Reports indicate that London Olympics will likely draw a significant number of spectators from the Balkans despite the economic crisis.
By Lily Lynch for the Southeast European Times in Belgrade -- 21/07/12
The Olympics trace its roots to 776 B.C. in the Greek town of Olympia, allowing Greece to continue to play a special role in the modern Games. [Reuters]
Amid a backdrop of harsh austerity measures, the height of the global economic crisis, bitter relations amongst neighboring states and the renewed spectre of terrorism, the 2012 Summer Olympic Games provides a welcome distraction for southeastern Europe.
With nearly all the region's countries sending athletes to compete, observers say that the London Games, from July 27th through August 12th, will be particularly important.
Serbia, celebrating its 100th anniversary as an Olympic competitor, will send 115 athletes to compete in 15 sports -- a far cry from the two it sent to the Stockholm Games in 1912.
"Serbia has never had so many medals in the pre-Olympic period, which gives everyone hope,” Marko Kronja, public affairs adviser for Serbia's Ministry of Youth and Sports, told SETimes.
With former NBA star Vlade Divac heading this year's Olympic Committee and with top-ranked tennis player Novak Djokovic competing, Kronja said he expects increased public attention to the games in Serbia.
In Kosovo, female judo champion Majlinda Kelmendi is drawing especially high interest from fans. Because the International Olympic Committee (IOC) does not recognise Kosovo's independence, Kelmendi will compete as part of the Albanian national team, even though Kosovo declared independence from Serbia in 2008 and is recognised by 80 countries, including 22 out of 27 countries in the EU.
Radio presenter Ganimete Beqiri told SETimes that people in Kosovo are still interested in the event. "It's a great attraction to follow the Olympics, and I'm desperately waiting to watch athletics." She also believes, however, that the Olympics can lead people to avoid thinking about pressing economic concerns.
"People will try through sports to forget for a while our daily economic struggling, and find spiritual satisfaction in the absence of the financial one," Orhan Gashi, a public notary in Kosovo, told SETimes.
Romania, whose best results have historically come from gymnastics, plans to send 104 athletes in 15 sports to London.
Bogdan Belciug, who has been following Romania's performance in the games since 1992 told SETimes that he will be watching sports "where Romanian athletes can win medals: gymnastics, rowing, and judo.”
While Romania pins its hopes on its gymnastics team, Montenegro expects good results in water polo. Though the country became a member of the IOC just five years ago, it will send 32 athletes to London this year.
No matter how the economic crisis has affected people, everyone can share in the excitement, and the distraction, of the Games.
"I've been unemployed for three years but it is not important because, in any case, I will cheer for my country,” said Darko Mosor of Montenegro.
In Skopje, Macedonia, there seems to be no café or bar in the city that is not equipped with a flat-screen television for watching the Olympic Games.
"We set up the TV when the European Football Championship started, and we've even adjusted the prices to fit customers' wallets," Krigla Beer House owner Sasho Boshkov said.
Macedonia will send four athletes to London, who will compete in swimming and track and field events.
Expectations are high for Croatia's 108 participants who will compete in in 17 sports.
"Our athletes are the biggest promoters of our country in the world," Marina Cengic, a telecommunications engineer from Zagreb told SETimes. She said that many Croatians identify with the team with a sense of national pride.
Meanwhile, some analysts say the excitement and national pride that accompanies the event can conceal certain social ills.
Michael Silk, a professor at the University of Bath's Department of Education who has written extensively about the Olympics, said nations tend to promote a version of themselves attractive to overseas markets during the Olympics, and "perhaps deliberately gloss over the realities of everyday life," such as recession or ethnic tensions.
Many in the region, like Ana Marinescu from Romania, agree that the Olympics can help people to forget about their economic difficulties, but don’t seem to focus on the harm in it.
"What else should I do?" she said. "I watch TV and I walk in the park. I like to watch sports. I don't understand politics."
SETimes correspondents Safet Kabashaj in Pristina, Gabriel Petrescu in Bucharest, Drazen Remikovic in Podgorica, Ksenija Jurkovic in Zagreb, and Marina Stojanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.