The word sounded to an American ear like another cheer that had
been stretched out, syllable by syllable. Vu-ko-var.
Vu-ko-var. Vu-ko-var. The Croatian fans in the water polo crowd
repeated the word again and again in the closing seconds of
their team's 8-6 win in the quarterfinals, and surely this was
the name of a player or a coach, or maybe the Croatian term for
"Way to go, boys."
"You know Vukovar?" my friend Miro Copic, a journalist from
Split, Croatia, asked. "That is where the Serbs killed more than
2,000 citizens during the war. It is a town in Croatia."
August 11, 1996
I had watched this game with him far from the center of
attention. Water polo? Croatia versus Yugoslavia? Who cared?
Well, a lot of people cared. This was the first meeting in an
Olympic sport between these two countries that previously had
been together under one flag. Former teammates were matched
against former teammates. Former roommates against former
roommates. Former friends against former friends. Enemies now.
He knew all the stories of all the players--who had been best
friends with whom, who had lived in Croatia for part of their
lives and now were on the other side. His commentary wove a
thread of drama that ran through the match, as Croatia jumped to
a 5-2 lead at the half and hung on for the win with two goals at
the end by a big guy named Dubravko Simenc. See where the Serb
officials were sitting? See their reaction: a three-fingered
salute? Derogatory. Hear the Croatians? Vu-ko-var.
A few journalists went to the interview area afterward,
accompanied by an Olympic interpreter, but most of the quotes we
heard were polite. No, this was not a political event. This was
sport. Yes, we are happy, but happy because we are alive for a
medal. No. Yes. Polite.
Simenc, the star of the match, appeared. He changed all that. He
stood in his bathing suit on wet concrete and talked about
meeting President Clinton in the Olympic Village, staring into
the President's eyes and thanking him for U.S. aid in ending the
war. He talked about Commerce secretary Ron Brown's death in a
plane crash in Dubrovnik. He talked about Vukovar.
"I would like to dedicate this victory to the people who died in
Vukovar, fighting for our Croatian homeland," Simenc said. "I
also would like to dedicate this to my two little girls, four
and two years old, who someday will know that their father was
part of this historic event today."
I did not see a happier winner in my 18 days in Atlanta.