Only Olympic medal: Golden Lionesses become symbol of Montenegro

Silver medallist Montenegro pose during the medal ceremony for the Women's Handball Final at the London 2012 Olympics Games (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Silver medallist Montenegro pose during the medal ceremony for the Women's Handball Final at the London 2012 Olympics Games (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)

While winning an Olympic medal is a personal goal for thousands of athletes, for 24 nations it is a dream that has only ever come true once. Tokyo2020.org looks at the glorious moment and the impact it had on the lives of the athletes who achieved it.

The background

Making their Olympic debut at London 2012, Montenegro's women's handball team, nicknamed the "Golden Lionesses", wrote their name into the history books and became national heroes.

Just four years prior, the nation of Montenegro made their first Olympic Games appearance as an independent nation. The Balkan nation had previously competed under Yugoslavia, the Independent Olympians and Serbia Montenegro from 1920 to 2004.

While several Montenegrin athletes had won Olympic medals during this period, none had competed under the Montenegro flag.

Shortly after gaining independence in 2006, Montenegro formed a women's handball team but had little success until they qualified and finished sixth at the 2010 European Women's Handball Championship. The following year, they made their World Championship debut, making it to the Round of 16.

A 10th place finish at the 2011 World Championships gave them a chance to qualify for the Olympic Games London 2012. Montenegro headed to the IHF Olympic Qualification Tournament, just two months out from the Games. They didn't drop a match, securing qualification.

Montenegro celebrates following their victory over Spain during the Women's Handball semi-final game against Spain at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Montenegro celebrates following their victory over Spain during the Women's Handball semi-final game against Spain at the London 2012 Olympic Games (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
2012 Getty Images

History in the making

At London 2012, Montenegro made their way into the knockout stage with two wins, a draw and two loses. In the last seconds of their quarter-final they scored and beat France before victory over Spain in the semi-finals ensured that Montenegro would be bringing home their first Olympic medal.

In the final they would come up against handball powerhouses Norway, who were the current Olympic title holders as well as the reigning World and European Champions.

The match was dominated by the tournaments top scorers - Linn Jørum Sulland and Katarina Bulatovic - while Montenegro's goalkeeper Sonja Barjaktarovic put in a world-class performance. In the end, Norway was too strong, winning 26-23, becoming back-to-back Olympic champions.

While it was hard to lose the gold medal match, Montenegro celebrated their country's first Olympic medal - silver - by dancing on the court.

"We're delighted, my hands are still shaking from excitement. We deserved this silver medal, which for us is of a golden glow. We showed how to fight for our country. All the girls were fantastic," Montenegro's captain Bojana Popovic said on arrival back to Podgorica, the capital of Montenegro.

Life-changing impact

The real party started when the Golden Lionesses arrived back in the Montenegrin capital.

A crowd welcomed the team home at airport shouting: “Ti si naša prva ljubav, Crna Goro volim te” meaning "You are our first love, Montenegro we love you."

Singing and chanting rung out through Podgorica as the clock drew into the early hours of the morning with thousands of fans lining the streets with flags, flowers and torches to welcome home their heroes. The handball team were also joined by the men's water polo team who finished fourth as they arrived into the town square in roofless buses.

Jovanka Radicevic, who was part of the London 2012 squad, explained the memories from that celebration.

“I will never forget [that] after the Olympic Games, it was three o’clock in the morning when we landed in the airport, and how many people were on the street! Mothers with babies, two or three months old.”

“This is something a player can never forget because when you see a mother with a two-, three-month-old baby on the street at 3 a.m. waiting for us to say hello, it’s something nothing can compare to."

The success of the team is significant given the size of the country, which has a population of around 620,000 people.

Since their achievements at London, the team has become an important symbol to the country.

“When you say Montenegro, of course, the women’s handball team is a symbol, because of the gold medal at the European championship and the silver medal at the Olympic Games,” Radicevic told the EHF Euro in 2018.

Just months after their Olympic success, a bigger success came their way when they defeated Norway to become European Champions.

Their success from 2012 has been hard to emulate with a disappointing Rio 2016 campaign, where they unfortunately didn't win a game. However, their dreams to compete on the Olympic stage once again are within sight as they look to qualify for Tokyo 2020 through the IHF Women's Olympic Qualification Tournaments expected to take place in March 2021.

How the “Fighting Lionesses” won Montenegro’s sole Olympic medal
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