An elderly man and a pre-teen girl are standing on a branch. A few meters from them, a well dressed man in his late seventies is trying to climb a 6 foot tall wall and refusing help from a young guy watching him struggle in disbelief. In the back a group of people with disabilities are waving flags, while thousands of children perched on their parents’ shoulders are watching the spectacle, some fencing with Serbian flags. Even the quirkily dressed people who attended the a big exhibition opening are standing outside, clutching their cheap white wine, listening to Serbian pop and rap.
The tradition of “Doček”, grand welcomes for Serbian athletes returning from major sporting events begun while Serbia was still part of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, just after our boys snagged the gold medal against Lithuania in European Basketball Championships in Athens in 1995, after several years of harsh sporting sanctions.
Since then it became a quintessential Belgrade experience and the closest thing to a triumphal parade in Roman and Ancient Greek cities. It is truly a cohesive experience where people of all walks of life come together to celebrate sporting excellence and, more abstractly, the spirit of perseverance that is requisite when you are from a small, relatively poor, nation and want to achieve something big.
This year, when Novak Đoković showed up on the balcony of the first Serbian Royal Palace (now Belgrade City hall) to celebrate his 24th Grand Slam title, he was in tears, hugging our men’s basketball team who returned after placing second in the World Championships. Everybody who was standing triumphant on that balcony suffered on their way to the top. Boriša Simanić, a 25 year old basketball squad member, lost a kidney after a nasty foul in a match, which resulted in the whole team scrambling to ensure he gets good care in Manila. Đoković was de facto banned from playing the US Open in 2022 for his stance on compulsory vaccination. “Being here means so much now, because I used to be down there, cheering for our sportspeople”, Đoković said during his short speech from the balcony. “No other sporting nation has this spirit, long live Serbia”, he concluded still tearful.