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With Syria fighting for its future, athletes continue to carry the flag

LONDON -- The plane began its final approach, and it was one of those moments: The lifeguard couldn't believe his life. Here came London -- the Thames and the spires, those giant Olympic rings-rising fast. His palms went damp, his stomach flipped. Then he entered the athletes' village. He saw LeBron James and Kevin Durant, found himself squaring his own shoulders, walking taller. "These are the greatest athletes," Azad Al-barazi said last week, "and now I'm here with them."

Logic dictated that Al-barazi skip the opening ceremony; his qualifying heat in the 100-meter breaststroke was the next morning. But his mom had sent so many faxes and e-mails to Syrian Olympic Committee members over the years alerting them to Azad's swimming times, and his dad, heart trouble and all, had been the motivating fuel that kept him gunning toward this goal. Azad owed them. So as the 2012 Games began, this norm-challenging beach bum -- born in Saudi Arabia to Syrian nationals, raised in the U.S. and usually found rescuing careless swimmers in Venice Beach, Calif. -- marched behind the flag of a country that, with each Olympic day, would sink further into chaos.

My son, thought Tayeb Al-barazi, a retired computer engineer, when he scanned his computer at home in the Los Angeles district of Woodland Hills and saw Azad amid the 10-athlete Syrian delegation. His eyes welled. This is my son!

And this is their broken country. The Olympics have had their share of boycotts and rogue hosts, but rarely had a Games unfolded while a competing nation fought for its future, step by bloody step. Eight of Syria's athletes live in their homeland and will find a rapidly eroding landscape when -- or if -- they return.

"It is heartbreaking," said Azad, 24. "People are dying every day, buildings are getting blown up. That's not what I want to be thinking while I'm here at the Olympic Village. The Olympic Village is all about peace and love. So I've been blocking it out.

"I just hope for the killing to stop and for a change. We need to start moving on with everything -- education, sports, the school system. The whole country needs a lift, and it's going to happen, but it's a matter of time. You've got to hit rock bottom to climb back up, and that's where we are right now. We're hitting rock bottom."

Indeed, the 17-month-long conflict between rebel forces and the army of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad has escalated sharply since the insurgents claimed control of sections of Aleppo, Syria's largest city, in late July. Reports that the regime had moved chemical weapons to the borders to defend against outside interference and that government forces were strafing civilians dominated the news on the eve of the Games. The British government refused a visa to the head of Syria's Olympic Committee, and the financier father of Team Syria's equestrian entry, 19-year-old Ahmad Saber Hamcho -- a London resident reportedly related to Assad by marriage -- was barred entry because of a European Union travel ban against him.

On the Games' first day of competition, as Al-barazi was finishing seventh and failing to advance, Assad's forces began an assault on Aleppo. The head of Syria's Olympic delegation in London, Aleppo resident Maher Khayata, claimed that the army was trying to "protect people and keep them safe." Syria's top diplomat in London, Khaled Ayoubi, defected two days later.

Syrian freestyler Bayan Jumah, 18, had been training in France for 18 months before the Olympics but was visiting her mother and brother at home in central Aleppo as the fighting began. She left for London when the conflict was still limited to the city's outskirts. Asked on Aug. 1 if she feared for her family's safety, Jumah said, "A little bit, but not so much because in the [city] center there is nothing. ... There is no problem in the center."

Some of her teammates, like Hamcho, had been vocal in their support of the Assad regime before the Games, but all tried to skirt hot-button questions in London. Last Saturday, a dozen "Freedom for Syria" protesters gathered outside the Greenwich Park gate where Hamcho competed in the show jumping individual qualifier. Hamcho called them "totally stupid", because he represented, "only Syria."

"I don't care very much for the politics in Syria, because I don't read [about them]," Jumah said after finishing 40th in her 100 qualification round. "I just live [for] swimming and study: That's it." When a reporter in the mixed zone shouted, "Do you think President Assad should step down?", Jumah said, "Sorry, I can't," and walked away.

Other Syrian athletes at the Games were shielded from the press by delegation leaders -- they were made available for questions only after their losses in competition -- and were prevented from talking politics. After bantamweight boxer Wessam Slamanna was defeated on July 28, a reporter asked him a question about Assad, and a Syrian team official stepped in and said, "We are not here to talk about politics. We will talk only about sport."

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Politics and the Olympics have always mixed, of course. Last Thursday, British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has called on Assad to resign, met with Russian President Vladimir Putin, an ally of Assad's, and discussed Syria; then the two chummily took in an Olympic judo match. And four years ago in Beijing, Jumah herself provided one of Syria's most infamous Olympic moments when she withdrew from the 50 freestyle rather than compete next to an Israeli.

Syria's Olympians, in fact, have projected an image of bigotry regarding Israel, but that may be changing. At last year's swimming world championship, an Iranian refused to compete next to an Israeli in the 100 breaststroke, but Al-barazi, making his international debut, did not, saying he felt no pressure from Syrian swimming authorities to pull out rather than share the pool with an Israeli.

"They did come up to me and were like, 'You have an Israeli guy in your heat; we want you to, of course, win,'" said Al-barazi, whose dual U.S.-Syrian citizenship will allow him to compete for the U.S. later this year at the World Lifesaving Championships in Australia. "When the Iranian guy backed out, I went up to him and said, 'Why?' and he was like, 'The federation told me.'"

