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War and sport: Syria and Yemen battle the odds to take part in the Asian Games

War and sport: Syria and Yemen battle the odds to take part in the Asian Games

Yemen’s athletes parade during the opening ceremony of the Asian Games 2018 Robertus Pudyanto/Getty Images

 

Published in ESPN Sep 5th, 2018 By Jonathan Selvaraj in Jakarta

Hasna Saied is furious. She storms past the mixed zone, where reporters are given an almost voyeuristic peek into athletes in their most vulnerable state. Saied rages because her Asian Games are over. The 23-year-old from Syria has just lost her first-round match in the women’s Sambo event.

Her coach Muhammad Ashour goes after her to offer solace. “You should not mind. She’s very upset. She has come a long way for this,” he says in apology to waiting journalists as he hobbles past them. But it’s difficult for him to keep up with his trainee. Not with the golf-ball-sized wound in his left calf.

“We were preparing for the Asian Games. We were just doing our drills. And then suddenly there was an explosion”Muhammad Ashour, coach of the Syrian national judo team

Ashur hitches up the leg of his track pants to show the ugly scar that remains. A reminder of the time when a red-hot piece of shrapnel sliced through his limb. Ashur, who is also the coach for the judo national team, remembers the fateful day — November 21,2017 — like it was yesterday. “We were training at the national camp for judokas in Al Faiha Sports City. We were preparing for the Asian Games. We were just doing our drills. And then suddenly there was an explosion. That’s how I was injured. But I was lucky. Two of my team died. And there must have been at least 50 athletes and coaches who were injured,” says Ashur.

 

News agencies would report that the attack came from the rebel stronghold of Eastern Ghouta. And remarkably it wasn’t even the first time the sports facility in the eastern suburbs of Damascus was bombed. There are at least three instances of rocket attacks on the facility that have been recorded by the international press, the latest occurred on March 24th this year. The death of Diaa Aldeen Badr and Ahmed Khanji and injuries to the dozens of other judokas they caused, a mere footnote in the 250,000 who have died in seven years of civil war in the country.

Ashour doesn’t have time feeling sorry for himself. He laughs that he has made it alive. “You can only laugh about these things. What other option do you have? It is what it is. But at least we are here,” he shrugs.

On a day the Asian Games comes to an end and everyone stops to count their list of golds and races won, his tale is a reminder that there are many sort of races at the Games. For the war-ravaged countries of Syria and Yemen, perhaps the hardest trial was simply getting here.

 

Take Mohammed Abdullah Derhemal Maghrebi, who represented Yemen in men’s freestyle wrestling. Maghrebi trained in capital Sana’a under conditions of incredible strain. While he grappled in sweltering heat in the national training academy in Sana’a, he could clearly hear the sounds of fighting between forces loyal to former president Ali Abdullah Saleh and the Houthi fighters rebelling against him. “Do you want to know how we trained? We have no electricity, there is no water. In the nights we can hear the planes (flown by the Saudi Air Force fighting against the Houthis) flying and we can hear the bombs falling. And in the morning when we go to our wrestling centre we can see where the bombs exploded,” he says.

 

Even if you dodge bullets, you still have to make the journey to Indonesia. For that you need a visa — a challenge particularly in countries where many embassies have closed their doors.

Syrian high jumper Majd Eddin Ghazal doesn’t want to talk about the war. “No politics,” he says politely. But the matter of difficulty in pursuing his sport is another matter. “The biggest challenge for me was simply finding out how to get my visas to different countries. In the last few years, I’ve become an expert at telling which embassies are on which road in Beirut (Syrian athletes have to travel from neighbouring Lebanon),” Ghazal said before the Games, where he won Syria’s only medal, a bronze.

 

But at least Ghazal is a world-class jumper. It’s easier to get favours. For less-established athletes, any sort of exposure tours are next to impossible. “Ghazal has many sponsors. For the rest of us, it’s hard to get visas to travel. After we got back to training once again, we only had about two months in which to get ready for the Asian Games,” says coach Ashur.

With the mere appearance at the Games such a big challenge, players are keen to make the most out of it.

With the mere appearance at the Games such a big challenge, players are keen to make the most out of it.

“Anything could happen in the next four years. Will we be in the same country? Will we have a country of our own?”Mohammed Maghrebi, Yemeni wrestler

While athletes from other countries specialize to boost their medal chances, many athletes from Syria (nine out of 38) and Yemen (six out of 14) take part in multiple events. Hasna Saied took part in both the Sambo (which is a version of judo) and Kurash (which is a version of wrestling). As Maghrebi says it, “Anything could happen in the next four years. Will we be in the same country? Will we have a country of our own? We don’t know whether we will get another chance to compete at the Asian Games.”

Even at the Games, there are constant reminders of the war and their loved ones who still have to deal with real-world dangers. “When my son started his national military service in 2010, he was only supposed to serve for one year and six months. It has now been eight years and he is still in the army today. He is with the army in (the western city of) Homs and, Inshallah (God willing!), he is safe there,” says coach Ashour.

He is, though, more hopeful about the future. “I believe the war will be over soon and my son will be able to return home. We can build a strong team then. Maybe in four years I’ll be coaching the team at the Asian Games once again. Inshallah!

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