Dragutin Topic: I am a perfectly happy man
The man who holds the national record in high jump, an athlete who’s held the world junior record and a trainer who prepares the younger generations for great heights. Dragutin Topic in his youth dreamt of studying history or archeology. Instead of studying it, he became a part of history when he left his mark on it. On the exact date of his 48th birthday, the popular “Top” talks about his life and the moment of his career that left the deepest mark in his memory.
You were born to a family of educators in a time much different from today.
I briefly lived in the center of the city. My grandparents had an apartment on the square of Marx and Engels (today called Nikole Pasica square). I then moved to Sremcica with my parents and younger brother in 1974 and started junior school there. We lived there until 1983 when we moved to Zvezdara that remained my home until 1991 when I moved out of my parents’ home and to Banovo hill where I still live today.
I have to admit that my life has been good and sort of peculiar.
In Sremcica the four of us lived a modest existence in a small studio apartment. My parents were professors at the University of Philosophy and seeing how Sremcica is far away from there, they had trouble coordinating their work lives with raising two sons. This is why eventually we decided to move back to Belgrade and live with our grandparents in 50m2. It was a bit tight and fairly modest, but I had a normal childhood surrounded with love and attention. I began training in athletics and I was fortunate to have an amazing trainer from the start and a fantastic group of friends and fellow athletes with whom I’m still in touch today.
It was a different time back then, we spend much more time socializing and interacting with one another, having sleepovers and our parents were never worried about us. I could be home or not, it wasn’t a problem. We didn’t have cellphones, but my parents always knew I was in good company and with the right people. My parents spent a lot of time taking care of other people’s children, but in the same way my friends’ parents also took care of me. I think we had a much more carefree childhood than my daughters have today. I’m a pretty lenient parent, allowing them to do almost anything they want but I can see that they don’t have those same kind of friendships that I used to have with my friends because today is simply a less safe time.
What were friendships like back then? Did you go out?
Seeing how all of us were athletes, around 10 of us would usually go out as a group. We’d finish training and other obligations and our coach would give us a day off to spend some free time. We’d spend it all at a court somewhere, playing basketball. It was our favorite, but in addition to basketball we’d also play soccer, mini-golf, flippers...it was a different time.
Later when we turned 16-17 we sometimes went out to parties and discos in Tas. We had normal needs and wants. Money wasn’t an issue. If you had some cash you’d have a soda, if not you’d sip on water – it wasn’t too complicated. We had a different system of values and we really stood for something. It was known what kinds of kids got to be successful in sports and school – you could recognize them in a crowd. We had real role-models to identify with, which seems almost absurd today.
Our parents as well had different values and taught them to us. Today I have my own club with 200 kids and 400 parents who come in and I sometimes face big problems in that I don’t understand some of their needs and viewpoints. Maybe I am from a different century and my parents taught me differently. I can tell that the general empathy which used to be present in any family is today trivialized and pushed aside in favor of egocentrism. It bothers me a little. I think in any sports you have to be a bit egocentric in order to succeed. But on the other hand, you also have to have a broader understanding and empathy towards your fellow athletes, your fellow club members and to be socially responsible. Sadly today that is not the case.
Seeing how you lived on two ends of the city, which part of Belgrade would you say marked your childhood.
I lived in Zvezdara, but I didn’t love that neighborhood because I didn’t have any friends from there except one. We mainly hanged out in Kalemegdan which was everything to us. My friends from the club went to school around the center of the city and that was where we played basketball and it was also interesting to us to hang around the Pionir hall at the sports courts.
Our favorite of all was Marakana. We were ‘Red Star’ kids and we spent the most time in Marakana. We filled our own free times with made up games at the stadium. Of course without our trainer knowing we tried our all sorts of games.
We were pretty imaginative. What’s interesting is that the 10 of us who were friends back then ended up successful in our areas. We have a math professor, an electric technician, excellent programmers, a gynecologist, a museum curator – all of them leaders in their fields. I used to think it was just a lucky coincidence, but now I don’t think that’s the case. It’s thanks to our late coach who took great care of us, just like I’m now trying to do for the kids I’m training. He encouraged us to do what we were good at, focused us to do our best in sports and all other domains of life.
Your trainer is actually the main reason why athletics became your life’s path.
I had this crazy notion of carrying on in the footsteps of my parents and work in philology or maybe history and archeology. I was going to take the entrance exam for the Archeology university, that really spoke to me and Ancient history was my passion. But my trainer wouldn’t have it. He said to me “Son, you’re an athlete and you’re going to go the P.E. college and become a great coach someday – go with it.”
