Isaac Kiprono of Kenya in Belgrade (lfipa) © Copyright
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Belgrade Marathon back on course with Isaac Kiprono as favourite

Belgrade, Serbia and Montenegro  Throughout the 1990s, just about the only good news to come out of war-torn Yugoslavia was the Belgrade Marathon. Against all the odds - sanctions, closure of the airport, strict visa controls, raging inflation and general mayhem - the organisers kept both the marathon and the elite Belgrade Race Through History on the road.

Returning after troubled times

Then when everything seemed ripe to develop the event at the turn of the century, a dispute between the organisers and the city council threw the race off course for three years. But, after protracted negotiations, and the backing of the IAAF and AIMS, the original organisers are back in the driving seat, and so eager to prove their worth that they have managed to get the marathon back on the road inside just two months. And also to get an impressive array of sponsors to back them.

The race is now entitled the Belgrade Delta Sports Marathon, and the team led by Dejan Nikolic is working flat-out to make this 18th edition of the event a success. Nikolic's big coup was to get as president of the new company Alexandr "Sasha" Djordjevic, probably the biggest sports star in Serbia, captain of a national basketball team which won Olympic, world and European titles.

"It was a combination of having the IAAF and AIMS behind us, then someone like Sasha backing us that won the day," says Nikolic. "We are at the beginning of a new era. I'm not saying that everything will be perfect this time round, given the short lead-in, but we'll be aiming to do better with October's Race Through History. Nevertheless, it would be nice to get a new men's course record (currently 2:12:27)".

Isaac Kiprono is fastest entrant

Favourite to do that is Isaac Kiprono of Kenya, whose recent performance was second in Padova, Italy last year, but whose fastest time came in Rotterdam 2001, when he ran 2.09.59 for fifth. Isaac is the younger brother of Josephat Kiprono (2.06.50 in Berlin), and Luke Kibet (2.11:13).

It's not the Kenyan way to make predictions, but Kiprono ventured, "If the temperature and pacing is good, I would hope to run fast". Among the other Kenyans present, the consensus is that Onesmus Kilonzo, second in Beijing 2002 is the man in form.

Fred Lebow Trophy

The winner will receive the Fred Lebow Trophy, named after the founder of the New York Marathon, who was born in nearby Transylvania, and who was a big supporter of Belgrade's development. There is a parallel trophy for local runners, named after Franjo Mihalic, Olympic Marathon silver medallist in 1956, and the only Serbian winner of the International Cross Country the following year. Mihalic is 85, and competed in the 10k fun-run until his late seventies.

Marathon week began last Saturday with the Children's Race, 200 metres around the Elephant Compound at Belgrade Zoo. Eighteen thousand five and six year olds from every kindergarten in the city compete in knock-out tournaments in preceding weeks, and 150 went into the grand final, with Nikola Kaip sprinting out the winner.

Ottey in VIP role

Belgrade has a long tradition of inviting former athletics stars - not necessarily marathoners - as guests. And luminaries from Mihalic's great rival Emil Zatopek to Bob Beamon and Sergey Bubka have enjoyed Balkan hospitality. This year's eagerly anticipated arrival is sprinter Merlene Ottey, now living in and competing for neighbouring Slovenia. Unlike her erstwhile rival, Florence Griffith-Joyner, who once rashly predicted that she would run a marathon, Ottey resolutely says, "No way, it's 42 kilometres too far". Fortunately, there will be thousands in Belgrade this weekend who will demonstrate otherwise.

Pat Butcher for the IAAF