September 14, 2000

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Tenacity amidst turmoil

Chindu Sreedharan

There is something that every one of the 10,305 athletes now congregated in Sydney has carried to Olympics 2000.

Something staggering.

The pride of his nation.

Among this crowd are the representatives of a few nations reeling under political turmoil. They make a resounding statement by being there.

Just by being there.

To them Olympics 2000 is a shortcut to two things: acceptance by the rest of the world and, more practically, uplift of their ravaged national spirit.

Some are proven athletic powers. Like Cuba and Yugoslavia. But there are greenhorns too -- and not in terms of Olympic participation alone.

Like East Timor, which took birth just last October.

What will unfold in Sydney could well shape the fate of these nations...

EAST Timorese boxer Victor Ramos is incredibly fortunate to be alive and in Sydney this spring day.

He should have died to the hail of bullets that militiamen rained on him and hundreds of his countrymen last year.

He survived. He has a two-inch bullet wound on his abdomen to show for it.

Cesar Pinto, another boxer, was similarly lucky. He too should have fallen that night 13 months ago when five militiamen knocked on his door.

"They stormed in and shoved guns in our faces," he says.

While the armed men ransacked his house, Pinto pleaded for his and his elderly mother's life. Next door, Pinto's friend and weightlifter Jaimey Lay, 21, was watching militiamen spray his house with bullets. Near him his mother sobbed.

The two families managed to escape when the gunmen were distracted by sounds of bullets elsewhere. They fled into the nearby jungle, knowing at some remote level that all their worldly possessions were being burnt down behind.

Like hundreds of their countrymen, they spent the next few weeks in the jungle, emerging only when the United Nations troops arrived in September.

"You could see and hear gunshots -- pop, pop, pop -- from very early in the morning until long after the sun went down," Lay will tell you today. "They just killed so many people for no reason."

On October 19, 1999 the Indonesian parliament set East Timor free. The half-island became the world's newest nation.

Indonesia had ruled East Timor since 1975, when it invaded the former Portuguese colony. In the quarter century that followed, an estimated 200,000 East Timorese died from war, famine and disease. Hundreds more were killed and tortured under the military occupation.

In the few months before it got independence, the army let loose a reign of terror, forcing two-thirdsof the population to flee. The aim was to spoil the UN-supervised referendum.

Out of all these rose the tottering nation of East Timor -- and survivors like Ramos, Pinto and Lay. They were among the nine selected -- three marathon runners, three boxers, two weightlifters and one taekwondo fighter -- under the International Olympic Committee's Solidarity Scholarship.

They trained at the Northern Territory Institute of Sport in Darwin, north Australia. "The facilities were wonderful," says Ramos. "In East Timor there is nothing, no equipment to train with. The militia burnt it all."

Besides Ramos, three others qualified for Sydney: weightlifter Martinho De Araujo, and marathon runners Aguida Amaral and Calisto Da Costa.

ALBERTO Juantorena is smiling. The Cuban, who chugged to gold in the 400 and 800 metres at the '76 Olympics, is a senior Olympic committee official today -- one who has immense faith in his "boys".

Just as he had five years ago, during the Atlanta Olympics. "I promise you," he had said prior to that grand event, "in Atlanta we will be better [than at the Barcelona Olympics, where it won the most medals per capita]. I am going to be there. You can interview me afterwards, and I will show you. I will have medals in my hands."

And he had. Twenty-five of them. Nine gold, eight silver, eight bronze.

Cuba came ninth then. After United States (44 gold, 32 silver, 25 bronze), Germany (20 gold, 18 silver, 27 bronze), Russia (26 gold, 21 silver, 16 bronze), China (16 gold, 22 silver, 12 bronze), Australia (9 gold, 9 silver, 23 bronze), France (15 gold, 7 silver, 15 bronze), Italy (13 gold, 10 silver, 12 bronze) and South Korea (7 gold, 15 silver, 6 bronze).

And this, despite limitations that would have crippled the Olympic dreams of many countries.

A former Spanish colony, Cuba has been economically isolated for the last 40 years. Its Marxist government, with the legendary Fidel Castro at its head, is opposed by the US and other powers. Cuban athletes eat poorly, play in second-rate avenues. Their economy is far from healthy, begging and prostitution are on the rise. The athletes face severe shortages of gas, power, soap and medicine.

Yet, Cuba still continues to churn out great sportsmen.

It has a world-class female volleyball team. Its baseball teams captured gold medals in the Pan American Games and the Summer Olympics. In track and field competition, its athletes outperformed teams from all other American countries except the United States.