That way, knowingly or not, he determined my fate. I now realize how right that man was and how much this is what I strived for my entire life – to transfer my knowledge to the future generations and I think in a good way. I can’t judge myself, but judging from reactions of other people, I think I’m doing okay.
Instead of studying history you decided to become a part of it?
I didn’t decide that. It was god’s will – he’s the one who wrote that book. Effort, talent, sacrifice and some unquantifiable luck factors are all interwoven elements of my success. The main factor was my immense love for what I did. It’s what determines you as a person. You’re more likely to succeed if you do what you do with your heart.
How did Top end up in athletics and why choose the “Queen of sports”?
Circumstances were such that in Sremcica we didn’t have an athletics club and we would all enlist in soccer because there was only a soccer club. Those were my first steps in sports. I wasn’t any good at it, I was weakly, lanky and taller than other kids.
By moving to Belgrade I entered athletics by pure chance. While watching the Helsinki world championship in athletics in 1983, I became pretty interested in it. On the other hand, I just started going to a new school and it was hard to make new friends. Kids were pretty skeptical towards anyone coming from a ‘smalltown’ environment. But they all went to athletics so I kind of tagged along and enlisted with the Althletics club Radnicki from Zvezdara in Olymp.
I went to a few practices there and the coach back then all took us to Red Star with him. That was when I got into that sport exclusively.
Still, it wasn’t smooth sailing from the start?
I was 12 years old and doing fine on my first year. After that, though, my enthusiasm dropped. In sports usually the accelerants are better and more successful, but I was physically-speaking a retardant. I got in the situation where everyone else developed physically but I stayed a gangly kid who could no longer stand out in running 600m races where my coach back then assigned me. It all went off kilter back then.
That’s why I started training volleyball concurrently which was more interesting to me at the time as a collective sport with more frequent games and a trainer who was trying to win me over because I was talented for it.
And then fate intervened.
It all happened by chance. At school, our late P.E. teacher Trifke – may he rest in peace – asked us who’s good at jumping high. Since I wanted to try out for it, I raised my hand even though I had no idea what was involved. Despite that I ended up winning my first municipal contest and the rest is history.
I was noticed by my late trainer Mihajlo Svraka who after 15 days took me under his wing and I finished that year as a third best high-jumper in the then former, great Yugoslavia.
My rise from there went very quickly because I was fortunate to train under a wily trainer. Mika used to say (my older colleagues told me this anecdote) “I have a training plan, but I don’t have a good man to train!” and when I started he supposedly said “I have a plan...and a man to train!”
Then came the break while you were studying in America. How did that come about?
My mother was one of the first entrepreneurs in Yugoslavia and she worked for an American organization who had a student exchange program. Highschoolers from US would come to Serbia and we in turn would go there and to other countries in Europe.
She prepared me for something like that for a long time but I was unwilling to leave my friends.
Then, in a strange turn of events in 1987 I experienced a big growth spurt. I grew out 20cm in two months and got some serious injuries that briefly gated me from sports, so I lost a lot of motivation. It just so happened that I was feeling a bit down that month when I went to see the “American werewolf” in the movies starring Michael J. Fox.
After the movie, something clicked in my mind – I wanted to go to the place where the athlete was the hero, where you could be a big-shot in your school. Bear in mind, I was in puberty and my hormones were running wild with some other ideas about life.
I came home and told mom I wanted to go to America and so it happened. I went there by August that year and sealed my own fate in a way.
What was that experience like?
I think America was a jumping board that launched me in my career. I gained some new knowledge there and expanded my horizons with a new culture, lots more self-esteem and some guidelines that weren’t typical of our region back then. I came from a, shall we say, liberal approach to raising children where I had the absolute freedom to call in and go sleep over at my friend’s itf I wanted. Then I went to stay with an American family that only allowed me to go out to town on Fridays and Saturdays and even then I had to be back by 10PM.
On yet another hand, whatever you do over there, they’ll tell you ‘Good job’ – nothing was bad. The trainer would never put you down because the goal wasn’t to beat everyone else, it was to give your best. Over there I played basketball, trained in athletics and cross-country.
As a member of a basketball team I had that experience for the first time that literally everyone in school knew my name. It’s a very flattering status. Even though I was the 12th player on the team and didn’t often get to play, I was still an element of something that was important to my environment. And then when I had my 5 minutes of glory in athletics and when they called out my name over the school speakers every week with a new success, I became a bit of a loverboy in school and gained more attention from girls than anyone else. That boosted my self-confidence and got me even better results.
Over there I trained under Mr. Seago, the man who didn’t have anything to do directly with athletics, but he was an exceptional psychologist and pedagogue and taught health education. He knew how to motivate us all properly and it was from him that I ‘stole’ this method of doing a lot with the kids even if you have a modest knowledge.
