The cliche about sport being able to unite people where politics has failed is a hackneyed one. But in the first ever edition of the GP Sarajevo, where a recent bike race brought together a city ripped apart by a brutal war less than two decades ago, it rang particularly true.
Reminders of the war and the 44-month siege of Sarajevo, the longest in modern European history and in which more than 11,000 people died, are unnervingly easy to find in the city, even at this bike race, which starts in a tranquil residential area in Sarajevo’s eastern side.
The 120 or so riders line up for the start underneath the usual inflatable banners and barriers that you’d find in any event, but as the cheesy pop music beloved of most race organisers reaches deafening levels on the tannoys, you notice that nearby buildings have long single lines of bullets holes stitched across their outer walls.
And when a few hours later Slovenian Matej Marin raises his arms in triumph as he and a group of 16 other leading riders reach the finish in Marsala Tita square, the two closest older buildings, five-storey residences with shops underneath, are riddled with bullet impacts from top to bottom. The square was one of the most dangerous parts of ‘Snipers Alley’ during the war, a spot where anybody crossing from one side to the other risked being killed by gunmen’s bullets from nearby hillsides.
With 60 per cent of the city destroyed during the war, (which is why so much is still scarred by it) and an average of 3,000 projectiles falling on Sarajevo every day for three years, sport was hardly a concern back then. The 1984 Winter Olympics stadium - where Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean took gold - was one of the first places destroyed by enemy fire, and some of the city’s football fields were used as impromptu cemeteries. Graves were simply pile after pile of heaped up earth running the length of the entire pitch, the white goalposts at each end indistinguishable, at a distance, from the single white stones in the centre of each makeshift tomb.
But if sport and war became entangled for all the wrong reasons during the conflict, the GP Sarajevo now represents the first collective attempt on the city’s part to put its war-torn past behind it and re-unite itself geographically - through sport, too.
The race route is therefore deliberately chosen to run from East Sarajevo - outlying suburbs previously occupied by Serb forces when they besieged the city, and now governed as a completely separate Serb entity, even with its own mayor - to the city’s much larger principal area.
Yet reminders of the conflict are, perhaps deliberately, inescapable throughout all of the race, not just in the Bosnian capital: the route’s main climb of the day is an ascent of Mount Igman, overlooking Sarajevo and the scene of bloody battles. Previously it has threaded its way across several former battlelines and loops together 14 towns populated by each the country’s three main communities - Bosniak, Serb and Croatian - at one point or another, at loggerheads in the war.
The GP Sarajevo ushers in a series of commemorative events, too, centred on the assassination of the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, on June 28th 1914 in Sarajevo, which triggered the start of the 1914-18 First World War. But sadly the bike race has highlighted not just the divisions that still endure from the Bosnian war - but from long before, too.
The GP Sarajevo is the only commemorative event for the Great War in which the Serbian Republic inside Bosnia-Herzegovina is willing to take part. The reason is that some Serb historians consider Gavilo Princip, the Archduke’s assassin, to be a freedom fighter, and there is such resentment at Princip’s largely being purely classified, outside Serbia, as the man who unwittingly lit the fuse to World War I that no other collaboration beyond the GP Sarajevo has been successful.
All of which makes the GP Sarajevo even more significant, though, as one of the very few occasions when the mental drawbridges that exist on both sides finally are lowered. The Sarajevo’s two mayors are said barely to talk to each other in usual circumstances. But before and after the race, they occupy the same winners podium to hand out trophies and awards together. Later, and out of sight of the cameras, they even continue to chat a little.
And perhaps more importantly than the politicians smiles for the media, the GP Sarajevo represents a chance for fans and racers, not to mention the 3,000-odd bike riders who took part in a cyclo-tourism event immediately preceding it, to put their old differences aside, too.
“These events are very important,” said one amateur rider, who did not want to be named, “we all know what happened here, but we all enjoy sport, too.” An additional attraction, he said, was the presence of a gleaming red Tour de France official vehicle at the head of the pack: this year, at least, logistical support for the GP Sarajevo, itself the brainchild of the French ambassador to Bosnia-Herzegovina, has been provided by the Tour organisers. ASO.
“When I heard about this I didn’t hesitate for a second to think about coming” said Ireland’s Stephen Roche - invited over by the organisation along with several other Tour de France winners. Roche’s homeland has had more than its own fair share of civil conflict, too, and indeed this May the Giro d’Italia in May, starting in Belfast and with stages in Dublin, also was partly a bid to build bridges in a divided community.
“I was with the Giro in Belfast and saw how good it was at bringing people together. Nobody was left, right, or centre, they were all pink”- the Giro’s emblematic colour.
“It’s a very similar story to Northern Ireland: when you meet people in the street, they’re so positive, they want to move forward.”
“And at the same time, this is part of the centenary commemorations for World War I: three Tour de France winners lost their lives in that conflict too. So there were lots of reasons for coming.”
Radisa Cubric is the director of the one Serbian team taking part, CCN-Metala, and a former pro. He says that although there had been a strong tradition of cycling in the Balkans - up to the 1970s the Tour of Yugoslavia was one of the world’s biggest amateur races - during the war for those dreaming like himself of forging a career on the road there was no option but exile. For him, therefore, this race is hugely important for local cycling to grow again.
“[In the 1990s] the races were cancelled left and right, there were sanctions against Yugoslavia, we don’t want think about those memories, but it’s hard to forget.”
“I went to the States myself, raced with Tyler Hamilton” - Lance Armstrong’s future team-mate - “in Montgomery Bell [in 1996], the team that later became US Postal Service.”
“I’m Serb, but I was raised that we were all brothers and the war was a surprise. Politics is one thing, but sport has to be another. We were sad at our countries destroying each other.”
“We’ve been through so many things, but athletes can be ambassadors for peace.”
The GP Sarajevo’s first winner, from Slovenia, another part of former Yugoslavia, may be nearly 30 years younger that Cubric but he is equally aware of the wider implications.
“This race is very special,” Marin tells The Independent, “we all have to know what was here in the war. I’m happy people are looking forward, putting the past behind them.”
A promising beginning then, but the GP Sarajevo will face its true test of time, though, next year. Should it survive when all the foreign media interest surrounding the WWI centenary has faded away, that will be no small victory in itself - and perhaps a hint, albeit a small one, that the scars of such a bitter conflict could one day disappear too.