ALEPPO, Syria: Sports do unite people cross cultural, ethnic and religious lines but not in Syria, at least for the time being. In a country where the national symbols such as flag, currency and anthem are at the heart of a bitter and bloody dispute, the London Olympics mean little here.
“Over the last one year, the only popular sport for the youth has been raising slogans against Bashar Al-Assad and his allies while the regime played game of bloodshed,” said Yasser Nasrullah, a former professional athlete who competed in national level contests.
He had dreams to become the country’s best sprinter and earn name for himself. Nasrullah carries a shoulder-mounted RPG, using his athletic energy for an entirely opposite purpose. The Free Syrian Army has a handful of armor-piercing munitions, most of which is snatched or bought from the Assad’s army. “I always dreamed of gold, silver and bronze medals but now I score Russian-made tanks and artillery,” he explained. He claims to have two dozen tanks to his credit. When asked if he or the youth follows the happenings in London, “Without electricity, water and shelter, we are just busy discovering ourselves soaked in blood.”
Meanwhile, he spotted column of tank rolling within a kilometer radius of his vintage point. Slightly nervous Nasrullah sent out a message in a language anything but Arabic.
“Don’t be curious,” he smiling told the visiting journalists, “we have evolved our own coded language which the enemy won’t ever be able to get. Nasrullah tried to line up a few other sportsmen for the media team. The result was not encouraging. Some are arrested or missing while others are busy performing what he called the ‘national service’.
Syrian love sports particularly football. Their past Olympic performance has been dismal. The lone Olympic gold medal was earned in women’s heptathlon by Ghada Shouaa in 1996. The country previously won a silver medal men’s freestyle wrestling in 1984 Los Angeles Olympics and the latest honor was a bronze in 2004 Athens event. Nasser al-Shami, the Syrian hero at the Athens Olympics, today is recovering from sniper wounds fired at him in Hama. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights told journalists that the athlete’s condition was out of danger.
Only pro-regime sportsmen chose to compete for the London Olympics contests at the national level. Syria could send only 8-member team for the mega event, the smallest in history of Olympics since 1948.
Nasrullah is following the footsteps of national football icon Abdel Basset Saroot. His defiance inspired many for his courage to withstand torture and stand against the minority-led family rule, now in its fifth decade of rule. The regime branded him salafi, which only made him more respected amongst football fans.
Saroot told his followers through a Youtube video message, “We are not Salafis, and there is no truth to the regime’s claims about armed groups or a Salafi emirate.” He once told a group of FSA newcomers, Nasrullah recalled, “Syria is a goalpost for me and I defend my nation’s rights just like a goalkeeper in the soccer field.”
Now he sings using cross-religious symbols in sync with Syria being an extremely diverse society and the world’s oldest civilization.
Mosab Balhous, another goalkeeper like Saroot, was arrested last year for harboring ‘terrorist gang’ and ‘taking money to instigate unrest’.
Like the rest of Arab world stretching to Morocco, the Syrian youth had been following the European and British premier league teams. If Turk fans can die for their favorite Fenerbahce and Galatasaray, the Syrians were divided along similar lines for Manchester United, Chelsea or Arsenal but that was over a year ago. “We would make up for the absence but first things first. Let us pay the debt and do the overdue now,” says 19-year-old swimmer Lyla Hussain, who was trained in Britain but decided against representing under the Baathist flag of Syria.