DAMASCUS: The front lines of Syria’s civil war are just a few kilometres away, but at the Tishrin Stadium in Damascus, Majd Ghazal is training hard for August’s Olympics in Brazil.
Like a handful of other Syrian athletes, the high-jumper is hoping to bring a rare moment of happiness to a country submerged in violence for the past five years.
“I’m going to do everything I can with my coach to achieve a strong performance, and I’m hoping to get up on the podium and make the Syrian people happy,” Ghazal told AFP.
Just six Syrians are guaranteed a place at the Games, which get under way in Rio on August 5 — two athletes, two swimmers, a weightlifter and a table tennis player.
Two boxers — welterweight Ahmad Ghassoun and his light heavyweight brother Ala — will join them if they do well enough at this month’s qualification tournament in Azerbaijan.
Syria’s sports community has been deeply divided by the civil war, with some siding with the government, others with the rebels and some even reportedly joining jihadist groups.
Early last year, the national football side’s goalkeeper, Abdel Basset Sarout, reportedly joined the Islamic State group, which has declared a caliphate across swathes of Syria and neighbouring Iraq it controls.
The athletes heading for Rio have overcome the daily threat of violence, poor training facilities and travel restrictions that have prevented them taking part in other international competitions.
Many of them train in the Tishrin Stadium in northwest Damascus, which has been hit repeatedly by mortar fire from nearby rebel-held areas, wounding several fellow athletes.
– Excluded –
The Syrian regime has been ostracised by much of the international community since its bloody suppression of the anti-government protests that erupted in 2011 and many countries, particularly Arab and European ones, have imposed sanctions, including travel restrictions.
Ghazal’s trainer, Imad Sarraj, said the high-jumper is capable of competing with the best in the world, but that being allowed to compete in European competitions would have helped him reach the level he needs to succeed in the Olympics.
The 28-year-old, a relative outsider in the sport, did manage to take part at a tournament in Beijing in May, where he cleared 2.36 metres — just nine centimetres short of the world record.
“The training facilities in Syria aren’t enough,” said Ghazal, who was denied entry to Morocco and several European countries to take part in international competitions.
In 2012, the British government declined to grant a visa for the head of the Syrian Olympics Committee, Mowaffak Joumaa, to attend the London Olympics, citing European Union-wide sanctions.
Joumaa said Syrian athletes have missed several international competitions for the same reason.
“The crisis in Syria has had a big impact on the preparations and training of athletes, due to the lack of security much of the time,” he said.
– ‘I don’t fear death’ –
The athletes heading to Rio join a short list of Syrians ever to have taken part in an Olympic Games.
Syrian heptathlete Ghada Shouaa won the country’s first and only gold medal, at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Syrian wrestler Joseph Attiya won silver in Los Angeles in 1984, while Syria’s last medal was boxer Nasr al-Shami, who won bronze in Athens in 2004.
Mohammad Abbas, editor of the Itihad sport newspaper, says that the presence of Syrian competitors in Rio is “a confirmation that Syria is breathing and steadfast in the face of the terrorists.”
Hurdler Ghafran Mohammad, working out at the Tishrin Stadium, knows the size of the task she faces.
“I train here and I don’t fear death,” she said.
“It’s hard to compete but for me it’s enough of an honour just to take part and raise the Syrian flag.”