Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. Two decades ago, young Bosnians worshipped the tall, muscular basketball players who smiled down on them from posters plastered across their rooms.
Hardly anyone had heard of the Paralympics back then.
Now, 20 years after the bloody Bosnian war erupted, the country’s new athletic stars are also tall and muscular, but many are missing a limb.
Bosnia’s national men’s sitting volleyball team is made up of war victims who have turned their personal tragedies into gold medals at international competitions for people with physical disabilities.
They are stars that fans welcome at the airport now.
“Some see us as such,” admitted 42-year-old Asim Medic who says it feels good to be recognized on the street.
Sarajevo’s basketball players were once Bosnia’s stars, especially after a local club Bosna Sarajevo became European champion in 1979. Not now.
“Unfortunately, it’s us now. The war brought this,” Medic said. “People write books about us.”
Back in 1993, Medic was 23 when one of the hundreds of thousands of artillery shells that landed on Sarajevo ripped his leg off. It felt like the end of life, but part of the rehabilitation doctors recommended was playing sports, especially to fight off depression.
The anti-depression sessions turned into serious training, and the rising number of war victims created so many sitting volleyball clubs in Bosnia that leagues could be formed.
In 1997, two years after the shooting stopped, the men’s national team won its first medal — bronze at the European Championship. Then bronze again at the next World Championship in Iran and finally gold in 1999 at the European Championship in Sarajevo.
From then on, it’s been rarely anything else but gold.
Even after the war, many young people who had stepped on the thousands of mines scattered around the country ended up playing for sitting volleyball clubs, driven by the success of the first generation. The team plans to compete in the London Paralympics from Aug. 29-Sept. 9.
“We managed to inspire many people with this problem and made sure they are not left on the street to go on drugs and everything else the street brings,” Medic said.
Bosnia’s 1992-95 war between Muslim Bosniaks, Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs left more than 100,000 dead and hundreds of thousands disabled — a lot for a population of 3.5 million. But it also divided the country in two ministates — one for the Serbs, the other shared by Bosniaks and Croats.
There are no Bosnian Serbs in the national sitting volleyball team.
“It’s a pity, as there are many talents among them, but they all have double passports and play for Serbia,” said Sabahudin Delalic, the team’s captain.
Serbia and Bosnia often meet at international competitions, but Serbia has never won a medal. Delalic hopes one day the success of Bosnia’s team will attract top Bosnian Serb players.
“They claim the time is not right yet,” he says, “but our door remains open.”
Delalic knows what it is to struggle. He had to figure out what to do with himself after he lost a leg in 1992 while a Bosnian soldier.
“But I thought, well, I could have been dead,” he said.
Sitting volleyball changed not only his life but the lives of many others like him.
“Our disability means nothing to us any more,” he said, noting how good it feels to be stopped in the street by fans offering congratulations.
“Six times European champions, one time world champions, one time Paralympic champions,” Delalic said. “We have won every competition there is on this planet!”