In Croatia, war and sports form unfortunate union


ALBERTVILLE, France -- The words were handwritten in English on a wrinkled piece of paper, and tacked between bus schedules onto the press center bulletin board: "Come for a talk with our athletes about sports and war."

Sports and war. You say they don't belong in the same sentence, and then you meet the Olympians from Croatia.

The figure skater who couldn't practice last fall because they kept switching off the electricity in his rink during bombing raids, turning the ice into puddles.

The ski coach whose best friend, a former national slalom champion, wasshot dead in a battle outside Dubrovnik a couple of months ago.

The 18-year-old skier whose hands shook as he spoke about training with his teammates in Austria and being unable to think straight, calling his parents every night to see if they were all right.

"It is a very hard thing," said the young skier, Vedran Pavlek, "to train for sports when your country is at war."

It is an ethnic civil war that is shredding Yugoslavia. Croatians and Slovenians re-established their republics last year, and now the Croatian army is fighting the Yugoslavian army, made up mostly of Serbians.

The United States still hasn't recognized Croatia, but the International Olympic Committee did on Jan. 17 -- just 22 days before the opening ceremonies of these Winter Olympics. "A day of great celebration," Pavlek said.

There wasn't time to put together much of a team, just a couple of skiers and figure skaters. Everything was harried and complicated. They found a sponsor to pay for winter boots, but the boots were confiscated by border guards. No matter.

Just having the team -- that was what mattered.

You say sports and war don't belong in the same sentence, and then you meet these Croatians.

"We are competing here for the people on the front lines," Pavlek said. "It is important for them and all the people at home to see this, the Croatian flag in the opening ceremonies, the Croatian name on the scoreboard."

He was wearing a purple sports jacket, gray tie and mousse in his hair, and, like all of his coaches and teammates, spoke beautiful English. As he was interviewed, a press agent handed out media guides, postcards and Croatian Olympic Team buttons.

It is all merely symbolism, but with a powerful thrust. Other visible Croatians in sports -- tennis pros Goran Ivanisevic and Goran Prpic, and Drazen Petrovic of the NBA's New Jersey Nets -- send money for food and medical supplies. But only Olympians can march in front of the world with a Croatian flag.

"At first, when the war began, it was very hard to take our sports seriously," Pavlek said. "But then you realize this is a way you can help Croatia. For the people at home to see us here, it is a special thing."

Pavlek is the only member of the four-man national ski team who didn't get called to serve. The others are army ski instructors, an important job in a war with so much mountain fighting that the Slovenian national team had to postpone training because their ski runs were sprayed by rifle fire.

"If I think about my teammates in the army long enough," Pavlek said, "it becomes difficult to ski."

Meanwhile, he is spending these two weeks in the Olympic village at Brides-les-Baines, sharing buffet lines and dance floors with some of the 22 athletes -- mostly Serbs -- that Yugoslavia brought.

It can be so difficult. The war has split such old friends as Petrovic and Vlade Divac, the Los Angeles Lakers' Serbian center. Divac stomped on the Croatian flag at basketball's world championships last year, angry that politics were breaking up the powerful Yugoslavian national team. Petrovic couldn't forgive him.

"But me, I have no problem with the Serbian athletes," Pavlek said. "In sport, there is nothing that can divide us. We see each other, we say hello. I've known them for years. Competed with them on the junior circuit. It is the members of the delegation I say nothing to. The officials. These people aren't interested in me."

A 23-year-old figure skater was chosen by the infant Croatian Olympic Committee to carry the flag in the opening ceremonies. Tomislav Cizmesija is a medical student who couldn't practice last fall because the Yugoslavian military kept bombing Zagreb, where he lives.

"At the worst, there were sirens, maybe five, six, seven times day," he said. "No ice, of course. And if you're caught outside when it happens, you go running crazy to find shelter somewhere. It was impossible to train. Your mind is just going crazy."

Sports and war. They belong in the same sentence this time.

"We are here as sportsmen," said Pavlek, wise far beyond his 18 years, "but we are really here to let the world know that we are on our own now, that we are not part of Yugoslavia anymore. That we are a country. A new country, fighting a war."

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