The story of Vicko or Vinko Soljan, as most Stari Grad locals know him is, without a doubt, the history of the Faros Marathon, traditional Croatian International Long Distance Swimming Championship. We could say that Mr. Vicko and Faros Marathon lived together. Soljan without the marathon, and Marathon without Soljan, would find it hard to exist. Our Vicko has invested all his knowledge and immeasurable effort in this large, highly significant sports and tourism event. Vicko Soljan has earned all the sports and social recognition which he received last year. He entered the Hall of Fame of world swimming. All because of the Faros Marathon, the swimming event in the Stari Grad Bay from Nova Riva to Kabal cape and back, every year in late August or in the past in early September.
Listening to all these compliments about his son, his eighty years old mother Rita, asked:
- And what did my Vinko become?
- He became what cardinal Kuharić is for the Catholic Church in Croatia, that’s Vinko in long distance swimming, boss and chief – answered Stari Grad local Dinko Sepic.
What did Vicko Soljan do in his life that made him such a big shot in the world? It was a miracle, a real miracle in his hometown Stari Grad. While watching the play Domagojada in 1974 at Skor square through which the renowned Histrioni became established, Soljan conceived and realized this magnificent project.
Histrion’s visit to Stari Grad was decisive. Soljan frankly admitted that the stories about the sea from the members of the Zagreb theatre, in the play written by Tahir Mujičić, intrigued him so intensely that the following year, 1975, on July 27, he organized the Mini Marathon, from the town harbour to Baba cape and back, a distance of 3600 m. As the interest of locals and their reactions were beyond all expectations, they decided that the following summer they would organize a real marathon of 16 km, to the Kabal cape and back. Thus began the most beautiful Hvar and Adriatic sports story. A long, long history.
The small town of Stari Grad received the great Faros: the most attractive marathon swimming race in the world. Faros Marathon didn’t win that epithet only because of the natural beauty of the Stari Grad Bay, but more so because of the regular appearances of the world’s best marathon swimmers.
Mr. Vicko could not affect the beauty of the unique “swimming stadium,” but the 16,000 m long route from Nova Riva to Kabal cape and back, was imagined, discovered and created by him. And he regularly brought to Stari Grad, even in those difficult years of war and the struggle for Croatian independence, the world stars of long distance swimming. Vicko is, we can freely say, the first man of long distance swimming in the world. Thanks to his authority in international circles, Stari Grad on the island of Hvar hosted the historic First European Long Distance Swimming Championships in 1989.
Certainly, Soljan has tremendous merit that long distance swimming became an Olympic sport, from the games in Beijing 2008. The question of when this burly Stari Grad local does it all imposes itself. Ever since he retired (he was the director of the Split Bank branch in Stari Grad), he fully dedicated himself to the organization of the Faros Marathon. On one occasion he told me: “Janez and I work on Christmas Day and New Year and Easter, there are no holidays for us.” We asked this incredible enthusiast how much he was paid, how much money he got for his efforts. His look, usually pleasant and friendly, became glum and bewildered; he resented us for asking that question.
Because, like any sports fanatic, he never sought, nor did he receive even a single dime. Soljan’s pay is his pleasure, happiness that, like a magician, he manages to organize a very complicated sport performance. Indeed, he spends more than 20,000 Kuna a year of his own money. But he doesn’t complain, or talk about it. But he’s been known to say that he had gotten “a little worn in his old days, so Janez’s help is precious.”