Asked how he'd respond to such a demand, Al-barazi said, "'Hey, this is not politics. I trained my ass off, I'm here, I brought you guys, you guys didn't bring me.' I'd just [make a] rebuttal: 'I know there's been problems going on, and you've been passing the past into the future, but it's just not fair.'" As a Syrian living in the U.S., of course, Al-barazi would have greater freedom to be so candid.

The 2011 worlds wasn't the first occasion on which Al-barazi defied convention. In 2008, near the end of the U.S. surge in Iraq, he engaged in a sociology experiment while studying at Santa Monica (Calif.) College: Break a social norm. Dressed in a traditional Arab keffiyeh, he strolled hand in hand through the Beverly Center and along the 3rd Street promenade with another male lifeguard dressed as a U.S. soldier. People shouted, "Peace!" The two guys got kicked out of the mall, though. The film of their experiment, available on YouTube, is called Gay Unit.

In truth, one of Al-barazi's few disappointments about these Olympics, he said, is that Israeli swimmer Max Jaben -- one of his closest friends at the Trojan Swim Club in L.A. -- didn't make his country's Olympic team. "We were going to walk around together here, he wearing his Israeli stuff and me wearing my Syrian stuff," Al-barazi said.

So it makes sense, then, that Al-barazi hardly took the usual lane to the Olympics. A former water polo player, he didn't start swimming off a block, with cap and goggles, until the unheard-of age of 16. In 2007, he transferred from Santa Monica to Hawaii and walked onto the swim team there, figuring that if he got cut, he'd still be able to surf. But he kept improving in the pool, and his coach, Victor Wales, saw enough potential to suggest that he parlay his parents' citizenship into a spot on the Syrian team. Al-barazi's mother, Suhair, began trying to contact Syrian Olympic officials in 2009. She didn't get a response for a year and a half. "But all the time inside I feel like he's going to go," Suhair said. "This is my feeling as a mom: Don't worry. You worked so hard. You will be there."

There were many complicating factors, however, not least the Al-barazi family's sometimes cozy, sometimes violently adversarial relationship with Syria's rulers. In the mid-20th century this Kurdish Sunni Muslim clan had produced a Syrian president and two prime ministers, including Muhsin Al-barazi, who was executed after a 1949 military coup. A year later, in Beirut, the man responsible for the execution, Colonel Sami Al-Hinnawi, was murdered by Hersho Al-barazi-Azad's grandfather, now 92 -- who lives with Tayeb at his home in Los Angeles. "This is my dad, yes," Tayeb said. "He's the one who executed [Al-Hinnawi]. Because at that time, who was going to prosecute him? No one."

Since the current insurgency began, Tayeb said, one of his cousins has died in an explosion and another has been imprisoned. "No news," he said. "Once they capture someone, nobody knows where they took him."

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Today the Al-barazi family TV in L.A. constantly blares Al-Jazeera. But Tayeb received his degree in computer engineering from Illinois, and he and Suhair say that since they moved to California from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, in 1996, they have become Americans first. Their son, meanwhile, has drifted in another direction. Last October, after hitting his Olympic qualifying time, Azad went to Syria for the third time in his life. Over two or three weeks he met with Syrian Olympic Committee and aquatics team officials, picked up his Syrian passport and signed a one-year contract with the Olympic committee.

After returning to the U.S., Azad occasionally felt the revolt's effect on the regime: Some months he would receive his training stipend of $2,500, and some he wouldn't. He gave surfing lessons to fill the void and moved into the Manhattan Beach, Calif., house of Ed Moses -- who won a silver medal in the 100 breaststroke and gold in the 4x100 medley relay at the 2000 Olympics -- to soak up any training tips he could. But Azad was never sure that Syria would actually send a team to London. "Imagine trying to perform under that: Am I going? Am I tapering? Should I rest? Should I swim this meet?" Moses says. "One day they'd be like, You're going, and another it'd be, We just had a major terrorist attack: Stay home."

In April, Syria announced that it would indeed field an Olympic team, but it wasn't until the end of June, when Al-barazi received his plane ticket, that he knew for sure. And despite all the bad news he found his attitude toward his ancestral homeland changing.

"I am so proud to be a Syrian right now," he said. "I'm passing out pins and saying, 'Here's the Syrian flag.' Of course it might change; there might be a new flag. But I'm Syrian. Know what I'm saying? Usually people say, 'Where are you from?' and I say America. Now I say I'm Syrian.

"Because, look at the country: People are getting shot and still going after the people of Assad. They're fighting. The people are fighting for what they believe in."

He wants to make this clear: He is not political. He will not openly choose sides in his nation's war. When a London newspaper printed a blog post about him titled AZAD SWIMMING FOR ASSAD, he shot off a protest note. "I'm not swimming for him," Al-barazi said. "I never said I swim for Assad. I swim for Syria. I swim for the people of Syria and my mom and dad."

He is young for his event, as well as relatively new to it, because he started so late. Salo and all the top swimmers Al-barazi trains with insist that he can improve vastly over the next four years. He'd like to medal for Syria in Rio de Janeiro, if there's a Syrian team -- or a Syria, for that matter -- in 2016. If not? Maybe Al-barazi will get good enough to push for a spot on Team USA. Or maybe he'll end up lifeguarding back on Venice Beach. It almost doesn't matter.

"My Facebook has been blowing up -- pictures of me swimming, of me marching out in the ceremony, and that's pretty much what started the revolution: Facebook," he said. "So the Internet's getting out there in Syria, and my uncle's posting in Arabic, We're so proud of you! We saw you on TV! When I read that? It's like, Wow: I did it." Then Al-barazi grinned and nodded, so taken with the idea that he had to repeat it.

"I did it," he said.

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