Memories of friendship and solidarity were forged among athletes from the Balkans and Turkey during the 2014 Sochi Games.
By Menekse Tokyay for Southeast European Times in Istanbul -- 28/02/14
The region's Olympians, like alpine skier Igor Laikert of BiH, returned home from Sochi this week with many memories. [AFP]
As the 2014 Olympics came to a close in Sochi, Russia, on Sunday (February 23rd), the 88 athletes who represented Southeast European nations and Turkey made their way home with indelible memories.
In spite of pre-Olympic concerns about security in Sochi and the outbreak of violence in Ukraine during the Games, the Olympics remained an event that creates a feeling of togetherness and camaraderie for the participants.
Tugba Kocaaga, an alpine skier who teaches at Abant Izzet Baysal University in Bolu, represented Turkey in the Olympics for the second time, competing in the women's giant slalom.
"I already have a very good friendship with the athletes from the Balkan countries since years of participation in sport events. I have many friends from Bosnia, Bulgaria, Romania, Greece, Macedonia, Serbia and Croatia, we even gathered up in a summer holiday in Turkey a couple of years ago, while some of them attended a wedding ceremony," Kocaaga told SETimes.
"For the moment, we haven't got any joint project, however when there are sportive competitions in our respective countries, we are inviting each other," she added.
Kocaaga, who characterised her sporting philosophy as "think positive," said the atmosphere at the Olympics is distinctly different from other sport events.
"The spirit of the Olympic games resides in the fair play, based on solidarity and brotherhood. So, we all leave behind the political conflict of our country, if any, and we are focused on transferring the good spirit of our sportive branches to our friendship ties, which is the rationale of such events," Kocaaga said.
Alper Ucar, who partnered with Alisa Agafonova to form Turkey's first Olympic ice dancing team, said the Sochi Olympics provided him with a great opportunity to continue his relations with Balkan athletes.
"We were the first couple from Turkey who attended the Olympics in the ice dancing field. Rather than considering us as competitor, Balkan athletes supported us very much and my athlete friends from Serbia, Bulgaria, Montenegro, Romania directly told me that they were so excited to see Turkey being represented in that field," Ucar told SETimes.
Croatia, which sent 11 athletes to Sochi, was the only country from the region to bring home a medal, as alpine skier Ivica Kostelic won silver in the men's super combined. It was Kostelic's fourth Olympic silver medal.
Nenad Eror, spokesman of the Croatian Ski Federation, had been to two previous Olympics, but said this year in Sochi was the best in terms of organisation and atmosphere.
"We hung out mostly with the Slovenians. They were closest to us in the Olympic village, we travelled together, and otherwise we know each other excellently. Slovenians celebrated winning numerous medals, so this was also a cause for joy. Up to Sochi and back we organised a jointly exclusive flight with Slovenia and Montenegro, so we did not have to change flights, which was also pleasant," Eror told SETimes.
Eror said Sochi was filled with countless volunteer workers who helped create a positive mood in the Olympic village.
"We met them from all parts of Russia, Siberia, Volgograd, Moscow. There were some from abroad. It was interesting to us who are not so often in Russia," Eror said.
Igor Laikert, 22, an alpine skier from Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), was a first-time Olympian and found the experience an excellent avenue for building new friendships. Laikert competed in four disciplines and had his best result in the super combined slalom, taking 24th place.
He said there were plenty of socialising opportunities with other athletes, especially with the ones from neighbouring countries such as Slovenia, Croatia and Bulgaria.
"In the Olympic village, you are training with the other teams, having dinners, hanging out, you literally live with those people. Among so many people, no one talks about politics, there hasn't been any problem. This Olympic spirit is truly a motivation for every athlete to give their maximum and to achieve the best possible result," Laikert told SETimes.
He also said the Russians were model hosts and that everyone was pleasant.
"All of them, policemen, volunteers, technical staff, they were all nice and kind. Sport is really a discipline where there are no boundaries," he added.
Serbian snowboarder Nina Micic told SETimes that the experience enhanced friendships.
"I had a chance to see, again, some people I haven't seen since EYOF [the Winter European Youth Olympic Festival, held in February 2013 in Romania]. And, definitely, we have had the best relation with athletes from former Yugoslav countries," Micic said.
Micic said relations among ex-Yugoslavian athletes in Sochi were one of the most important signals about how the Olympic spirit brings people together.
"At one point I started wondering, what a power in sport we would have been if everything were as it was before [the breakup of Yugoslavia]. I think that our relations and attitude have impressed in the most positive way all countries that were there and that we have gained huge respect from some of winter sport's biggest forces," she added.
Serbian skier Nevena Ignjatovic shared Micic's impressions.
"All were in the mood for socialising but we, Balkans, were spending almost all the time together, firstly because we know each other for a long time and are used to hanging together, even before the Olympics. I think there was no single person in the whole village that had any barrier or that even thought about things that do not have anything with the sport," Ignjatovic told SETimes.
Macedonian alpine skier Antonio Ristevski made his second Olympic appearance and achieved his greatest success, taking 29th place out of 117 skiers in the men's slalom. It is Macedonia's best-ever result in Olympic alpine skiing.
"Everything was great -- the organisation, we had no problems there. If you ask me about my impressions, the best ones are, of course, the moments of the slalom race and the score I achieved," Ristevski told SETimes. "I went there to do what is necessary and to achieve a result. This is what I did and I am happy for that."
Correspondents Kruno Kartus in Zagreb, Drazen Remikovic in Sarajevo, Ivana Jovanovic in Belgrade and Biljana Lakmanovska in Skopje contributed to this report.
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