Eliecer Urrutía set a world record in triple jump at an international meet in 1997. Javier Sotomayor holds the record in high jump. Juantorena dominated the field in the 1970s. Heavyweight Boxer Teófilo Stevenson stood out in the 1970s and '80s.

Cuba boycotted the 1984 and 1988 Olympics Games. In 1992 at Barcelona it bagged 31medals and four years later, 25 more.

And this time around? Ask that of Juantorena if you meet him in Sydney. He is certain to smile the same smile, bellow the same answer:

"We will do better. I will have medals in my hands."

And he will.

FOR Juri Zdovc, former Yugoslavian basketball player, the beginning of the end came nine years ago. In 1991, during the European Championship.

Slovenia had declared its independence from Yugoslavia three days before the semi-finals. The Yugoslavian army's response was to attack Ljubljana, the new country's capital.

On the day of the finals, Zdovc received a fax from the Slovenian sports minister: Don't play that night. If you do, you will be considered a traitor.

With his wife and child back home, Zdovc had no choice. He dropped out tearfully.

"I understood," says Toni Kukoc, his teammate who went on to become an NBA player, "It wasn't basketball anymore."

If ever you need proof that war and sports don't mix, look at Yugoslavia, Croatia, Bosnia and Slovenia. United, as Yugoslavs, they fielded near-invincible basketball teams. In the mid-80s, after a discouraging first half, their boys came out of the locker room "like dogs that hadn't eaten for days" to chew up the US in the World Junior Basketball Championship.

"We were Yugoslavs," says Divac, one of the members of that Dream Team. "Just like Americans might be from Los Angles, New York, Texas. Different accents, maybe. But not different."

Then the war broke out. By September 1991 it had spread to Croatia. And with the disintegration of their society into Yugoslavs, Slovenes, Bosnians and Croats, the Dream Team fell apart.

Today, thanks to its wars and the economic sanctions it had to undergo, Yugoslavia is one of the poorest countries in Europe. It was not invited to the 1992 Barcelona Games. At the Atlanta Olympics, its men managed the silver in basketball and bronze in volleyball. The saving grace was Alexandra Ivosev, who won the gold in the small-bore rifle competition.

Croatia and Bosnia too fared badly. In Barcelona, the latter's basketball team won a silver. Bosnia had no success at all. It sent a team in 1994 to the Winter Games in Lillehammer, Norway. There, its men -- one Serb, one Croat, and two Bosnians -- competed using a borrowed sled.

Contrast this situation with that in the time of unity. In 1980, Yugoslavia's medal tally was two gold, three silver and four bronze. In 1984 it had seven gold, four silver and seven bronze. In 1988, three gold, four silver and five bronze.

Yugoslavia's tragedy can be best expressed in Slovenan basketball player Alibegovic's words. "You know," he says, "I never knew what nationality anyone was when we were playing with each other. And I bet you that they never knew what I was... Well, now we know."

NINE years of anarchy has only whetted Somalia's appetite for sports. Especially after 1991when Dictator Maxamed Siyaad Barre was overthrown by the military.

Since then the country hasn't had a centralised government. The continuing civil war, with guerrilla armies tearing at each other, is bleeding it.

Today Somalia is going ahead with the initiative it launched in 1996 -- Sports for Peace. The idea is to use sports to build bridges and bring about a peaceful settlement.

Football and athletics are very dear to Somalis. The latter now enjoys an edge, thanks mainly to runner Abdi Bile. He had won the gold in the 1,500-metre race at the 1987 World Track and Field Championships in Rome.

Somalia competed in the Olympic Games of 1972, 1984 and 1988. It participated in only athletic events, with teams of less than 15. This year too, its team is small. Just seven members: six runners and one tennis player. Sports critics do not think that any of them have a realistic chance of winning in Sydney. Nor, for that matter, has any Somali ever won an Olympic medal.

"But if the country's participation helps uplift the national spirit, their contribution may be worth more than gold," they hold.

True. That goes for the rest of such nations. Luckily, most are in a better position than Somalia. Ethiopia, for instance, despite years of dictatorship, is the land of marathon runner Abele Bikila.

Comments a sportswriter, "The international triumphs of Ethiopian runners, highlighted by their eight Olympic gold medals, have lifted the spirits of the people deeply aggrieved by political conflicts, social upheaval and environmental disasters."

So it has. One can hope that Sydney helps all countries in turmoil.

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