How come you didn’t stay in America?
I missed my friends too much. I only heard from my family 3-4 times during that year and got a total of 3 letters from my friends. In one of them my friend Pera said he jumped 203cm, more than I did in America (201cm) and that yet another boy from Novi Sad jumped 216cm, way more than either of us. That boy, by the way, is today my best man Stevan Zoric, director of AK Vojvodina.
I wanted to return to Serbia to my own coach because I knew I could advance with him.
My biggest motivation for coming back is that in 1989, one year after I will have returned home, the Europe championship would take place in Yugoslavia in Varadzin. It was imperative to me that I make the representation team. There was room for two and I participated alongside Steva who was the vice-champion back then while I won fourth place in that first serious competition as member of our representation.
From that moment – which coincided with my starting college – my life became a much more serious story. Up until then it was all more games than training.
The results were visible already by 1990 in Plovdiv where you won gold medal with a junior world record of 237 that still stands to this day. If you were in America, you’d have probably gotten a significant amount of funding.
I don’t know, they have a different system in America. Their universities prohibit you to accept money so if you’re on the university team you can’t have a sponsor. I had excellent sponsors. Addidas snatched me up immediately for some serious funding. Sadly it was then that our country began to fall apart. The war ran its course and I never got anything that I had on paper.
In America later as a high quality athlete and after university when you’re 23-24, you earn incredible amounts of money. Everyone I know who are in my rank or even lower, are millionaires.
Today there’s just one principle, which is economic. Do you have a reason to continue doing sports, or will you graduate university and begin work? Money means everything nowadays and it’s the only measure of success that the society accepts.
If you want to live off of sports, then you have to display an exceptional level of skill and competitiveness by the time you’re 19. The logic there is that in addition to being talented you should be recognized by sports institutions and be monitored in accordance with that talent. Because the highest tiers of sports competition is extremely expensive no matter what sport is involved – from carling to soccer.
What I advise my kids and their parents – we’ll see where we stand until 18 years of age, then decide how to proceed. If I realize that the athlete can live off his work and talent, we continue working seriously. In other words, athletics becomes their profession. This involves a bigger scope and intensity of work. From previously five trainings a week we start having nine, which should result in excellent results but not locally, rather at the European level because only then does all the sacrifice have meaning.
How did the situation in the 90’s affect further results?
In finances, definitely, but more in the sense of my surroundings and professional directive. I earned money and directed it back into my training process, recovery, treatment, trainer, sparring partners. In another system there was a procedure. You get hurt, you see a doctor to get better. If they tell you to rest a month, you rest. Back then we didn’t have sports medicine and injuries pushed me back away from the Olympic title. If I had a serious medical team in 1996, I’m sure that I would’ve won the Olympics because I was mentally and physically at my peak back then, but my health situation didn’t let me advance past fourth spot.
Today’s situation is drastically better because you have certain financial means provided by the state, the union and your club. You can organize adequate training and recovery and be more covered than you were 20 years ago.
I used the services of clinics abroad, but once I barely somehow managed to gather 15000 dollars to pay a doctor to ‘fix’ my spine, knees and joints that were deteriorating.
I’ll never forget my first meeting with a serious doctor at Freiburg, Germany in 1997. They did some scans and told me I had the joints of a sixty year old man. They asked me if I’d been taking any regenerative medication and I of course said I hadn’t. Then they prescribed everything I needed to do, the same way they would for their athlete. Abroad, they worked studiously, not per campaign.
I only regret I wasn’t in a system that would’ve followed my development, but instead my coach and I were forced to learn and find our own solutions and finance our own success.
The situation was still good before the 90’s.
Before the war, our clubs were strong. I was in Red Star and the club covered 90% of my preparation expenses without any problems. I had perspective then and the Red Star was a serious club who was Europe champion in club athletics in 1989. I spent the first years preparing in Budapest. I spent almost two months in a modest bed and board with a shared bathroom, but that also cost money which my club paid for.
Financial troubles started in 1991 when the system began to collapse and didn’t re-establish almost until 2008. Those 18 years of my career have gone to waste and that’s what I regret the most. As the war started I was at a crossroads where I wondered what the point of it all was. Everything had lost meaning, my work and effort, and got a different dimension.
It was then, within a few months, that I aged around 20 years just like my countrymen. I couldn’t find meaning in anything. My training itself was full of improvised solutions. You don’t have rings, you don’t have a beam, you don’t have sponges. I traveled from Belgrade to Novi Sad to train because we didn’t have the conditions.
