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Olympics-Bosnian ice hockey rises from ashes of war

Source: Reuters - Thu, 6 Feb 2014 14:31 GMT
Author: Reuters
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* National side resurrected amid hopes of new, permanent rink

* Torvill and Dean to relive ice dance from Sarajevo Olympics

* Some hope sport can help to bridge ethnic divide

By Maja Zuvela

SARAJEVO, Feb 6 (Reuters) - Omar Halilovic fell in love with ice hockey during the 1984 Winter Olympics in his native Sarajevo, when Bosnia was at peace and the sport pulled big crowds.

Barely a decade later, the country was at war, with Sarajevo besieged from the hills and its Olympic venues and ice rinks in ruins. Ice hockey has been played only sporadically since, on improvised rinks.

So Halilovic, now 38, says he was surprised when he got a call to come out of retirement this weekend and play alongside a team of untested youngsters, the offspring of a generation of Bosnians who fled the war for the West.

Cobbled together by a Canadian expatriate who has made Sarajevo his home, the national team is set to take to the ice for the first time since 2008.

The friendly against Turkey is part of a string of events to mark the 30th anniversary of the Winter Olympics, for many Sarajevans a treasured time of unprecedented hope before the bloodshed that followed.

With the city gripped by ice hockey fever, Halilovic and his team hope the proceeds of the game will go towards the construction of a permanent rink that will allow the national side to once again compete internationally.

"Given my age, I was surprised to be called up," Halilovic told Reuters. "But I'll do my best to help. It's like a dream come true."

Some 8,000 Sarajevans have signed a petition calling for an ice rink in the city to replace the four pre-war sites that fell into disrepair.

TORVILL AND DEAN

Sport has taken a backseat in Bosnia to the political bickering between the former warring sides that has stifled economic development and slowed integration with the European mainstream.

But Anthony London, a 42-year-old Canadian who coaches and plays for the national side, sees signs of a change.

"It's a sensation that we have been able to resurrect hockey in this country," he said. "We have survived on a shoe-spring budget for many years but if we want to be a really strong programme, we certainly need the ice. It's a priority for us."

"We have all lived for this opportunity and we want to make ice hockey the No. 2 sport in Bosnia after soccer," he said.

Counting Serbs, Croats and Muslim Bosniaks among its ranks, Bosnia's thriving national soccer team, spearheaded by Manchester City striker Edin Dzeko, has become a symbol of ethnic unity in a country where communities remain divided.

The team heads to the World Cup in Brazil this year in Bosnia's first major soccer tournament as an independent state. London, the ice hockey coach, hopes to emulate that success.

"We took the best players we have regardless of ethnic background, but if this helps us towards bringing the country closer together that's a benefit that we want to support, obviously," he said.

Adnan Mrkva, a former player and now manager of the national ice hockey side, said Bosnia's diaspora would feed the team for years to come.

"It looks like these talented young players were the only good to come from the war," he said.

Rallying to the cause, Britain' most celebrated winter Olympians, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean, will return to Sarajevo this month to relive their iconic ice dance to Ravel's Bolero that drew a perfect row of 6.0 scores in 1984.

Part of the proceeds will also go to the construction of a permanent rink. (Editing by Matt Robinson and Stephen Powell)

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