The Olympic Games are probably the only place where the entire world can watch a small and seemingly weak competitor beat its big and seemingly strong opponent.
Olympic history is full of such examples.
Spiridon Louis did it in the first Olympic marathon race in 1896. Jesse Owens did it to the Germans in 1936. The Soviet Union did it to the Americans in basketball in the 1988 semifinal, and later went on to beat Yugoslavia in the gold medal match. Anthony Nesty of Suriname did it to United States' Matt Biondi at 100 meters butterfly in Seoul.
The Sydney 2000 Games were no different. Its volleyball tournament will always be remembered after one nation that claimed gold against all odds—Yugoslavia.
The leaders Nikola and Vladimir Grbic, the superstar-on-the-rise Ivan Miljkovic, the server Goran Vujevic, and the coach who brought Yugoslav volleyball international stardom Zoran Gajic, were just some of the faces who sang Yugoslavia’s national anthem Hej, Sloveni (Hey, Slavs) on October 1 in Australia.
In the finals, the Yugoslavs obliterated the Russians in three straight sets—25:22, 25:22, and 25:20. Miljkovic, who scored the last point, dropped on his knees at the end to thank God for the golden moment. Vladimir Grbic waved the Blue, White, and Red flag and screamed on top of his lungs, “This is what we fight for!”
On that early Tuesday morning in Yugoslavia, the entire country was up on its feet.
However, though a gold medal itself was a tremendous feat, the road which the Yugoslavs had to overcome was even more admirable.
In 1999, the entire country had been bombarded by NATO airplanes from March 24 until June 10. The strikes were supposed to prevent further escalation of violence in the region of Kosovo. The estimated damage Yugoslavia suffered ranged from $20 to $100 billion. The country’s infrastructure had been completely destroyed, and its economy had come to a halt.
Yugoslavia withdrew its players from the volleyball World League in 1999 due to the crisis. However, they managed to take part at the European Volleyball Championship in Austria in September, where they won bronze behind Italy and Russia.
The year 2000 was a hallmark year in Yugoslavia’s politics due to national presidential elections. At the time, the country had been torn apart between the communist leader Slobodan Milosevic and the democratic candidate Vojislav Kostunica.
September was the month set for the elections, and the nation’s eyes were focused as much on that as they were on the Sydney Olympics. Milosevic’s victory would bring another four years of isolation, while Kostunica’s would lead to the much needed economic reforms and help from abroad.
Weeks before the elections, police were beating the citizens who were protesting Milosevic, or who simply had a different opinion on issues from the leader. People feared the future. The country was ruled by chaos.
The Olympic Games were seen as a way to shift the focus from the harsh, mundane reality.
Going into the Olympic year, Yugoslav volleyball team represented a venerable opponent. They were the reigning world vice champions from the 1998 Championships, and bronze medalists from the 1999 European Championship and the 1996 Atlanta Olympic Games.
Two months before the start of the Olympics, Yugoslavia was fourth at the Final Six World League tournament in the Netherlands. Ahead of them were Italy, Russia, and Brazil, while the Netherlands and the USA finished fifth and sixth.
Despite their biggest success in the World League to that point, very few people believed that they could win the Games, simply because they had never won a major tournament, and the country had been through a lot of turmoil for the past two years.
When Sydney Olympics started, it seemed that the Yugoslavs would quickly go down in flames. In their first game, they lost to Russia 1-3, although they won the first set 25-19. Then Italy beat them two days later 2-3 after a nerve-racking 20-22 fifth set.
At the beginning of the third round, they were at the bottom of the group, and in a spot to play against either the reigning Olympic champions the Netherlands or the fierce Brazil, who was thirsty to reclaim the gold won in 1992.
However, the Yugoslavs still had to beat at least two teams from their Group B in order to secure the spot in the quarterfinals.
The games against the United States and Argentina were won 3-0 and 3-1 respectively, and the playoffs were secured. The last group match against South Korea showed a lot of insecurity amongst the Yugoslavs, but taking into consideration that coach Gajic rested his most important players, the hard(ly)-earned 3-2 victory wasn’t much a surprise.
What the Yugoslavs did from the quarterfinals on was a true example of determination, devotion, and desire to give their absolute best to the audience at the Games and to a country they represented.
Finishing third in the group, they were faced against the Netherlands in the next round. The Dutch were the defending Olympic champions, and a team against whom the Yugoslavs always lost at major competitions. The biggest, and probably the most unfair loss, was that at the 1997 European Championship final in Rotterdam, when the Dutch, aided by a few bad referee calls, were able to win the title 3-1.
