Aleksandra Vojneska Zikova, President of the North Macedonia Athletics Federation (© European Athletics)
Even though North Macedonia has only existed as an independent country since 1991 – and has used its current name internationally only since 2018 – the athletics federation celebrated its centenary this year.
In 1920, what is now modern day North Macedonia was part of what was then named the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, an entity created out of the upheavals of two Balkan Wars, World War I and the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire during the second decade of the 20th century.
In such a climate, the opportunity to organise athletics competitions in the conventional sense were very limited but informal activities certainly did take place in the towns and villages.
The North Macedonian athletics historian Miroslav Boskovic has noted that the first competition for which reliable data still exists was a 500m race in 1924 held in the streets of what is now the country’s capital Skopje and which featured competitors from three local clubs.
Slowly, athletics started to take a foothold over the following 20 years and competitions continued to be held during World War II despite occupation by the Axis powers.
After the end of World War II, with Macedonia now incorporated into Yugoslavia, an improvement in physical culture became part of government policy and athletics quickly became a popular sport.
Bare feet but big crowds
Sports clubs in all the major towns and cities across Macedonia created specific athletics sections and, as Boskovic notes: “Athletic competitions in the post-war years were massively watched by the citizens, some of them had audiences of five or six thousand.”
Despite the growing enthusiasm, performances were still modest, no doubt more than in part because of the rudimentary facilities, a lack of equipment and proper apparel – athletes wearing spikes or even canvas training shoes were far from the norm – and little opportunity to train properly in a region still recovering from the ravages of the global conflict, with competitions often being held in meadows rather than stadia.
“On August 21, 1946, the city championship of Skopje was held where several good results were achieved: in the 100 metres race the best was Slavko Matovski with a result of 11.8. The best in 1500m was Lazo Milosevski with a result of 4:51,” writes Boskovic in one of his many erudite essays.
By comparison, the slowest competitors in those events at the European Athletics Championships in Oslo a few days later were 11.2 and 4:10.8 respectively.
Nevertheless, performances did steadily improve and the period between 1947 and 1954 also saw inter-republic matches between Macedonia, Serbia, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Montenegro.
Milosevski makes his mark
The versatile Milosevski soon found he had greater prowess over shorter distances and became the first Macedonian to go under 50 seconds for one lap of the track. In 1947, he was part of the Yugoslav 4x400m team that won at the Balkan and Central European Games in Bucharest and he also went on to win Yugoslav titles in the 200m and 400m.
At the 1950 European Athletics Championships in Brussels, he became the first Macedonian athlete to participate at the European Athletics Championships.
Milosevski went on to also find fame as a sports journalist and the annual Memorial Meeting Lazo Milosevski inaugurated in 1965, North Macedonia’s premier one-day meeting, is named after him.
For the rest of the 1950s, Macedonia’s most successful athletes were long distance runners, notably Ljubisa Trboevski who was a regular member of Yugoslavian teams and, for a time, in the latter part of the decade was thought of as the second-best distance runner in the country behind the formidable 1956 Olympic Games marathon silver medallist and 1958 Boston Marathon winner Franjo Mihalic.
The 1950s was also the era in which Yugoslav national championships were sometimes held in Skopje, as well as the 1955 Balkan Cross Country Championships, and thousands would turn out to watch the top Yugoslav runners of that era, especially if Mihalic was advertised as competing, despite the fact that local Macedonian successes were unlikely.
Turning the clock forward a little more than a decade and perhaps the best ever female athlete in the history of Macedonian athletics emerged in the shape of the sprinter Vera Veljanovska, who still holds the national 100m and 200m records almost 50 years after establishing them.
Veljanovska finished sixth in the 1973 European U20 200m, a race won by East Germany’s four-time Olympic gold medallist Barbel Wockel, although unlike the winner Veljanovska never really fulfilled her youthful promise and her international career had fizzled out by the time Eckert won the 1976 Olympic Games 200m gold medal.
Macev nearly gets a medal
However, in 1988 a Macedonia sprinter finally did make it to the Olympics in the famous blue vest of former Yugoslavia when Ismail Macev contested the 400m and 4x400m in Seoul.
Macev – who sadly died of lung cancer in January last year at the age of 59 – has a good claim to be the greatest ever athlete produced by Macedonia, competing not only in Seoul but also at three European Athletics Championships and the 1991 World Athletics Championships, where he ran the third leg on Yugoslavia’s 4x400m team that just missed out on the medals when finishing fourth.
North Macedonia – or Former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia as it was known until 2018 – first sent athletes to the 1993 World Athletics Championships and 2000 Olympic Games as an independent nation but success has been very modest and the country is still seeking its first individual finalist in a senior global or continental competition.
However, a glimmer of hope that barren streak may come to an end arrived last year with the emergence of sprinter Jovan Stojoski.
Stojoski sets the standard
Stojoski twice reduced the 200m national record to its current mark of 21.32 and reached the final of the European Athletics U23 Championships 400m, an event at which he holds the national U23 record of 46.92.
Next year will see Stojovski bid to improve on Macev’s national record over one lap of the track which has stood at 46.27 since 1983 and, looking into the crystal ball, who knows what he could achieve at the Munich 2022 European Athletics Championships.
North Macedonian athletics has also been given a boost by the commitment of the national federation to bringing international events to the country in recent years.
After deteriorating for almost two decades since Yugoslavia disintegrated, Skopje's Toše Proeski National Arena – which is primarily the 33,460-capacity national football stadium – underwent a major reconstruction and expansion which included the laying of a new athletics track and adding facilities, and opened for business again in July 2012.
The stadium has since played host to the 2014 European 10,000m Cup and 2019 European Athletics Team Championships Third League and further international competitions are planned.
Phil Minshull for World Athletics Heritage