He was Yugoslavian. More specifically, he was a Serbian born and raised in Doboj, a town in the province of Bosnia-Herzegovina. More intriguingly, he was a powerful kayaker, junior champion of Yugoslavia at the age of 15, and one of the top ten kayakers in the world at the age of 17. Aleksandar Duric had a very viable dream of going to the Barcelona Olympics, but his country was crumbling.
Before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Yugoslavia was a diverse federation of republics and provinces, primarily held together by the former president, Josip Tito. When the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, and the USSR’s influence waned, Yugoslavia’s political world began to spin apart. In 1989, Serbia declared independence. Soon after, Croatia did the same. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which was a highly diverse province of Orthodox Serbs, Catholic Croats and Muslim Bosniaks, became an independent sovereign nation in March, 1992, and fell into years of a cruel and bloody civil war.
Duric was an eyewitness to Yugoslavia’s disintegration as a teenage officer in the Yugoslav People’s Army, following orders while trying to understand why Serbs, Croats and Muslims who had lived peacefully were now at each other’s throats. He was ethnic Serbian in an army that was dominated by Serbs, in a region that held a Muslim majority.
In 1992, Duric left the Army, his disagreements with leadership and distaste for the war making it untenable for him to remain in the Army. In fact, he felt the need to leave the country, settling in with a friend in a border town in Hungary. Out of work, out of training, away from family and friends, Duric merely bided time.
And then one day in July, 1992, his mentor and friend, Jusuf Makaravic, gave him the news that the IOC was inviting ten athletes from the newly established nation of Bosnia-Herzegovina, and that Duric was one of them. The IOC understood that many of these athletes would not be in peak condition due to the war, that their intent was to emphasize that all nations should participate in the Olympics. Duric’s first reaction was “But I’m a Serb.”
Duric immediately understood the difficult decision before him. As he explained in his autobiography, “Beyond Borders“, Duric was swayed by his mentor’s rationale.
“Yes, Aleks. But you’re a Bosnian first, don’t forget that. You can play your part in showing the world that Bosnia does not necessarily mean Muslim, you show them that Bosnia is home to people of many backgrounds. You lived your life in Bosnia, you trained half your live on the river Bosna, you deserve to compete for Bosnia as one of their first ever Olympians.”
As Duric told me, despite his friend’s advice, he felt so alone as he knew his family and friends would be made uncomfortable with a Serbian son representing a nation in conflict with Serbians in the former Yugoslavia. “When I got this call for the Olympics, it was definitely one of the toughest decisions I had to make. I was sitting in my room alone. In the back of my mind, I could deal with friends. But I didn’t want to disappoint my father, my mother, my brother.”
In the end, it was the life lessons from his parents that enabled Duric to make his decision to go the Olympics. He had learned a lot from his parents, particularly how not to hate other colors, other religions. “My mom and dad shaped me. When I was growing up, I was told that you have to respect all people, even if they are not good to you. All my friends were Bosnians. I was a Bosnian.”
And from that moment, Duric was an Olympian from Bosnia-Herzegovina, fulfilling a dream he had nestled for over a decade. “Holy shit, I’m going to the Olympics!”