Olympic triumphs continue to inspireSunday, August 01, 2021
The triumphs and heartbreaks of the Olympics now taking place in Tokyo can find interesting parallels in the 1952 Olympiad in Helsinki, almost 70 years ago, when Jamaica went through some painful moments and setbacks before taking victory out of the jaws of defeat.
Time and again stories emerge of great personal courage and endurance on the world's stage at the Olympics, at World Cup, at the Paralympics.
One of the great Olympic stories that will forever give uplift to the human spirit is the story of the heroic struggles of a little girl from Bosnia in central Europe, Mirsada Buric, who in 1992 was forced to train on a track shredded by gunfire, mortar bombarding, enemy ridicule, and sniper attacks aimed at preventing her from realising what seemed an improbable dream of competing for her country in the Olympics.
Nothing can ever surpass her exceptional experience. I believe absolutely no Jamaican; in fact, no other Olympian, has ever gone through such a test of fire to earn a place on their country's Olympic team.
It's a real-life, incredible story of courage, bravery, and some say insanity that appeals to the noblest sentiments expressed in the Olympic charter.
It's a story that we have chronicled before in this column, and one that bears telling and retelling whenever the Olympic torch is lit.
Many Jamaicans probably first heard of Bosnia and Herzegovina when, as a united team, they reached the World Cup finals in 2014. The country is situated in south-eastern Europe on the Balkan Peninsula.
It was formed as a republic out of the country of Yugoslavia following World War I (1914-18), one of several similarly placed republics brimming with a cultural and religious mixture of ethnic orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats, and Muslim Bosnians.
Eventually the infamous Slobodan Milosevic emerged as leader of the dominant Serbia Communist Party. There followed a sordid path of history at the beginning of the 1990s, which records that he immediately launched an era of ethnic cleansing with the goal of wiping out non-Serbians, attacking Croatia and Slovenia, and arming Bosnian ethnic Serbs into attacking their Muslim neighbours, seemingly with the intention of reorganising Yugoslavia to his liking.
Mirsada Buric's village was trapped in the grip of this savage war. During that period Serb snipers, mortar and artillery levelled whole towns and districts and killed thousands across the peninsula. She saw many of her family members and neighbours cut down beside her. Food was exhausted, water and electricity cut off, buildings burnt out, and shells thundered to the right of them and to the left of them. The smell of death and acrid smoke choked her.
Eventually the village fell to the marauders and Mirsada and her family were transported to a concentration camp, where they were fed on one slice of mouldy bread and a cup of cold tea each day, with two toilets provided for the over 200 prisoners.
Now, Mirsada was a well-known athlete in her country, Bosnia. She was the national cross country champion at age 20, and before the war broke out she had been training to make the Bosnian team for the Barcelona Olympics in 1992. Imagine, then, this promising, young athlete suddenly finding herself locked up in concentration camp just weeks before the Olympic Games were scheduled to begin. She was released after two weeks and sent, broken and charred, to the capital city Sarajevo, in exchange for a group of other prisoners.
The city had been under siege from constant Serbian attacks. Sniper gunmen ruled the streets, and the guns were even aimed at the city hospital. It was under these conditions that Mirsada heard that she had been selected for the Bosnian Olympic team. This must have been the most challenging selection news ever heard by a sportsperson. But she had a thing called determination.
So one morning she stepped out on to the war-torn streets to start her training. Unbelievable! Day after day she ran through sniper fire, mortar bombardments, past bullet-riddled buildings and smoking ruins. Artillery barrages dogged her footsteps every day. Sniper bullets whipped over and around her head. They were trying to kill her as she defiantly disobeyed orders to stay indoors.
Finally, one week before the Olympics, the team of 10 athletes was allowed to assemble in the Sarajevo Holiday Inn. Hours before they were due in Barcelona the clearance came and the team was escorted by United Nations armed personnel to the airport. They finally reached the Olympic Village with barely enough time to get their credentials, change into uniforms, and head to the stadium.
