gymnastics, diving, skating and other sports, despite the IOC having launched the Youth Olympic Games specifically for them in 2010?
That’s fine with me for some sports, but not for others. I’ve heard that the Paris programme will include breakdancing and omit karate. I wouldn’t like to comment on the criterion that guides IOC members in making such decisions.
Serbia’s colours were also defended in Tokyo by three athletes who took Serbian passports for the sole reason that they wanted to compete on the international stage and were unable to do so for their own countries, for various reasons. Apart from wrestler Zurab Datunashvili, a naturalised Georgian who won a bronze medal, there are also his compatriot and fellow wrestler Mikhail Kadzhaya and basketball reinforcement Yvonne Anderson, who hails from the U.S. How do you view this practise? Does it merely create a false image of the strength of our sport, or can it also have a positive influence on the development of our sporting scene?
In conversation with an acquaintance of mine from the World Volleyball Federation, we came up with an interesting perspective. Does the naturalisation of foreigners, which is a common occurrence in volleyball, send a message to children that they are not good enough? Is that a sign that coaches and sports federations aren’t interested in working with youngsters and educating them in the spirit of Olympism and patriotism, because we can opt for an easier solution and simply naturalise a player who was moulded by someone else? This is very widespread today. In my opinion, it’s not good. A club is one thing, but the national team is something completely different. I’m against it!
You were always considered a great motivator and the driving force behind every team in which you played. How do you view the psychological and motivational process of preparing for major competitions today, at a time when even the greatest champions in their sports – such as Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka or American gymnast Simone Biles – are unable to handle the pressure?
I noticed in the case of Biles that the complete attention and support for her statement about her “own mental health” as a reason for withdrawing from the competition aimed at justifying her inability to overcome anxiety. So… honestly… why did you even come to the Olympics? You took the place of someone who would have been ready to die just to make it to the games. That hypocrisy with support is nauseating. An Olympic champion has learned from an early age to give their all and to overcome and channel their fear. That’s why they became an Olympic champion. This is similar to the sharing of the gold medal in the men’s high jump event! But, wait. What kind of disrespect is this towards those who also competed? Let’s share the Olympic gold medals with everyone and make everyone happy, like the Norwegian approach to pedagogy. These are the Olympic Games! There is no sharing of gold medals. A misdirected topic in the glorifying of the wrong values.
We all feel fear that we won’t succeed in fulfilling our own expectations. And then our focus shifts to “mistakes”. The way to overcome this is to focus on the process and not the result. In the case of Simone Biles, unfortunately, she was consumed by fear and pressure. I’m sorry about that, but then you’re not the one.
Do you prefer a motivational speech or a sporting move like the one you pulled off in the final of the 2000 Sydney Olympics, when you leapt over advertising hoardings and photojournalists to return the ball to the court and even managed to put a block on Russian spiker Yakovlev and score points?
You can say whatever you want to an athlete as long as what you say is what you believe and as long as you act in accordance with what you say. Self-confidence is the most important factor in sport. And it is attained through training.
Vladimir Vanja Grbić, born 14th December 1970, together with his younger brother Nikola, followed in the footsteps of their father Miloš, who provided a great contribution to winning the first “major” medal for our volleyball team (bronze at the 1975 European Championships). And, just like their father, the brothers also ranked among our best volleyball players – not only of their own time, but of all time.
Vanja started his three-decade-long volleyball career (he was a professional for 21 years) as a nine-year-old back in 1979, at local club GIK Banat, and ended his playing days at Turkish club Fenerbahce in 2009, after having also played in Italy, Brazil, Japan, Greece and Russia, and won numerous trophies and titles.
He was a national champion with Novi Sad’s Vojvodina in 1989 and 1992, won the 1994 CEV Cup with Petrarca Volley Padua, the 1995 Italian Cup, 1996 Italian Super Cup, 1996 CEV Cup and European Super Cup and the 1997 Cup Winners’ Cup with Alpitour Cuneo, the 1997 Paulista Championship with Sao Paolo Report/ Suzano, the 2000 Italian championship and CEV Cup with Rome’s Piaggio Club, while ith Fenerbahce he won the 2008 Turkish Cup and Championship.
He played as a passer-side attacker in the national team for 16 years and was one of those most worthy of credit for the national team’s golden age, which was crowned with gold in the 2000 Sydney Olympics and also saw the country win bronze at the 1996 Atlanta Olympics, silver at the 1998 World Championships, gold in the 2001 European Championships, as well as European silver in 1997 and bronze in 1995 and 1999. Other major national team achievements include third place in the World Championships of 2001 and 2003, and second (2003) and third place (2002) in the World League.
After the victory in Sydney in 2000, you stated that you were dedicating the medal to your compatriots who were then on the streets of Serbia protesting against Milošević’s regime, but that statement didn’t get a mention in any media at the time. Many athletes, including your teammates, have started getting involved in politics over the past two decades, but not you. Why is that?
I honestly don’t believe that I said that, because none of my statements are politically tinged. I fight, and will always fight, for truth and justice, and I have no problem being alone on one side even though everyone else is on the other side.
I don’t wish to comment on athletes who’ve entered politics. I would only say that the naïve also do that. The place of athletes is in sport. Politics uses them for as long as it takes for their reputation to entice and attract the masses, then they are marginalised and declared unsuitable. It’s unfathomable to me that someone who has attained integrity and recognisability, and reached heights that are only reached by the best in the world, could allow themselves to be compromised with mediocrities “because that’s how it has to be”. Champ, you only have to die, and you set an example to children of how not to act, while you spit on everything you’ve achieved.
You served as vice president of the Volleyball Federation of Serbia and a member of the FIVB Commission for the Development of Volleyball Worldwide, while you are now dedicated to working with the youngest through your volleyball camp in Sokobanja.
After the Development Commission that I was a member of from 2006 to 2016, and the Sports Commission as Secretary General from 2016 to 2020, the FIVB entrusted me with the role of president of the Commission for the most important projects – strengthening national selections. Through this commission, we deal with strengthening national teams, both men’s and women’s, as well as development programmes for creating junior national selections and raising players through the system. I was primarily helped in this by the camp, which has been attended by 3,100 children from 37 countries on all continents, as well as the Faculty of Sports and Physical Education of the University of Belgrade, where I should earn my doctorate next month, thus becoming the first Olympic champion and Hall of Fame member to do so.
My further work will continue to focus on passing on my experience, knowhow and passion to new generations. That’s how the circle of an Olympic champion is closed with meaning, and his life has reason and justification to be dubbed a life worth living.
Photo: Pedja Milosavljevic