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Bosnia Struggles To Unite Behind Its Olympic Hopefuls

Members of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 2014 Winter Olympic team: Igor Laikert, Zana Novakovic, and Tanja Karisik (front row, left to right)
Members of Bosnia-Herzegovina's 2014 Winter Olympic team: Igor Laikert, Zana Novakovic, and Tanja Karisik (front row, left to right)
SARAJEVO -- The Olympics are traditionally a time for countries to pull together under the national flag.

At the end of January, the Olympic Committee of Bosnia-Herzegovina selected alpine skier Zana Novakovic, an ethnic Serb from the city of Pale in Republika Srpska, Bosnia's ethnic-Serbian entity, to carry the flag at the February 7 opening ceremony in Sochi.

The selection created a minor stir in multiethnic Bosnia, where some felt that skier Igor Laikert, of the Muslim-Croat Federation, should have been accorded the honor.

The debate was an echo of the growing pains of a country that declared independence in 1992 amid the collapse of the former Yugoslavia and then experienced a bloody war that pitted the region's main ethnic and religious groups -- Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Bosniaks -- against one another in an orgy of violence. Pale, Novakovic's hometown, was the Bosnian Serb wartime capital from which the siege of Sarajevo was directed.

Marija Maja Jurcenko, a pensioner from the northern city of Tuzla, isn't worried about the ethnicity of the athlete who carries the flag.
Marija Maja Jurcenko
Marija Maja Jurcenko

"It doesn't matter to me," she tells RFE/RL's Balkan Service. "I don't think about whether someone is from this or that part of Bosnia. They represent Bosnia-Herzegovina -- that's the way I was taught."

Born in Bosnia, she points out that her own mother is from Croatia, her father is from Vojvodina in northern Serbia, and her grandparents are from Ukraine.

Adis Obad, a 42-year-old soccer coach from the city of Konjic, about 60 kilometers south of Sarajevo, takes a similar view when asked if he will be cheering on all five of Bosnia's Sochi athletes.
Adis Obad
Adis Obad

"Of course I will be cheering -- and for everyone, 100 percent equally," Obad says. "There is only one Bosnia-Herzegovina. I don't care what their names are or anything else. It is only important that they succeed and that they represent Bosnia in competitions like this."

But it isn't hard to find less patriotic views. In October, the Bosnian soccer team qualified for its first-ever bid in the World Cup. Sarajevo and much of the rest of the country erupted in celebrations, but the news was greeted largely with indifference in Banja Luka, the main city of the Republika Srpska. The Sarajevo-based website spoke to fans there at the time.

"We don't much follow Bosnia," one said. "We follow Serbia more. It would have been better if Serbia had qualified."

Another added: "I don't feel anything for Bosnia, only for the Republika Srpska."

The Sochi games come on the 30th anniversary of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, widely viewed as a showcase of peaceful multiethnic coexistence. Then, the Yugoslav flag was carried at the opening ceremony by alpine skier Jure Franko of Slovenia, who went on to win Yugoslavia's first-ever Winter Olympic medal when he took silver in the giant slalom. The torch was lit by Croatian figure skater Sanda Dubravcic.

"I keep saying that the Sarajevo Olympic Games were a step toward the future," Ljubisa Zecevic, a professor in Sarajevo and was an organizer of the 1984 games, says. "But some people did not like that future. And now all that is left is for us to deal with the past. But the Olympic Games were a process of integration. Let us recover that spirit of integration."

Hajdrudin Somun, who was an official during the 1984 games, notes ruefully that those Olympics marked the first time Sarajevo had been in the global spotlight since 1914, when Austro-Hungarian Archduke Franz Ferdinand was assassinated there, setting off the chain of events that led to World War I.

But it is unclear whether Bosnia is ready to summon the spirit of unity that prevailed in 1984.

Asked whether Sarajevo should host another Olympics, local journalist Ahmed Buric says: "That's the same as asking me whether I think the 2014 World Cup should be held in Syria. I mean, I do support [holding the Olympics in Bosnia], but I am not certain that we -- being what we are now -- can repeat what was in 1984. Lots of people would say they support the idea, but I don't think this really means much."

Bedrana Kaletovic, a journalist from Tuzla, agrees: "I don't think the conditions in our country are mature enough to do that -- and the fact is that we did that to ourselves."

RFE/RL correspondent Robert Coalson contributed to this report from Prague

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