Most Southeast European states and Turkey have limited winter sport infrastructure, which has led to disputes between sport associations and some of the region's top athletes.
By Igor Jovanovic for Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 10/02/14
The bobsled track that was used for the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo is among the sport facilities that have fallen into decay. [Bedrana Kaletovic/SETimes]
For 17 days this month, the eyes of world sport fans will be focused on Sochi, Russia, and the 2014 Winter Olympics. Southeast Europe and Turkey are represented by 89 athletes, with most nations sending small contingents.
Only Romania, Croatia and Bulgaria have a double-digit number of competitors in Sochi, as countries across the region contend with limited resources to fund winter sports infrastructure and training facilities.
In numerous cases, athletes from the region travelled abroad to train, and one of Southeast Europe's most successful winter sport athletes is representing a different country than he did four years ago.
Jakov Fak, who won a bronze medal for Croatia in the 15-kilometre biathlon event at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, will compete in the Sochi Olympics for Slovenia, which offered better training opportunities.
With the exception of Croatia, Southeast European countries do not have significant track records in winter sport, hence little money is set aside for infrastructure and the athletes competing in such disciplines.
The Serbian Olympic team has eight athletes in five sports in Sochi. Serbia has never won a Winter Olympic medal, and Minister of Sports Vanja Udovicic, a former water polo player and winner of several medals in world competitions, acknowledged the country's shortcomings.
He promised to work on securing the best possible conditions for the work of top athletes.
"The shortage of funds is always a problem, but we will try to invest as much as we can in the reconstruction of existing facilities and the construction of new ones, as that is a prerequisite for excellent results in sports," Udovicic told SETimes.
But it is already too late for the Sochi Olympics. Due to the lack of funds for training, Serbian skiers Nevena Ignjatovic and Milanko Petrovic had a conflict with the Ski Association of Serbia. The two athletes said in a joint statement that they didn't have enough money for even the basic preparation, despite having won gold medals for Serbia at the Universiade in Trentino, Italy, an international Olympic-style event held in December.
"Those medals represent our success and reflect our faith in our own abilities. To the same extent they represent a defeat of the Ski Association of Serbia, which has, even though we are the best competitors it has, invested minimal funds in us, in relation to the estimated and approved value of our programs," the two skiers said in a statement.
Dimitrije Paunovic, president of the Ski Association of Serbia, said the athletes' requests were unrealistic because the association did not have enough money. According to published reports, Ignjatovic was seeking 45,000 euros.
"The Ski Association of Serbia can finance only a program that is in line with its capacity. The requests we received from Nevena Ignjatovic's team management are unrealistic," Paunovic said.
Romania has the region's largest Sochi contingent with 24 athletes, but the country also has a poor winter sports infrastructure, most of it having been rehabilitated for the European Youth Olympic Winter Festival hosted by the city of Brasov last February.
"Romania has never been a force in winter sports," Adrian Dobre, a sports commentator with Sport1 TV channel, told SETimes. "With few exceptions, Romanian athletes' presence at major international competitions ended in nothing. If before 1989 there were several ski and bobsled tracks and skating rinks, over the course of 23 years little has been built. There is a single ski jumping track and a biathlon track, the latter built by a businessman with his own money."
Although Croatia had skiing champions and successes in biathlon in the past, it is now also facing infrastructure problems. Fak's decision to take Slovenian citizenship was partly motivated by the opportunity for better training conditions in Slovenia.
Robert Kontak, secretary general of the Croatian Biathlon Association, told SETimes that his athletes face many obstacles.
"Conditions for development and biathlon training in Croatia are at the level of the minimal criteria, which means that training sessions are held in harsh and difficult conditions, as are domestic competitions. For international competition, we cannot meet the requirements," he said.
"The basic and crucial problem, which determines the future of Croatian biathlon, is the absence of stadium infrastructure. The Croatian Biathlon Association cannot significantly influence this issue," Kontak said.
