Syrian Olympic athletes represent nation in crisis

Syrian Olympic athletes represent nation in crisis

DAMASCUS - Agence France-Presse
Syrian Olympic athletes represent nation in crisis

Syrian athlete Majd Ghazal, 25, who will take part in the 2012 Olympics high jump competition, trains at a stadium in Damascus. AFP photo

As violence wracks Syria with rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a team of 10 athletes from the country are preparing to travel to London for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

“We want to show the world a different image than that given by the satellite television stations,” said Ghofrane Mohammed, a 23-year-old sprinter. “It will be amazing to hear the Syrian national anthem played in London,” he said, whose specialty is the 400-meter hurdles.

“The whole world will know that we were able to train and participate despite the crisis,” added Mohammed, who trains at night in Damascus’s Tishrin stadium in preparation for her first Olympics.
But the “crisis” that Mohammed refers to -- a 16-month uprising against Assad’s regime -- has put the Syrian Olympic team in the middle of a political and diplomatic storm.

The British government, which has implemented European Union sanctions against Assad’s regime, reportedly declined to issue a visa to Syrian Olympic Committee head General Mowaffak Joumaa, who is close to Assad.

Joumaa, who calls himself “proud to be from the Syrian army,” condemned a “conspiracy” against Syria and said his Olympic athletes would compete to show “their attachment to their country and its leadership.” The president of the country’s General Sports Union also criticized what he termed the “violation of Olympic conventions” and condemned “the false democracy of the West.”

Syria’s athletes will be “real ambassadors” for their country, he told Agence France-Presse.

The team “reflects the national unity between all the parts of our people,” he added, referring to the diverse ethnic and religious communities in Syria.

Jomaa denied that the Syrian delegation had been threatened or put under pressure to stay away from the London Games, though he acknowledged he had “seen something to that effect on social networks.” And he brushed aside the possibility that the team could come under attack at the Games.
“We talked about it with the team and they insisted that they would not submit to pressure or blackmail,” he said.

The Syrian Olympic team will take part in seven competitions and has a total of 28 members, including the athletes, making it the largest Syrian delegation since the 1980 Olympic Games were held in Moscow.