Athletes bring a smile to Sarajevo

Kieran Daley reports from Bosnia on sport's return to a war-ravaged city
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The Independent Online
Doves of peace released at a sports event have never before been burdened with so much true significance as they were yesterday at the Solidarity meeting in Sarajevo, the first international event in any sport to be staged in the Bosnian capital since the end of the four-year civil war nine months ago.

The meeting represented a gesture from sport for reconciliation, a commodity of which there had been precious little in the former Olympic city. Amid so much devastation, the rebuilt Kosevo stadium represents hope for the future for the 50,000 Sarajevans who filled the arena for the first time since it hosted the opening and closing ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Alongside the athletics track stands the Zetra Arena, where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean won gold at those games. The ice dancers would not recognise the twisted, burnt-out remains today. To the other side is the hospital which, at the peak of hand-to-hand fighting in 1993, became so busy that the injured and dying were transferred to the track's changing rooms.

Yesterday afternoon, in those same rooms, John Mayock was able to pull on a running vest, rather than a bullet-proof vest, as he prepared for his race. For once in this Olympic year, the taking part was really more important than the winning. Mind you, Mayock was delighted to beat both an Olympic champion and a world record holder in winning the 2,000m. "It was just like Zurich," he said, "only I didn't get paid."

Sacrifice is often spoken of in a sporting context, but such sacrifice was rendered irrelevant compared to the human suffering visible to all athletes visiting a city which endured a 1,100-day siege. Mayock, though, in coming here, was possibly making a small sacrifice of his own for, by being in Sarajevo rather than at his desk in Stafford's council offices, he risked losing his job.

Other athletes shared the Briton's sentiments. "Hopefully," said Charles Austin, the Olympic high jump champion and one of only three American athletes to come here, "we will appreciate our privileged way of life much more after being here."

The rude awakenings for the athletes began before they arrived, the 700- mile flight from Milan taking 10 hours because of weather and radar problems at Sarajevo's wrecked airport. Once at their hotel, the 80 athletes from 30 nations got a salutary warning when they were told not to run on the grass during their stay, for fear of adding to the city's thousands of landmine victims.

Ludmilla Engquist, one of five Olympic Gold medallists competing yesterday, was in tears when she arrived at the stadium to see the neighbouring cemetery containing many of the 12,000 fatalities of the war. "Only when you see the city can you really understand what has happened," the Olympic 100 metres hurdles champion said. "I cannot do much, but I can do what little I can to help."

There are still palpable tensions in the city, with elections due on Saturday. Concerns about the incongruity of a multi-million-dollar sports event staged amid so much suffering were dispelled, however, by the warm, welcoming smiles from the Sarajevans.

"The meeting shows that, from the ruins, we can begin the fight for new life," said Dr Haris Silajdzic, the former Bosnian prime minister and foreign minister who has combined election campaigning with work for the local organising committee. As he spoke, a helicopter from the Ifor peacekeeping force hovered above the stadium.

When the meeting began, every throw, every jump, however modest, received the rapturous applause usually reserved for world records or championship- winning feats. When the teenaged Bosnian, Anton Sisul, won the first event on the new track, a junior 1,000 metres, he got as warm a reception as Michael Johnson had enjoyed at the cash-rich IAAF Grand Prix finals in Milan two days earlier.

The absence of the likes of Johnson, some through fear, did cause some loathing in Sarajevo. "You can be a great athlete, be tall, strong and have great talent," said an indignant Primo Nebiolo, the head of the international athletics federation, "but some don't have the heart and the courage. That is why the athletes who are here are the best in the world."

There were some quality performances, though, such as the 1,000m victory in 2min 15.89sec by Vincent Malakwen, one of a large Kenyan contingent to support a meeting, which certainly inspired hope. When asked whether gold medallists like Johnson were missed, one Bosnian woman just beamed, delighted at the two hours of entertainment she had just witnessed. "Perhaps they will come next year,"she said.