When politics makes a splash

Be it Serbia versus Montenegro in the pool or North Korea v South in ping pong, the Olympics offer no refuge from diplomatic relations

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The Independent Online

An oasis of calm in an often conflicted world is how Lord Coe described the Olympic experience. His words were broadcast on a big screen behind one goal at the water polo centre. The audience were too polite to nudge and giggle. They knew what he meant. They also knew that there was not an iota of calm in a venue that is host to the kind of conflict, which in intensity and purpose if not weaponry and murderous deed, is in sporting terms a match for that to which the Olympics is supposed to be a refuge.

Of course, in the context of the Balkan crisis of recent history an attempt to place an Olympic duel between Serbia and Montenegro on a war footing would be an affront to those who perished. Nevertheless, proximity of borders and diplomatic tension between the two inflamed a fixture already infused with the heightened dynamic of a local derby.

Serbia and Montenegro, who, when brothers in arms won silver together in Athens, have known enmity after the secession of the latter from the former six years ago.

Montenegro's diplomatic acknowledgement of an independent Kosovo was a step too far for a Serbian nation desperate to hold on to the province. The estrangement between Serbia and Montenegro was serious but not bloody and has since recovered to allow the return of diplomatic relations. In the names on the team sheets, in faith, in language and in culture there are few differences between the states. You could say the same of Manchester and Liverpool but when United and City, Liverpool and Everton line up, a chasm the size of Cheddar Gorge is revealed.

In the Olympic milieu there could hardly be a more convenient forum for settling disputes. Water polo is softened only be the medium in which it is played. This is cage fighting in water. Size is not only an advantage but a necessity. The action follows the basketball template of switching from end to end and when the ball approaches the attack zone it is contested with a brutal ferocity. Broken ribs are not rare and the nipple tweak is as common as the shirt pull in football.

Serbia came into this match unbeaten in two matches, including the 21-7 thumping of Britain. Montenegro lost narrowly to the favourites, United States, and edged Hungary by the odd goal in 21.

Everything about this contest suggested it would be tight so it was a shock to see Serbia race into a two-goal lead, which defined the first quarter of the contest. Montenegro halved the deficit and hit the frame of the goal twice in a spirited response but it was Serbia who scored next to take a two-goal lead into the second period.

The respite brought by the whistle was an opportunity for the audience to draw breath. Neutrality offers no protection from the broiling feud. Mercifully the action, though often requiring the temporary exclusion of repeat offenders, did not breach the spirit of competition in the manner of the conflagration between the Soviet Union and Hungary in Melbourne 56 years ago. The Soviet invasion of Hungary three weeks before and the brutal repression that followed introduced a material dimension absent in this contest and led to a mass brawl between the teams. Police protection was required for those with Soviet connections in the crowd.

None shall forget the tragic consequences that can occur when the manipulation and exploitation of the global platform provided by the Olympics is turned to fanatical ends. The low-key service by the IOC before these Games to remember the 17 Israelis who died at the hands of terrorists in Munich 40 years ago drew plenty of criticism, and demonstrated how delicate a step is required when negotiating political considerations at the greatest show on earth.

One can only imagine how much the organisers are looking forward to tomorrow's meeting across a table tennis table between North Korea and their brothers from the South. The two States are technically at war, a dynamic not helped by the flag fiasco at Hampden Park, when the South Korean standard was raised instead of the colours of the North in the women's football. The Olympics was always going to provide the North with an awkward challenge; how to present the Games to the people at home in the face of coverage provided by an evil foreign media.

The official Korean news agency talks of the 23 million being caught up in a "tumult of joy", which contrasts with early figures suggesting the North was broadcasting only 15-minute daily highlight packages. Four golds later that has risen to five hours a day. The gold rush will have come as a relief to the 56 athletes from the North who have made the trip to London. Labour camps on their return for those who embarrass the supreme leader are among the wilder rumours circulating in the Olympic Village, or is that just western propaganda?

Back in the pool Montenegro did not lose another session, winning the second 2-1, the third 5-4 and drawing the final quarter with a goal in the final minute to level the match at 11 apiece. By then the crowd were begging for mercy never mind the players.

You do the calculations. A total of 22 celebrations over a period of 32 minutes amounts to an awful lot of fanfare. Each goal is met with attendant whooping and hollering and, of course, a percussive blast across the public address system from the canon of pop anthems.

Protocol allows for a two-minute break at the end of the first and third quarters and five minutes at half-time. You would be right to assume the recovery time is directed at those watching as much as the water boys. Hungary and Romania followed. It was no less insane, sundry sub-aqua strangleholds and forearm smashes earning the hitmen another spell in the exclusion zone to consider their behaviour. An oasis of calm, perhaps.

Shaherkani set to make history for Saudi women

The first woman to represent Saudi Arabia in the Olympics begins her campaign today.

Sixteen-year-old judoka Wojdan Shaherkani will fight Puerto Rico's Melissa Mojica, ranked 13 in the world, in the first round of the +78kg category.

Shaherkani very nearly withdrew from the competition after judo officials initially prevented her from wearing a hijab because of safety concerns. However, on Monday, they agreed that she could wear a modified version of the garment.

Shaherkani is one of two women on the Saudi team along with 800m runner Sarah Attar.