Then at last Mirsada was there. July 25, 1992, and she was standing on the threshold of the track as the international team names were called for the opening parade. They stood in place waiting nervously for the announcement, “Team Bosnia and Herzegovina!” And as the tiny contingent walked the track waving their blue and white national flag. The stadium erupted with a booming sound. This time Mirsada didn't have to duck. Some 65,000 people were standing and saluting her bravery and heroism with sustained rounds of cheering and applause. It was one of those moments that the world had been waiting for. Mirsada's eyes filled with tears. The impossible dream had been realised. In spite of the shootings and the killings, she had followed her star.
Mirsada's powerful story incorporates all the fundamental principles of the Olympics. Among these are the goals to place sport at the service of harmonious development of mankind, with a view to promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity. Her struggles to get to Barcelona transcended all the horrors of the war.
Yes, Jamaica, too, has been there before, at Helsinki, in London, in Barcelona, and now in Tokyo. We have seen our youngsters with very little resources rise to the top and take the world by storm. We have demonstrated that we have the ability to rise from the ashes, as did young Mirsada.
Let us look back at the distress that Jamaicans felt when Herb McKenley was denied a gold medal in the Helsinki 100 metres after being declared winner on the first call. It was one of the most dramatic finishes ever, with the top four in the race — McKenley, Trinidad's McDonald Bailey, and America's Lindy Remigino and Deon Smith — all credited with the same time, 10.4. McKenley was actually being congratulated and photographed by the press corps when word came that the photo finish showed Remigino winning 'by an eyelash'. The irony is that Remigino had already congratulated McKenley, who was now shocked and disappointed — as was the rest of the world. “The fairest thing would have been to declare a draw,” he said, “but I will not protest.”
Back home, it was a somewhat different picture. News had been relayed around 10:15 the Sunday morning by Helsinki radio that McKenley had won. People gathered in the streets for public rejoicing. When the official placing was announced we bawled out “tief!”, but the judges were over 2,000 miles away and safely out of arm's reach (Read empty beer bottle).
Still, Jamaica's dominance was being felt during those games. News reached us the day after the 100 that Jamaica had won the 400 with George Rhoden, 45.9, nosing out McKenley to give us first and second place. Arthur Wint ran fifth, so Jamaica, a tiny British outpost in the Caribbean, had three people in the final.
But much more was to come for Jamaica out of those memorable games.
On the final day of the meet, July 27, the team of McKenley, Rhoden, Wint, and Les Laing stunned the world with a record-breaking victory in the 4x400 metres relay. Getting the baton some 10 yards behind the USA's Charlie Moore, McKenley ran the third leg in 44.6 seconds, the fastest ever recorded for that distance, and the greatest race ever run for Jamaica up to that time. He collared Moore at the baton change, handing over to Rhoden for the fourth leg, while Moore handed over to Mal Whitfield. Jamaica chopped 4.3 seconds off the world and Olympic record. The four men prayed together on the field before and after the race.
There was jubilation back home. The Gleaner headline blazed 'Jamaica beats the world'. Congratulatory telegrams and cables raced across the Atlantic. The governor gazetted a public holiday. And His Honour Herbert Duffus fined 12 men £1 each for “celebrating Helsinki” in a bar at 71 Love Lane after closing hours. Shades of the curfews to come.
I write these stories to remind us of the heroic exploits of our pioneer athletes who set the pace for the champions of today. Looking back at our Olympics history, Herb McKenley once said: “Our sportsmen and women have always excelled with results far greater than our size would suggest. I will not single out individuals, but brilliant execution is only part of the story. The other part is about the hard work, sacrifice and obstacles surmounted.”
Out of these stories we can reap hope, love, courage, and endurance — gifts of the spirit that can transform our lives from the violence and deathtraps of our daily existence and place us on the same world stage of hope and endurance as exhibited in the achievements of our Helsinki pioneers, and the lives of those heroes from the Balkan states.
Lance Neita is a public relations consultant and an author. Send comments to the Jamaica Observer or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Now you can read the Jamaica Observer ePaper anytime, anywhere. The Jamaica Observer ePaper is available to you at home or at work, and is the same edition as the printed copy available at https://bit.ly/epaper-login