And the athletic marathon champion Janez Maroevic, economist, is infected by Soljan’s enthusiasm. With a fanatical perfectionism the brilliantly performs his role in the organization of Faros Marathon. It is now a coordinated tandem that every single place in Croatia could wish for. It’s too little to say that Vicko and Janez are the most responsible for Stari Grad having the Faros Marathon for nearly four decades in continuity, which has, primarily due to the huge effort and commitment of the duo, risen to the throne of the world – in the Hall of Fame in America! And it did so as the first and the only one of the world’s great marathons. The value of their work is even more meaningful when it is known that the Adriatic islands are a sports wasteland. Korčula has long been left without powerful water polo players, once recognized in Europe; New Year’s regatta in Hvar has remained without a European touch, just like fishing competitions in Mali Losinj, while Bol on Brac no longer hosts international female tennis players. Only the Faros Marathon, in spite of the many problems, remains and lasts from year to year, and every year gets better and stronger. In the last fifteen years there is not one world and European champion or World Cup winner who hasn’t competed in the Faros Marathon.
The Soljan & Maroevic tandem organizes the marathon with an incredibly small budget. Annual costs, believe it or not, are never more than 200,000 Kuna. Without giving money “under the table”, with minimal awards for the top three competitors, Vicko brings the best to Stari Grad: European and world champions.
The figures for Faros Marathon are impressive: from 1976 to 2011 as many as 726 male and 363 female swimmers competed.
There was almost no summer i.e. no Marathon or Championship, during which journalists didn’t write about Vicko. And to be honest, we regular companions and chroniclers of the Faros Marathon during these two or three days in Stari Grad have the hardest time of reaching the Director. For Vicko isn’t a director of the parade, he is a true builder, sports worker who does not need media attention, for him there’s no difficult task. He’s persistent, sometimes even extremely tedious in his effort of perfectly organizing everything. It is imperative that the exclusive water sports show goes through well, even perfectly.
Niko Tudor, one of the foremost experts in swimming, used to say:
- Vicko is an exceptional sports figure, a fanatic, an enthusiast. There are few such people in Croatian and world sport. Faros Marathon is a great work of Soljan…
We listened to the same story every year in Stari Grad. There’s no money, Soljan would say. Yet, year after year, Faros Marathon was getting better and better. We could almost print this in capital letters: all of the world’s best swimmers in long distance swimming competed in the Stari Grad Bay at least once. Among the applicants there was even one great man, world and Olympic champion at 1,500 m, record holder Russian Vladimir Salnikov. The brothers from Ljubljana, Nace and Igor Majcen, record holders with the greatest number of participations and wins in Stari Grad, revealed to us the secret of why they performed at the Faros Marathon so frequently:
- I simply cannot refuse Soljan. He called us every day until we finally agreed. And we never regretted it. That sea of Hvar, the purity and beauty, the atmosphere, are of great help to Soljan in persuading the best marathon swimmers to accept his invitation.
Vicko Soljan when speaking of himself used to say:
- I am a man without a private life, I do not go for coffee, I don’t waste time. I have devoted all my spare time to sport. And I never looked back. Frankly, there were moments when I thought about leaving everything and letting others lead.
However, the impression is that Soljan, when he looks back now and sees everything that he has done, the happiest man in the world. He is a person of unique energy and talent, a true man of sports: he played chess very well, was a passionate sailor; he practiced football, handball, water polo, table tennis, and athletics. An avid sportsman, he was also a long-time associate of the daily Sportske novosti and Slobodna Dalmacija from the island of Hvar.
Soljan became a great authority in the world. As the creator and chief organizer of the Faros Marathon, during all these years, he gathered around himself numerous Hvar locals. There was the impression that the whole island of Hvar participated in the organization of the Faros Marathon. Hundreds of volunteers in various panels and committees performed the tasks given to them by their leader. But if there was a problem, the instructions always were “Ask Soljan”. And he would, with ease and without anxiety, find solutions which were sometimes improvised but more often provided and performed routinely.
There is only one unfulfilled wish left. Mr. Vicko fiercely wanted, hoped and almost cried for his Faros Marathon to enter the World Cup. His efforts managed to squeeze in long distance swimming into the Olympic program, but not the Faros Marathon into the World Cup. All prerequisites that this most elite swimming competition in the world becomes a cult one were met long ago, except the most important: full financial support, funding requirements for membership in FINA and the prize money for the first eight male and eight female swimmers. He grudgingly admitted that the city, in financial terms, has never adequately followed the event. There were years when Faros Marathon received only 8000 Kuna from the city budget!?
