BELGRADE (Reuters) - Love, not money, has kept Serbia’s top volleyball player Ivan Miljkovic on track for his third Olympic Games.
Even before the former Yugoslavia broke apart in a series of bloody conflicts, volleyball could never match the financial rewards offered in the far more popular team sports of soccer and basketball.
During the war-torn 1990s, less money than ever was available to top-level athletes in an economy ravaged by political strife and international isolation.
Despite the difficult circumstances, Miljkovic decided to fulfill his talent and became one of volleyball’s top outside hitters.
“One could certainly expect better facilities in western Europe but my love for the sport and my determination to achieve my objectives kept me going,” said Miljkovic.
“When I was in primary school, I really enjoyed swimming, tennis and handball too,” he said.
”But I always loved volleyball more than any other sport and I honestly believe that complete and unequivocal commitment is a basic prerequisite for success whatever you do for a living.
“I am also very keen on history as a topic. The History of the Serbian People is one of my favorite books and it motivates me to play my heart out for my country,” said Miljkovic, who plays his club volleyball for Italian league leaders Roma Volley.
Miljkovic, who is 2.07 meters tall and is also very effective as a blocker, has already had a trophy-laden career.
After starting to play as a teenager in his hometown of Nis, he steered the former Serbia & Montenegro state union to Olympic gold at the 2000 Games in Sydney as a 20-year-old.
He guided the team to the European champions’ title in 2001 and won a haul of major domestic and international honors with Lube Banca Marche Macerata, his former club in Italy.
At the 2004 Athens Olympics, Serbia & Montenegro were eliminated by Russia in the quarter-finals after the team were hit by a virus, which put Miljkovic in hospital.
Serbia, who won the bronze medal at last year’s European Championship in Russia in their first international outing as an independent nation, qualified for August’s Olympics in Beijing in dramatic fashion.
They fought back from two sets down to beat European champions Spain 3-2 in the final of a tournament in Izmir, Turkey, last month with only the winners going through automatically to the 12-team event in China.
Once again, it was Miljkovic who led the Serbian comeback and he is now dreaming of more Olympic glory even though he knows it is going to be a tall order.
”It will be difficult to win a medal because there will be so many good teams it’s frightening. The Olympics is the most fiercely contested competition of all because only the best teams qualify.
“But we see ourselves as medal contenders of course and we are all dreaming of a podium finish. We know it’s not going to be easy but it never is.”
The Beijing Games may well be the last Olympic roar for Miljkovic and two other stalwarts, captain Nikola Grbic and middle blocker Andrija Geric, who have been instrumental in their country’s success over the past 13 years.
“Grbic is 35 and I think this will be his last Games. I don’t know how long Geric will go on for while I will play as long as my body is in shape,” Miljkovic said.
”It will be my third Olympics and the first for the other lads who have done so well to fill the gaps so quickly and I know just how excited they are.
“It’s a dream come true for them and they’ve earned it.”
Serbia’s hopes in Beijing will once again largely rest on Miljkovic’s powerful hits into the opposition half but he believes his team mates are ready to pull just as much weight.
“They showed so much guts and composure in the nerve-racking qualifying final against Spain and last year’s Euros in Russia, hence I am completely confident we won’t let ourselves down.”
Editing by Clare Fallon