Mourad Laachraoui victorious
Mourad Laachraoui (center) wins gold in the European Taekwondo Championship on May 18, 2016.

It is hard to imagine. You train and train in relative anonymity, hoping for a spot on the team that takes you to the Olympics. And when you finally make the team, you become the topic of terrible news.

On May 18, Mourad Laachraoui won gold in the European Taekwondo Championships, and earned the right to represent Belgium at the Rio Olympics. The 20-year-old defeated Jesus Tortosa of Spain to take the 54-kilogram division championship.

The victory triggered a media avalanche, for Laachraoui has the misfortune of being the younger brother of Najim Laachraoui, the now infamous terrorist who made the bombs used in attacks in Paris on November 13, 2015, and the explosions at the Brussels Airport on March 22 2016. In a time when Laachraoui should be ecstatic with glee and glowing with hope, he and his family read such headlines: “Mourad Laachraoui: Suicide bomber’s brother wins European gold”.

Najim Laachraoui at Brussels Airport
Images of Najim Laachraoui at the Brussels Airport

Najim had apparently disconnected from his family when he moved to Syria in 2013. When asked about his brother in the aftermath of the Belgium bombings, Mourad said he was “sad and ashamed.” “Our family has the same questions you all have,” he said in March. “He [Najim] used to be a nice intelligent guy. I couldn’t believe it.”

According to this article, the lawyer for the Olympian said that Najim “was dead to Mourad from as soon as he went to Syria. He said the family were no longer able to live their lives normally and could not even go to the shops.” Apparently, since Najim died in the suicide bomb attack in Brussels, the family has lived holed up in their home with curtains closed at all times. Mourad said at the time, though, that he would continue to fight and win a spot to represent his home country of Belgium.

And fight and win he did.

But the victory is not yet so sweet.

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Fans remained inside the Stade de France after the soccer game between France and Germany amid confusion caused by the attacks in the area. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press
Fans remained inside the Stade de France after the soccer game between France and Germany amid confusion caused by the attacks in the area. Credit Christophe Ena/Associated Press

A suicide bomber, who had a ticket to the football match between France and Germany at the Stade de France on the evening of Friday the 13th, was denied entry to the stadium after a frisk search. Moments later, he detonated his bomb, one of three to go off outside the stadium in Paris where the Prime Minister of France sat as a spectator. On a most unfortunate day, that perhaps was a bit of fortune.

Inside the stadium, according to this New York Times report, the game went on.

The coaches for both national teams decided not to inform their respective teams about the horrifying occurrences taking place nearby, probably because the events were just unfolding and they were unclear regarding the extent of the violence in Paris. When added to poor cell reception due to the concentration of people at the football game, and possibly also the increased data traffic as a result of the terrorist attacks, people on the pitch and the stands remained in enough of a fog to allow their focus to stay on the game.

The beginning of the New York Times video demonstrates the confusion at the stadium.

NY Times Video on Paris Attack

France won the game on a late goal. By that time, the reality of the terrorist attacks had become clearer and the players were informed. But as the NY Times reported, the atmosphere during the game was surreal. “It was so weird,” said Cyril Olivès-Berthet, who was covering the match for the French sports newspaper L’Équipe. “The players were running and doing their game, and the fans were chanting their normal chants, ‘Aux Armes, Aux Armes,’ a typical chant that is a warrior thing about taking arms and going to war. When France scored the second goal late in the game, they all waved their flags and the players celebrated like they always do.”

It can be debated endlessly whether the coaches made the right choices to inform the players, or whether officials made the right choice to allow the game to continue. That is not important. Showing strength in the face of adversity, effectiveness in uncovering the culprits, and wisdom in decisions related to retaliation or reaction – that is important.

My thoughts go out to all impacted by the terrorist attacks in Paris.