I remember you’d gather up some money and travel to Budapest for a week to train properly, then you go back home and improvise again. It was only god’s will that I persevered during those 20 years and that I fought for my place in the sport.
Right before the world championship in Seville, shortly before the bombing of Serbia, I jumped during training at JNA stadium and living in the landing mat was a swarm of wasps that stung me all over my lower back. There were many situations like that which I find a bit funny today but back then seemed tragic.
What does it take to set a world record?
We were being sanctioned back then. My best man Steva who was my only worthy rival in our country was injured and completely demotivated. The next best person jumped 210cm and the one behind them 190cm. I was in the peak form of my life and I’m sure that if I had a Sotomayor next to me who attacked the world record that year, the two of us would break spears on heights above 245cm and it would come down to him or me. I proved I was the best where it mattered – at the big competition where the motivation is different and the stakes are the highest.
Now I can’t even imagine where my limits would’ve been. As a kid I used to say I was able to jump 250cm. Today I’m pretty sure I could run with those famous 245. I’m sorry the times were such that I was born in the right country but at the wrong moment.
As an athlete, what impacted you the worst during the 90’s?
My biggest defeat in life, and I say that as a prime athlete, are years 1994/95, when the borders were officially open but the airport didn’t work. That was during the “Golden league” (today’s Diamond) and once a week I’d go to compete in the biggest cities in the world. I’d sit in a van that would trudge its way to Budapest and from there I’d travel on. I took the first place in Rome, second in Zurich, I was on the winner’s podium almost every time. You come back feeling like a hero, but in Budapest you have to get back in that rickety van and you know that you’ll be waiting 5 hours at the border because back then everyone were trying to smuggle salami and fuel and the shipping control would check everything creating massive traffic jams.
I was forced to leave the van 3km away from the border so I didn’t have to wait hours in one place and I’d walk that distance and across the border with my sports bag. A mustached Hungarian watched me with a cross look and searched for any smuggled salami. Then our border patrols or police officers would recognize me and hail a van or a car to get me to Belgrade a bit quicker and that’s how it went every week. The trick was that the person they’d hail to give me a ride would never get searched, so they’d usually be super happy that they got away with like 40l of fuel in their trunk or something similar. Those are my memories from that time.
It was during that time that I started hating the sport and everything about it.
This was also the time of my financial struggle. I ended 1993 in debts I accumulated for the sake of my preparations. Fortunately I had friends to help, but had the sanctions and the overall situation lasted for another year, I probably would’ve had to sell my apartment to pay back the debts I made so that I could practice my sport. It was the year when I was primed to reach the top of my career and form and become a champion, but because of sanctions that sadly never happened.
Still, on that same year you set the state record at 238cm high jump. How did ‘the Top’ feel at that moment?
There wasn’t any overwhelming joy because I didn’t have anyone to share it with. Other than my trainer and physical therapist there was nobody, not a single journalist, media outlet or TV station. I was happy to achieve something but at the same time upset that I did it in an empty Marakana stadium – none of that brought me any satisfaction, only bitterness.
At the same time I was aware that I was capable of much more, but none of it was up to me. The worst feeling is when you are powerless in a bad situation. It would demoralize any normal person, but I was lucky enough to be crazy so that only toughened me up to last another 20 years.
You trained in poor conditions and yet remained in the top of the sport.
What can I do, that’s fate and I was never too angry about it. It didn’t matter to me that foreigners had no idea how I was getting there and holding my own, but I was irritated by the attitude of our media. Nobody cares about you throughout the year and yet they all have the highest expectations of you for big competitions. Meanwhile nobody cares that you don’t have a place to train and prepare.
Nobody knew that my trainer was living in a rented apartment with his wife and two children and that we were struggling for his bare survival. The successes of the athletes living abroad and earning tons of money were always glorified. Nothing against them, but it did sadden me to see how the media treated those of us living here, even though we had the chance to leave but decided to stay because of our beliefs in Serbia. I always struggled to prove something and thought I’d find some understanding, at least from sports institutions that were supposed to protect us. But they ended up failing us and that bothered me the most.
In spite of everything, Topic participated in up to six Olympic games.
Still, there are stories about some guy from Kenya and jockey from Holland who participated 6-7 times, while forgetting that we had a Jasna Sekaric who went seven times and a Top who went six. We keep glorifying some others when we have in our backyard people who already did it and who keep doing it.
You know, in order to get to the Olympic games, you had to jump over a norm of 231cm or you don’t get to go. There are still people claiming ‘you just went there as a tourist’. Neither myself or any other athlete went to the Olympic games as a ‘freebie’ nor did we get anything gifted to us – we all earned it and people should be aware of that.
