London 2012: Syrian athletes make the most of Games while civil war rages on


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The Independent Online

Athletes from Syria are enjoying their time in London despite the ongoing civil war in their home country.  

The team have been spotted at some of London’s most iconic sights, including Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. And a series of photographs posted on Syrian cyclist Omar Hasanen’s Facebook page showed them enjoying life a world away from the turmoil at home — before being hastily removed.

One showed two of the athletes in policemen’s hats and red uniforms. In others, they were pictured tucking into fast food in the athletes’ village, playing chess on a giant board and joining in with a band.

The Syrians — six men and four women — are competing in seven sports including boxing, high jump, hurdles, swimming and shooting. It is the country’s biggest team since the 1980 Moscow Games.

They have sought to blank out the civil war raging in their country, in which activists say more than 20,000 people have died in 17 months.

“We never talk about this,” said swimmer Bayan Jumah from Aleppo, scene of fierce fighting between president Assad’s troops and rebel forces. Jumah, 18, swam in the 100 metre freestyle heats on Wednesday — the day Assad ordered his soldiers to step up the attack on rebel enclaves in Aleppo.

She said: “I’m in touch with my family. In the centre there is nothing (no fighting). The problem is around.”

The team have managed to touch the hearts of spectators. Boxer Wessam Slamana, 26, won a standing ovation after losing his bout and said: “I am touched by the gesture everyone has shown here.”

However, despite the athletes’ efforts to carry on, the war does touch the Games.

Syrian National Olympic Committee chief General Mowaffak Joumaa was banned from entering Britain, and there have been calls for showjumper Ahmad Saber Hamcho, who reportedly said the Syrian team should represent the president as well as the country’s people, to be barred from the Games.