Bosnians discover Southern hospitality Ala. city welcomed Olympians for training

July 15, 1996|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,SUN STAFF

PELL CITY, Ala. -- When the best table tennis player ever produced from the war-ravaged country of Bosnia-Herzegovina

got off a bus a month ago in this little city, he asked: "Where's Forrest Gump?"

But yesterday, Tarik Hodzic wasn't making any jokes. Like nearly everyone else in the community hall room, he was saying goodbye, wiping away tears, trying to explain what happened when Bosnia met the Bible Belt on the way to the Summer Olympics.

"We've become more than good friends," he said. "We've become like family."

So there was a burly, broken-nosed wrestler named Fahrudin Hodzic squeezing a great-grandmother named Jane Bishop, and calling her "Momma." Kada Delic, a race walker, was crying and hugging Dorcus Smith, a mother of six. The mayor had tears in his eyes. So did the police chief.

And the walls of a nearby gym were lined with giant good-luck cards, signed by the community, addressed to each of the athletes, who had been given new nicknames like other stars in the Deep South. A swimmer named Dijana Kuesic was called Lady Di. Islam Dzugum, a shoemaker-turned-soldier and marathoner, was called The Zoom.

It was sweet and sad, much like Bosnia's history in the Olympics. Sarajevo, the Winter Olympic city of 1984, was wrecked by mortars, grenades and sniper fire during the conflict between the Muslims and the Serbs. Bosnian athletes competed XTC in Barcelona, Spain, in 1992, marching behind the Olympic flag.

Most of the 14 coaches, officials and athletes of Bosnia's Olympic team haven't seen home for a few years, training in France, Germany and Great Britain. But Dzugum stayed behind in Sarajevo, avoiding the snipers by running on foggy mornings or under cover of darkness. Dijana Kuesic, a shooter, kept training amid the wreckage, escaping the city via an underground tunnel for international competitions.

And Nusret Smajlovic, a wiry man with a thick mustache and a magnificent smile, tried to coach and keep together a track program from his apartment, shelled early in the conflict.

They all needed a place to stay and train in the weeks leading up to the centennial Olympics in Atlanta, and Pell City stepped forward.

"When I heard we were going to Pell City, I took out a small atlas, and I couldn't find it," said swimmer Janko Gojkovic. "Then I took out a bigger atlas, and I still couldn't find it."

But eventually the team made its way to Pell City. And what it found was a wonderful place filled with warm and hospitable people. Need a car? Take the Mercedes. Want some jeans? We'll persuade Levi's to donate a few pairs. How about finding the wrestler Hodzic a partner? Why 6-foot-10, 305-pound Duane Baker wrestled at Clemson, and he'll fill in just fine.

The city didn't have a long-course pool for the swimmers, so they were sent to the University of Alabama. Bosnia's kayaker Samir Karabasic trained on the Olympic course in Tennessee in a used boat with so many holes that an American competitor decided to give him a new, $2,000 kayak.

Somehow, it all worked. Two cultures rubbed off on one another. It was grits for some Bosnians and Turkish coffee for some Americans.

The athletes and families also talked about the war that was finally stopped last year when American bombers hit Serb targets and American troops led an international protection force to police the peace.

"I was one of those who said American troops shouldn't be over there," Andy Smith said. "I thought we can't take care of the world. Now, I think we should be over there. We've got to stay there."

And now the Smiths are making plans to visit Sarajevo.

The Bosnians aren't sure when they'll come back to Pell City. But they know what they will take away when they head 120 miles west to Atlanta. "We are very rich because we have a lot of friends," Smajlovic said.

All the Bosnians could afford to give their new friends was an autographed team picture and a promise to be kept during the opening ceremonies of the Olympics.

"When the Bosnian team starts marching, all our thoughts will be designated to Bosnia-Herzegovina and also to you, our dear friends, and all the citizens of Pell City," team leader Dorde Najsteter said. "You will be watching us on a huge screen. When we pass the cameras, we will take our hats in our right hand, and we will put them on our hearts so you will know we are greeting you."

Pub Date: 7/15/96

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