London 2012: 18-strong Syrian delegation refuse to speak about Assad at Olympic Welcoming Ceremony
Cahal Milmo is the chief reporter of The Independent and has been with the paper since 2000. He was born in London and previously worked at the Press Association news agency. He has reported on assignment at home and abroad, including Rwanda, Sudan and Burkina Faso, the phone hacking scandal and the London Olympics. In his spare time he is a keen runner and cyclist, and keeps an allotment.
Wednesday 25 July 2012
The first medal ceremony of the London Games took place in the athletes village this lunchtime. The discipline was saying as little as possible about a barbaric regime and the run away winner was Team Syria.
Shortly after 2.30pm, the 18-strong delegation from the Syrian Arab Republic (as Olympics volunteers were under orders to refer to the country) trooped into a plaza to be formally welcomed to the Games and put on a bravura display of keeping shtum about the horrific violence being meted out by forces loyal to Bashar Al Assad.
In an unscripted contravention of the Olympic protocol which bans overtly political symbols, a small group of invited supporters arrived for the theatrical Welcoming Ceremony wrapped in national flags carrying the face of the Syrian president.
Roger Dahi, the coach for what is Syria's largest ever Olympic team, confirmed that many of his ten athletes had completed their training in the increasingly war-torn country but when asked whether the fighting now raging in Damascus had impacted preparations, his response was robustly terse.
He told The Independent: “I know only about sport. I don't know about politics. If you want to ask me some questions about sport, I'll gladly answer them. If you want to ask about politics then I can give you some phone numbers for politicians.”
A similar response came from three other Syrian athletes, including weightlifter Ahed Jouhili. He said: “I am just here to participate.”
Ahmed Saber Hamcho, a show jumper with links to the Assad regime who spends much of his time in London as a student, made no comment. Mr Hamcho's father, Muhammad is a prominent Syrian businessman and is related by marriage to Maher al-Assad, Bashar's much-reviled younger brother.
It was unclear whether the reticence of the athletes and their support staff arose from instructions, self-preservation or loyalty to the Assad regime. Possibly all three.
But the team, whose head General Mowaffak Joumaa has been refused a visa by the British Government, went about their task with gusto, waving the Syrian flag and singing their national anthem significantly more loudly than the accompanying delegations from Nepal, Haiti and Sri Lanka.
In contrast to the aversion to controversy shown by official team members, Hala Mhamma, an Anglo-Syrian from Chelsea, west London, felt no unease about expressing her views on the reasons for the strife in her home country.
Draped in the flag carrying the image of President Assad sporting a pair of despot-style aviator sunglasses, Mrs Mhamma said she and her family had been invited to the ceremony by the delegation and wanted to show support for the regime.
She said: “I think it was important for us to show there is another side to this argument. We support Assad. This violence is the fault of the armed gangs and terrorists. The army and the police are doing their job to control it.”
London 2012 staff appeared to make no effort to ask for the flags to be removed and seemed more intent on asking members of the media not to talk to the Syrian team during the ceremony.
After presenting Dame Tessa Jowell, the former Olympics minister who was acting as Britain's welcomer-in-chief, with gifts consisting of a traditional Syrian board game and an embroidered table cloth, the most controversial delegation to the London Olympics disappeared behind the pink hoardings into the athletes village where the media cannot follow.
To their left stood the Olympic Truce Wall, a set of perspex columns which a member of each delegation is invited to sign. It carries the following thought from London Games head Lord Coe: “Sport is one of those forces that still offers real hope.”
Eventually it will be signed by a Syrian athlete. But it went unsigned yesterday afternoon.
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