He added that another significant problem is ownership of sport facilities, such as the biathlon centre on the Drgomalj Delnica hill, which is owned by the Croatian army.
Numerous impressive winter sport facilities were built on Bjelasnica, Jahorina, Igman and Trebevic mountains in Sarajevo for the 1984 Olympics. But today, many of those facilities are in a dilapidated state. One of the icons of the Olympic Winter Games, the bobsled and luge track on Trebevic, now stands forgotten and abandoned. Many of the facilities became artillery strongholds during the war in the 1990s and a target of frequent vandalism during the last 20 years. Some areas of the Igman and Bjelasnica mountains still pose a landmine risk.
Despite having many times more population than its Southeast European neighbours, Turkey also has struggled to gain a foothold in Winter Olympic competition. Turkey, which has never won a Winter Olympic medal, has six athletes in Sochi, but has sent only a combined 16 athletes to the previous five Winter Games.
While Turkey does enjoy a stronger reputation in the summer events, officials who gathered at a recent conference on the state of the country's sport landscape said insufficient and inadequate facilities played a key role in Istanbul's unsuccessful bid to host the 2020 Summer Games.
Turkey's Sport Ministry recently began opening 12 athletic preparatory centres, and the government will team with Hacettepe University to open a sport science institute within two years.
Upon the opening of the first of the preparatory centres, Suat Kilic, Turkey's minister of youth and sport, said the country should begin to see the benefits of the facilities in upcoming Olympics.
"After 2024, we will witness an Olympic revolution," he said.
Macedonia, which has just one Olympic medal -- a silver for wrestler Mogamed Ibragimov in the 2000 Sydney Games -- is also trying to boost investment in sport infrastructure.
Many sport halls, swimming pools, trails and stadiums in the country have been neglected, especially in smaller towns. That has forced the most successful Macedonian athletes to spend time abroad preparing ahead of every major sporting event, including the country's 2014 Olympians.
Nordic skiers Darko Damjanovski and Marija Kolaroska were training in Italy, and alpine skier Antonio Ristevski spent the last few weeks in Croatia, Slovenia and Austria.
But in recent years the Macedonian government has been trying to change this picture and increase the investment in sport facilities. A few major projects are under way for building 35 large sports halls, 50 football fields, 145 school sport halls and 100 tennis courts. Also, the biggest sports facility, the National arena Philip II in Skopje, has been completely renovated.
Nations can obtain some financial assistance through the International Olympic Committee's Olympic Solidarity Commission, which aims to help athletes and national Olympic committees (NOCs). However, Olympic Solidarity does not finance sport infrastructure, instead providing assistance for the development of training, coaches and national committee management that promotes Olympic values. Athletes and coaches can apply for financial help exclusively through the NOCs.
Sheikh Ahmad Al-Fahad Al-Sabah, chairman of the Olympic Solidarity Commission, said athletes were the priority in the programme's 2013-2016 quadrennial plan.
"The athletes are at the heart of our priorities, as they represent the final link in the chain. To this end, Olympic Solidarity's objectives are to help the NOCs to build or develop an appropriate environment to allow the athletes to progress. This can be achieved by strengthening the structure of the NOCs so that they have the necessary tools to develop sport in their country, to improve the level of coaches and to promote the Olympic values," he said in an interview with Olympic Solidarity magazine.
The development and assistance budget approved by the Olympic Solidarity Commission for 2013-2016 was $438 million. It is based on income from the sale of TV rights for the 2012 London Olympics, the estimated revenue from the Sochi Games, plus interest from future investments. Through this programme, athletes around the world should gain $73 million with another $27 million for coaches.
Correspondents Biljana Lajmanovska in Skopje, Bedrana Kaletovic in Sarajevo, Kruno Kartus in Osijek and Paul Ciocoiu in Bucharest contributed to this report.
What would you like to see your country do to expand sport infrastructure? Share your thoughts in the comments section.