This time, it was going to be different.
After a five-set, 226-point game, the Olympic champion was brought down on its knees 3-2 (25-21, 18-25, 25-18, 30-32, 17-15). Thanks to relentless block and unbelievable play in the field and on the serve, the Yugoslavs marched on to face the Italians in the semis.
This was the second time in a row that Yugoslavia eliminated a reigning Olympic champion in the quarterfinals, having beaten Brazil four years earlier in Atlanta.
In the 1990s, the Italian national team was considered to be the best team that has ever played volleyball. From 1989 until 2000, they had won eight World League, four European, and three World Championship titles.
However, they have never succeeded to win a gold Olympic medal. In 1996, they lost the final to the Netherlands, and 2000 was considered to be their turn to climb the highest podium spot.
But, it wasn’t meant to be.
The underdogs proved from the start that their loss in the second match of the group stage belonged to the past. Andrija Geric’s blocks, Vujevic’s serves, Nikola Grbic’s set-ups, Miljkovic’s spikes, and Vladimir Grbic’s leadership completely demoralized the reigning World, European, and World League champions in the first two sets. The Yugoslavs came back from behind in both of those, and won them 27-25 and 34-32 respectively.
The Italians, powerless to do anything, watched their heated opponents kill the balls one after another in the third set, ending the game in a 25-14 blowout. Yugoslavia was going to be playing for the gold against the Russians.
At the time, Russian volleyball was on the rise. They didn’t win recent European or World Championship medals, and their best result was a World League silver medal two months before the Olympics. Russia and Yugoslavia played in Atlanta four years before in the bronze medal match, and Yugoslavia won 3-1.
For the first time in Sydney, Yugoslavia was given even chances of winning the Olympics as their opponents.
However, in that October 1 final, only one team existed on the field—Yugoslavia.
The Yugoslavs were able to recover almost every ball, were able to spike almost every ball, and were able to block almost any attacks the Russians had prepared.
In spite of bad set beginnings, thanks to the tandem Vladimir Grbic-Miljkovic, the Yugoslavs were leading 2-0 after only 46 minutes of play. Similarly to the Italians two days before, the Russian had started to feel the pressure. However, it had been too much for them to handle.
One could say that the game ended when the second technical time-out was called.
With the score 15-12 for Yugoslavia, Roman Iakovlev served a 113 km/h (70 mph) rocket. It hit one of the defensive players, and was going out of bounds.
Vladimir Grbic jumped over the commercials to return the ball into play. The Russians had a counter-attack. The ball was set for Iakovlev. In the meantime, Grbic came back on the field. Iakovlev spiked. Grbic BLOCKED!!!
The entire Yugoslav bench jumped on its feet, as if though it was all over! But, they settled down and went on a well deserved break. Their thoughts were focused on only one thing—how to win nine points more.
The last point, the one before Grbic started waving the flag, came from the youngest player on the team, and who is still one of the best players in the world—Ivan Miljkovic.
Guerassimov served the ball! Vladimir Grbic absorbed it. Nikola set to Vladimir, but the ball was blocked. Defense picked it up, Nikola back set to Miljkovic on the right. Miljkovic spiked it diagonally! It’s all over!!!
It was all over!
Zoran Gajic threw his papers in the air, Miljkovic dropped down on his knees, Vladimir went to pick up the flag, the Grbic brothers embraced, and the entire country celebrated a gold medal. In what was probably the shortest volleyball final in the Olympic tournament history (lasted only 68 minutes), Yugoslavia claimed the gold that October 1!
That was the last time the world heard the anthem Hej, Sloveni play at the Olympics. The players returned to their politically-torn country as mere passengers, not as nation’s heroes. There was no reception in front of the National Parliament in Belgrade, like the custom had been in the years past. Instead, the nation flooded the streets to protest the elections and demand the communist president to admit the loss.
However, the unjust reception was corrected in 2001. The volleyball players got one worthy of gods after winning a gold medal at the European Championship in Czech Republic. The nation took to the streets once again, but this time, to welcome their heroes back home.
Thus Yugoslavia, like so many other before it, earned the golden medal at the Olympics.
The 2000 Games will forever remember a country which, despite war, political crises, economic struggles, and odds, managed to chisel its name in the history of the Olympics—a nation that conquered the Olympus in Sydney!