The weeks leading up to an Olympic Games can be exhilarating – for many, a once-in-a-lifetime period of gleeful privilege: receiving your kit, which contains your team outfit, training wear, and uniform for competition, being feted in pre-departure parties, meeting dignitaries and celebrities, and having all travel and lodging logistics taken care of for you.
Alexsandar Duric, also had a once-in-a-lifetime experience leading up to his trip to the Olympic Games. But his was not one of glee and delight. As detailed in part 1, Duric was asked to represent newly established nation, Bosnia-Herzegovina, in the midst of an internecine war. He made the difficult decision to go. Now he had to figure out how to get there.
Duric, who was not a person of means, had a small backpack, a kayak paddle that a good friend gifted to him, and $20 in his pocket. Now he had to travel some 2,000 miles from his base in Szeged, Hungary to Barcelona. He fortunately did not have to make it all the way to Spain. He just needed to get to Ljubljana, Slovenia where he would join his nine other teammates on the Bosnian team, and from there get on a plane to Barcelona.
Duric stuck his thumb out and a man driving an empty mini-bus stopped to pick him up. The driver said that he could take him to the Austrian border, but not through it. The driver was Serbian, who had a hard time believing that he was sitting next to a fellow Serb going to Barcelona to represent Bosnia in the Olympics. “He didn’t like that, and he asked why I was going to the Olympics for ‘them’. It was an awkward conversation, but he was a nice man who drove me to the border.”
Duric made it to the Austrian border, and explained to the officials in Austria that he had a legitimate reason to enter Austria. “Why would an Olympian in this day and age be hitchhiking across Europe instead of being jetted and pampered as befitting his status” was what the officials were wondering. Even when Duric showed his invitation letter from the Austrian Olympic Committee, which was managing the process for the Bosnian Olympic squad, the Austrian authorities were skeptical, until they called the number on the document and confirmed that this unlikely straggler was, in actuality, an Olympic kayaker.
Duric told me that at that time, the Austrian-Hungarian border was closely monitored as many people were trying to leave the countries in the Soviet bloc. In fact, the friendly Hungarian border officials had told Duric the Austrians would probably send him back to Hungary, as they did routinely to all of the people trying to escape to Austria. When Duric watched reports of Syrian refugees struggling to find freedom from war and famine, he remembered his time at the border. “I was there in the 1990s. I saw so many families with small kids trying to find a better place. People talk bad about refugees, but I wish I could open my house to them. I know how they feel.”
The Austrian border officials eventually made contact with someone in the Austrian Olympic Committee verifying that Alexsandar Duric was indeed a member of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Team, and needed passage through Austria to get to Slovenia. “I clearly remember,” he told me. “At first, they didn’t believe me. I couldn’t explain it. They were asking me ‘where’s your car?’ ‘Where are you going?’ I only had this piece of paper from Olympic Committee of Austria. Eventually, they were all smiles, asking me where my car was, or if I had my first-class air tickets. They slapped me on the back and wished me luck.”
The officials also asked someone who was headed to Slovenia to take Duric, and even phoned ahead to their colleagues at the Austria-Slovenian border to let Duric through quickly. United with the other members of the Bosnian team, Duric spend a few days in Ljubljaana before getting on a plane to Barcelona, finally no longer having to figure out the logistics.
And suddenly, he was an Olympian, in Barcelona, at the 1992 Summer Games. “I grew up in Doboj, and then, I thought Belgrade was like New York. When I arrived in Barcelona, I thought, ‘Am I in this world, or another planet?’ All the lights. The beaches. I was in a magic world.”
“Stepping into the village was amazing. I couldn’t believe my eyes who was walking by me in the huge restaurants. I was there for hours staring at people. I saw the Dream Team the first day before they moved out of the Village I saw Michael Jordan. Carl Lewis came up to talk to me. Am I dreaming? Boris Becker is having lunch with me. Is this possible? Nothing can buy that. I would never sell that dream – to be there in those two weeks.”
Just prior to the start of the opening ceremonies, Duric was waiting in the tunnel with his Bosnian teammates. Since those days as a youth, growing up in poverty, watching the Rocky films of Sylvester Stallone and finding inspiration in the notion that passion and hard work can make you a champion, Duric had dreamed of this moment. And yet, he was nervous. Duric said that over a successful 20-year career as a professional soccer player, he was often nervous. But this was a little different. “In the tunnel, I was shaking as I could hear the noise from above me. I also knew we would be on TV. My parents would see this. But I was proud to be on this Olympics team, on the Bosnian team. I didn’t think too much about whether I would upset anyone. I just wanted to be a part of this first Olympic team.”
Duric had not trained consistently for years, and like his compatriots, was not anywhere in decent condition. How could they? Their training ground was a war zone. Competing in the men’s solo 500-meter competition, Duric made it past the quarterfinals. But in the semi-finals, he finished last out of 19. And as he writes in his brilliant book, Beyond Borders, after 4 minutes and 11 seconds of competition at the Games, his Olympic career had ended.
After the Olympics, Duric embarked on a full time career in professional soccer. Over 20 years, he played professionally in Australia, China, and primarily, in Singapore, where he led different teams in the S League to eight league titles and three Singapore Cups. Duric was Player of the Year in Singapore three times, and retired at the age of 42.
But in many ways, Duric’s journey was more impressive than the destination.