But Soljan and his colleagues have never despaired or given up; their enthusiasm and love were victorious. Stari Grad on Hvar has Faros Marathon solely because it has Vicko Soljan!
- I know that even today, after all these years, there are people on the island who will ask “why did we need all this” – Soljan would remark.
Fortunately, these are in the minority, they are eternal malcontents, who mind everything, the losers who were left on their own. The persistent and very much in love with sports Vicko Soljan is the real winner of Stari Grad, its first honorary citizen. He certainly has reasons for being proud. Histrioni encouraged him and Vicko created everything and with his close associates, implemented it. Without a doubt, he succeeded in keeping the Faros Marathon on a lofty international level. And every year on the waterfront Vicko, with his large white Panama hat, is the first to congratulate the winners, but also all swimmers who manage to swim the 16 kilometres.
Vicko is proud of those young swimmers who plough the sea. The whole island of Hvar and the whole of Croatia should be proud of Faros Marathon. Because there is no such town in the world with similar size and population as Stari Grad, where every year in continuity such an important world sports festival is organized.
That’s why it should be acknowledged: Mr. Vicko, you did a great job!
Among the acts of Stari Grad there is a decision of the City Council from 2010 in which it’s recorded that Faros Marathon, or the Croatian International Long Distance Swimming Championship is an “International competition of great significance for the City of Stari Grad.” And now, with this monograph dedicated to the Faros Marathon, Soljan can really be pleased and proud and if you will, full of himself.
Believe it or not, the Croatian sports legend, Vicko Soljan from Stari Grad in its Register of trophies won, or to put it better, earned, as many as 298 prizes, awards, medals, trophies from Croatia and 56 different countries of the world. Perhaps it would be fair to list and write down all these awards. We decided to put forward only twenty-three most important ones.
In chronological order we recorded:
* Trophy for the district Hvar in table tennis in 1953;
* First place in swimming and water polo championship of Dalmatia, PSH 1962;
* Medal from the Water Polo and Swimming Federation of Yugoslavia, 1971;
* Trophy of the Croatian Water Polo Federation, 1979;
* Gold medal for 30 years of successful work in sports, from SOFK Croatia, 1979;
* Decorated by President of SFRY Josip Broz Tito, 1980;
* Trophy of the International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, 1989;
* Annual Award Franjo Bučar from the Ministry of Education, Culture and Sports of the Republic of Croatia, 1990;
* Trophy from the Croatian President Franjo Tuđman, for the highest merit and contribution to the reputation of the Republic of Croatia, 1990;
* Croatian Sports Association Trophy for Lifetime Achievement, 1991;
* Award from Stari Grad for Lifetime Achievement, 1996;
* Annual Award of Split-Dalmatia County, 2001;
* Medal of Croatian President Stjepan Mesić, “Order of Croatian Danica with Franjo Bučar”, 2001;
* Trophy of the Croatian Olympic Committee, 2002;
* Trophy of the International Olympic Committee “Excellence in Sport”, 2003;
* State Sports award Franjo Bučar for lifetime achievement, from the Ministry of Science, Education and Sports, 2005;
* Admission to the Hall of Fame – International Marathon Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, USA, 2007;
* Medal of Croatian President Stjepan Mesić, “Order of Croatian Trefoil”, 2009;
* Highest Award from LEN for outstanding contribution to the development of long distance swimming in Europe, the European Swimming Federation, 2009;
* Lifetime Achievement Award of Split-Dalmatia County, 2010;
* Honorary Citizen of Stari Grad, 2010;
* Award of the Croatian Long Distance Swimming Federation for Lifetime Achievement, 2011;
* Special recognition of the Croatian Olympic Committee for the Promotion of Sports, 2011.
Written by: Bogdan Vujina
Click here to see a gallery of Soljan’s photos!