Where There’s War, There Are No Games : Yugoslavia: With bloodshed in country, sports is used as political tool, but there are no real winners.
The “Two Gorans” have taken their ball and gone home.
Both ranked among the top 20 male tennis professionals in the world, Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic have refused to play under the Yugoslav flag, joining other athletes in a fight for recognition of secessionist Croatia.
“My racket is my gun,” says Ivanisevic, who says he is doing his part in Croatia’s war for independence by bringing sports fame to his diplomatically isolated native land.
But for athletes engaged in team sports, the breakup of Yugoslavia has dashed dreams and crippled competition. Slovenia’s world-class women’s ski team has no recognized country to race for. Yugoslavia’s national basketball squad, once considered the only real challenge to the United States at the next Summer Olympics, has split into Serbian and Croatian factions. Even sports traditionally dominated by Serbs, such as water polo and volleyball, have beendamaged by the wholesale pullout of their Slovenian and Croatian players.
Much like the foundering federation itself, Yugoslav sports has been done in by nationalism, crumbling into weak fragments that hold no hope of matching their collective clout.
Both the secessionists and those still playing for what remains of a Yugoslav state lament the loss of the federation’s sports prowess, which all agree equaled more than the sum of its parts. Athletes and coaches note the irony of Yugoslavia’s bold refusal to join either superpower Olympic boycott during the 1980s, only to be defeated in advance of the forthcoming Winter Games at Albertville, France, by a conflict of its own making.
The normal boosterism heard from national sports managers is absent in Caslav Veljic, secretary general of the Yugoslav Olympic Committee. An ethnic Serb overseeing the dregs of a federal team, Veljic acknowledges there isn’t a ghost of a medal contender among the 18 men and six women signed on to compete for Yugoslavia at Albertville.
“They’ll need flashlights to find their way back from the rear of the pack,” Veljic says. “We don’t have even a single, outside chance for a medal.”
When the republic of Slovenia announced in mid-November that its Olympic athletes would not compete for Yugoslavia, the federal team dropped from 41 athletes to 24 and pulled the country out of ski jumping entirely, as all six qualifiers were Slovenes.
Slovenian skiers won all three of Yugoslavia’s medals in the last Winter Olympics at Calgary, Canada.
Veljic decries the use of sports as “the last weapon” in Yugoslavia’s war of self-destruction. He accuses the governments of Slovenia and Croatia of pressuring the athletes to boycott the federal team, hurting the athletes for the benefit of political one-upmanship.
The International Olympic Committee, based in Lausanne, Switzerland, will decide by the end of December whether to admit Slovenia to the Olympic community of nations or, short of formal recognition, allow the Slovenes to compete as stateless persons.
“We are training as if we had every expectation of competing,” women’s ski coach Joze Drobnic says. “We are acting as though we were as assured of getting in as if we were Austria or Norway.”
It’s not skill the Slovenian women lack. They are widely considered the second-best team in the world, after the Austrians, with good chances for several medals at Albertville. What the tiny Alpine republic doesn’t have is formal recognition of its statehood.
Slovenia’s Natasa Bokal believes she is at her athletic peak at 24 and expects at least one medal if she is able to compete in four Olympic events, as planned.
But if forced to choose between skiing under the Yugoslav flag or not competing at all?
“I prefer not going to Albertville,” she says.
“I think we will be going to the Olympics and that we will be going as Slovenia,” she declares with the naive confidence that has typified her country’s quest for international acceptance after punching the first hole in the 73-year-old Yugoslav alliance.
Slovenia and Croatia declared independence on June 25, setting in motion the violent cycle that has since cost more than 7,000 lives and made half a million people homeless.
Athletes in both secessionist republics claim to be inspired by the opportunity to bring favorable attention to their nations, which are little-known except as the scene of war.
“International competition is an opportunity for the world to recognize Slovenia,” Bokal says. “This is a good motivation for me to perform well.”
In tennis, the “Two Gorans,” agree and disagree, respectively.
“I’m playing better than ever because I’m playing not only for myself, but for all of Croatia,” says 20-year-old Ivanisevic, who sees himself as an ambassador for his unrecognized, war-torn country.
The towering, 16th-ranked star has appeared at interviews after matches wearing “Stop the War in Croatia” sweat shirts. He refuses to play in any tournament that displays the Yugoslav flag beside his name, forcing organizers to show Croatia’s red checkerboard shield or no national symbol at all.
No matter what the ultimate outcome of the seemingly unstoppable war with rival Serbia, Ivanisevic says he will never again play for any country but free Croatia.
Prpic, ranked No. 18 in the world, says he admires the fervor with which the younger Goran seeks fame for Croatia. But although Prpic shares his countryman’s support for independence, he says the political limelight has inflicted new pressure on his game and hurt his concentration.
“People here are expecting me to do something to get Croatia recognized as a country,” he says. “This is my first contact with politics, and I have a lot to learn about how to do it.
“I find it very hard to concentrate now. In the beginning, I didn’t think it was hurting my game, and I didn’t think (the war) would go so far. But I have family here, so part of me has to be worried about that, even when I’m playing abroad.”
Unlike Ivanisevic and other Croatian and Slovenian athletes who ardently support their republics’ attempts to break free, 27-year-old Prpic concedes personal regret over the demise of both the Yugoslav federation and the unlikelihood that the individual republics will be able to achieve sports prominence.
“It was not wrong to feel Yugoslavian when there was peace,” Prpic says. “Now I feel more and more Croatian.”
The war is even more wrenching for those of mixed nationality, such as basketball pro Danko Cvjeticanin, a self-styled pacifist with a Serbian father and a Croatian mother.
“I don’t even remember (my father) telling me I was a Serb or a Croat,” he says. “My father taught me that I was a Yugoslavian, but now I see that was an illusion.”
The Yugoslav team, which has contributed significantly to the NBA over the years, won the silver medal at the 1988 Olympics and the World Championships in 1990. But Croatian players now refuse to play on any federal team, and the war has disrupted competition even among teams within the republic. Split, the Adriatic port that is host of the European league champion team, has been under periodic bombardment by the Yugoslav federal army, forcing nightly blackouts that prevent practice or competition.
Yugoslavia’s national hockey team has also been fractured along republic lines, and the inter-republic league has ceased to function.
Igor Kosovic, a player on both Red Star Belgrade and the defunct national team, says that it is rare when either squad can muster even a good practice these days, although Red Star has played National Hockey League teams.
“There are only Serbian players left on the Yugoslav team. From the 20 or 25 we had earlier, we are now only four or five,” says the Serbian player. “The players from Serbia were the best, but for hockey, you need to have a bench.”
The war has cost Kosovic more than the current season of play. Red Star games provided his income and nurtured dreams of a professional career in Western Europe or North America.
Kosovic is negotiating a one-year contract to play in Italy, but fears that the flood of refugees from the Yugoslav war is poisoning European attitudes toward his native land and hurting his chances of a long-term stay.
“I’ve seen how Serbs are viewed abroad nowadays, like the Jews were viewed during the last war,” he says.
Yugoslavia did not qualify for the Olympic hockey competition, but Kosovic says the team was gaining strength before the war and could have moved up to Group A play if the Slovenes and Croats hadn’t pulled out.
In a refrain heard throughout Serbia, Olympic team administrator Veljic contends that Yugoslavia never amounted to much in winter sports, and he shrugs off the broken basketball team as a loss mostly for Croatia.
“The basketball players from Croatia are truly world-class,” Veljic says. “But everything has its price. We in the Olympic committee regret that this is happening, but life goes on. That’s life.”
Special correspondent Danica Kirka contributed to this story.