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Bosnian Athletes Overcome Obstacles to Get to Olympics

  • Michael Gallant

Prague, July 12 (RFE/RL) -- Few Olympic athletes participating in next month's games in Atlanta have faced the recent struggles Islam Dzugum and Samir Karabasic have to survive, let alone compete.

Dzugum, a marathoner, and Karabasic, a kayaker, served in the Bosnian army during the war there but managed to train for the Olympics in the middle of the conflict. Dzugum and Karabasic are two of the eight athletes who will be representing Bosnia at the Olympics.

Dzugum ran daily in Sarajevo through nearly four years of the siege of the Bosnian capital, defying snipers and shell fire during his two-hour runs.

"In the early days of the war a lot of people thought I was mad setting out into a war zone on a run," Dzugum has said. "But running kept me sane."

Drafted in April 1992, Dzugum still managed to run despite his frontline duties with the army. He said, "Can you imagine spending 24 hours of each day in a cellar hiding from shells and bullets? I couldn't." He also used his runs to collect wood for his family's stove and to fill plastic containers with water.

Dzugum, a 35-year-old former shoe factory worker, often saw death and destruction during his runs and carries those memories with him. He said he alternated the times of his runs to avoid the attention of snipers. He never used the same route, but noted he often couldn't avoid trouble no matter what route he chose. He said, "I've seen a lot of evil. I saw three massacres. I ran over and helped select the living from the dead. It was normal."

Dzugum is not regarded as a medal contender. His personal best time of two hours and 24 minutes is about 18 minutes slower than the world record. Nonetheless, the obstacles he has overcome to make it to Atlanta make his journey something special, no matter his performance in the race. He has said making it to the Olympics "is something beyond words. It's everything I ever wanted."

Karabasic left his Bosnian army unit 15 months ago, asking to be released from service so he could try to qualify for the Olympics. He was unable to train for most of the past three years. The best place for Karabasic to prepare for the Olympics was the Una River, but he could not train there because the river was part of the front line between Bosnian Serb and Bosnian government forces. Karabasic, who served in an infantry unit, also had hepatitis and spent six months in bed.

He departed his army unit and Bosnia by taking a dangerous helicopter flight across Bosnian Serb territory to get out of the country. His coach Senad Zulic recently said that the helicopter carrying him and Karabasic came under mortar fire. Zulic says all their equipment and belongings were left behind, but that he and Karabasic began to re-equip with donations and help from the International Olympic Committee and other countries. Karabasic fled first to Zagreb and later went to Slovenia, where he trained on rivers there.

Karabasic is currently training in a battered kayak he brought from Zagreb, but the Bosnian team is trying to get a new boat for him for the competition. The initial training was taking place on Logan Martin Lake, which is near Pell City, Alabama, a lakeside city and the site of the Bosnian training camp. Karabasic then moved to Tennessee's Ocoee River, where the Olympic white water events will take place. Karabasic's training regimen in Bosnia included working out daily at a gym for two hours and rowing on rapids for two more hours. He also ran 19 kilometers twice a week.

Karabasic, like Dzugum, carries bad memories of the war in Bosnia. The war is not a popular topic with team members and their staff. Karabasic and his coach Zulic said team officials had asked them not to discuss the conflict, which made it nearly impossible for Bosnia's athletes to train for the Games.

Izudin Filipovic, secretary general of the Bosnian Olympic Committee, said many of the Bosnian athletes couldn't train in Bosnia during the war and also after the conflict because most of the country's sports facilities were destroyed.

The Bosnian team also includes a table tennis player, shooters, a wrestler, and a swimmer. Filipovic is proud of their work as athletes and as survivors of the Bosnian conflict.

He concluded, "The work our athletes perform is far, far more significant for Bosnia than anything a group of our best diplomats could achieve."