I am very proud of having participated six times, but I’m also angry with myself that I didn’t achieve better results and won any medals. That’s my bitter regret.
What is your favorite success in your career?
The most emotional experience was jumping over the norm for the 6th Olympic games I was trying for because I was painfully aware how impossible it was. Later I realized that was the last time that my trainer was with me in a competition and that I probably made him the happiest trainer in the world and shared that incredible joy with my wife who was with me. That feeling of joy after jumping stayed with me.
This success was spurred on, in a way, by a German.
Before this competition I was in Munich seeing a famous doctor Volfart Miler, a Bajern doctor from Munich and German soccer representation who convinced me to try for the sixth time. Namely they were there for my wife Bilja, to help her with some spine problems. He saw that I participated in the Olympiad five times and talked to Usein Bolt about it when we were having dinner together because he was also his patient. When the doctor asked me how come I Wasn’t training any more, I told him I’m suffering from immense back pain and he responded “Is that all?” I guess he expected me to say I was getting too old because I was already 40 years old at the time and he goes “I’ll treat you for free, but you have to go to the Olympiad. If you don’t go, you owe me 1 million euro.”
And that’s how we wrote a contract on a napkin then and there. He asked me what else I wanted if I went to the Olympiad. I said I wanted to watch the finale of the League of Champions from the Bayern team bench. He rings up the club manager, but he told him that it was against the rules to seat me on the team bench, so I had to settle for being in the front row and that I got to cheer when Bayern scored a goal. And that’s how it happened. Sure it wasn’t the finale, but it was still a Champion’s League game and he high-fived me when ‘our’ Bayern scored.
That’s why doctor Miller is to blame for my going to that Olympiad and he really helped me get ready in less than a year of training.
Your athletics club “Top Jump” is today your main occupation. Is it harder to be a trainer than a competing athlete?
It seems much harder to me because the responsibility is massive. Being a trainer is serious business because you can influence the children you’re training sometimes more than their parents. Those kids spend 10 hours a week with me and I know that everything I say and do, they absorb like little sponges. This is why I wonder every day if I gave the best advice, if I hurt someone’s feelings or offended them, how to make it right if I have and so on. We’ve got kids aged 9-17 and the responsibility is massive and doesn’t let you relax. You have to be accurate, clear and righteous at all times and that involves constant self-improvement and self-reflection.
How do you see the future of our athletics?
I can say with certainty that the jumpers from my club will do great. What I hope is that we’ll eventually have a system in which all the kids in the country get an equal shot at greatness. We are predisposed towards jumping, as proven by Ivana Spanovic, Biljana Topic, Nenad Stekic, Stevan Zoric, Tamara Malesev, Milos Srejovic, Milos Spasojevic, Strahinja Jovancevic, Lazar Anic...all phenomenal jumpers with great success internationally.
I’m happy we have so much talent in Serbia. We have a generation of girls born between 2004-2005 that is exceptional. Maybe it’s early to say because they have yet to storm through puberty, but we also have 4 girls that could become European-caliber athletes. In generation 2003 and 2002 we have boys with high expectations as well – all we need is focus on their development.
Today sport is a business, a product of systematic work, rather than coincidence. We have to have understanding towards children who are brave enough to embark on an adventure in high-end sports and the state has to recognize this through various methods – be they grants or better organization through the existing professional unions.
How do you spend your free time?
I don’t have a lot of it. I take 30 minutes every day to have coffee with friends and twice a week we get together in the evening for drinks. My heart also still pulls me towards Kalemegdan. My younger daughter loves going to the Zoo, so we walk around Kalemegdan, go to parks, visit the Kosutnjak forest, go to Ada. We love nature as a family and spend any free time there. The most important thing is that we are together. I am a perfectly happy man and I know I’m one of sadly few people who are completely satisfied with every aspect of their life.
What is “Top” planning for the future?
To continue working as a trainer. It’s a challenge and I set my goals high. When I founded the club, I set my sights on having members enter the European championship within 12 years. Then I’ll have to draw a line and admit to the public and myself whether I made it or I suck. Now we’re exactly halfway to that deadline – six years have passed. Time flies and I hope we’ll talk again in another six years about the successes of my club members whose careers were born and raised here. We’ll see if ‘Top’ can repeat the successes he already had with his wife Biljana, a national record-holder in triple-jump or Marija Vukovic from Montenegro who was the junior world champion.
So we can expect to see Topic in six more Olympiads, as a trainer?
I’d have to live that long. Today I turn 16 the third time. I already went to the Olympics twice as a trainer, so that leaves four more times. Hope your prediction comes true in that regard.