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Feature17 Mar 2022

Competition director Ristov leading the next generation of officials in Belgrade


Competition director Marko Ristov (© Getty Images)

You don’t need to be a molecular biologist to become a major event competition director, but for Marko Ristov, it helps! The 26-year-old describes athletics as “beautifully complex” and its variety is one of the reasons he has spent most of his life so far in the sport.

Ristov started his journey as a young athlete before he began volunteering and officiating. Gradually he worked his way through the ranks until he became officiating commissioner at the Athletics Federation of Serbia and Ristov is now competition director for the World Athletics Indoor Championships Belgrade 22.

He is currently the youngest of World Athletics’ area international technical officials (AITOs), confounding the stereotype associated with the role. Just 1% of AITOs are in the youngest (20-29) recorded age group, with Ristov leading the next generation of technical officials.

Area international technical officials (AITOs)

Age range Percentage
20-29 1%
30-39 9%
40-49 25%
50-59 23%
60-69 31%
70-79 11%


“Even now, when I go somewhere as a technical delegate or international technical official (ITO), it is a shock to people,” he says. “My first appointment, I was technical delegate for the Istanbul Cup in 2018. I remember arriving at the airport and two volunteers were there waiting for me. They were shocked. They said: ‘We expected someone at least 40 or 50 years old’ and I replied, “well, you’ve got me!”

He never intended to work in the sport, but his passion paved the way.

“When I became an official here in Serbia, I started learning the rules and it was fascinating, to be quite honest,” he explains. “This is the part I started to love about athletics, the complexity, and I wanted to learn more. But if you had asked me if I was going to work in sport, I would have said no, because I actually have a bachelor's degree in molecular biology and I will continue to do my master’s degree after the World Indoor Championships.

“Some people say athletics is too complicated and it’s too much but no, it’s complex, it’s beautifully complex, if you ask me. Something similar to my field of biology.”

Ristov was a competition administrator when Belgrade hosted the European Indoor Championships in 2017 and now, as competition director of the global competition, his role is to maintain the communication between officials, and to technically control and conduct the competition to timetable.

“So, something really stressful,” he laughs, “because in that timetable, every second there is something happening.”

But he wouldn’t have it any other way and now hopes to encourage other younger people to get involved.

“We have many young people now (as part of the organising committee for the World Indoor Championships and at the Serbian athletics federation) because I need to give a chance to other people as well,” he says. Among them is the competition manager assistant, Isidora Culibrk, plus competition secretary Bojana Kalicanin and competition administrator Andrijana Jaksic, who are all also in their 20s.

“I realise that we are a rarity here in the federation because the competition commission is majority women,” Ristov adds. “This is also something to be proud of because again we really try to give a chance to people that have knowledge and want to work. If you know how to do that job, that’s it, pretty much.”

Mondo Duplantis in action at the recent World Indoor Tour Silver meeting in Belgrade, where he improved his own world pole vault record to 6.19m

So, what skills or attributes are important for someone looking to follow in his footsteps as a national technical official (NTO), ITO or competition director?

“Patience is I think the first one, because many things happen, so it is about trying to stay cool,” he says.

“Also, you need to work on yourself constantly, to improve your skills. Even now, I still need to read the rules to remind myself. It’s not a case of, ‘I am an ITO and I know everything’. No, it’s the opposite, you always need to learn and remind yourself about everything that you do.”

While keeping on top of the rules is important, there is lots of support for people who are just starting out or who wish to further their career as an official.

The World Athletics eLearning platform was launched in November 2020 and provides educational courses and webinars as an ‘apprentice’ level to the Technical Officials Education and Certification System (TOECS).

“We want to make it as easy as possible for people to learn about our sport and to get more involved, whether as a technical official, elite, club or school coach or fan,” said World Athletics president Sebastian Coe at the time. “Some 2000 people complete technical official and coaching courses in athletics every year, but people have busy lives and having to attend a course in person can be a barrier to participation.

“This online knowledge centre will give many more people around the world the opportunity to gain a deeper understanding of our sport, and to complete courses at their convenience and in an easily digestible format. I am confident that this platform will prove to be an invaluable resource for everyone interested in our sport over the coming years.”

Anyone who wishes to know more about the rules of the sport, from fans and club volunteers to technical officials and coaches, can access this apprentice level.

There are then a further three levels to the TOECS. The first is national level, which is also currently available online and offers certification after a series of modules are undertaken and that education is put into practice. Next is the area level and then world level. Because the TOECS is online, there are no limits on participation numbers and further development of this platform will lead to the system being offered in six languages in the future.

For Ristov, his own development has opened up the opportunity of a lifetime in Belgrade this weekend, with many more decades of great experiences in the sport still to come.

“It has been four years since the last World Indoor Championships, so everyone wants to be there,” he says.

“With NTOs, we have a team of nearly 300 people. I have tried to include as many people as possible, so we have shifts. Especially for the NTOs, this is one chance in a lifetime for some people. Who knows when you will have the World Indoor Championships (on home soil) again?

“We are saying that we are planning to organise the best competition up until now.”

Jess Whittington for World Athletics

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