Olympics-Swimming-Syria's Jumah blocks out turmoil at home

LONDON Wed Aug 1, 2012 8:58am EDT

LONDON Aug 1 (Reuters) - Syrian swimmer Bayan Jumah on Wednesday said she did not let the conflict in her country affect her training or performance at the London Olympics, even as helicopter gunships attack rebel fighters in her besieged home city of Aleppo.

Syria's 10 athletes at the Games have kept a low profile, and have steered away from politics as Western nations condemn Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and call on him to step down over his crackdown on opposition activists and rebels.

"I don't care very much about the political things in Syria because I don't need it. I just do my swimming and study," Jumah told reporters after finishing second in her 100-metre freestyle heat, adding that she had been training in France for the last 18 months.

Asked whether she had been watching television coverage of the conflict, in which thousands of Syrian civilians have been killed, she said: "No, never".

The conflict in Syria has snowballed since an Arab Spring-inspired uprising against Assad's authoritarian rule started 16 months ago, and the fighting threatens to destabilise Syria's neighbours in the volatile region.

The bloodshed has taken on an increasingly sectarian tone, with fighters from Syria's Sunni Muslim majority vowing to uproot Syria's Alawite Muslim-dominated ruling elite.

Jumah declined to comment on the sectarian make-up of her team.

"I don't know and don't care. We're all Syrian people."

Syria's other minorities, including Christians, are worried about Islamist extremists among the rebel fighters.

The turmoil, which the United Nations calls a civil war, has overshadowed Syria's Olympic team, amid reports before the Games that Syria might not take part.

Syrian Olympic Committee chief Mowaffak Joumaa, considered a close friend of Assad, was denied a visa to enter Britain, the BBC reported.

British authorities declined to comment on the report, but sports minister Hugh Robertson said in June that "nobody connected with the human rights abuses taking place in Syria at the moment should be part of our Games".

When the Syrian athletes arrived in London last month, Olympic official Pere Miro said some officials had decided not to come, noting "that avoids a lot of problems".

For Jumah, not participating in the Olympics would have been a crushing blow.

"To represent Syria, it's a dream for everyone to participate in the Olympic Games," she said.

Jumah's family still live in Syria's largest city, Aleppo, where shells have rained down for days as government forces battle rebel fighters for control of the country's commercial capital.

"I'm a little bit (afraid), but not so much because in the centre there is nothing, so it's the safe area," Jumah said, adding that she was in touch with her relatives.

Jumah, having failed to make her swimming final, said she plans to tour London and then head home.

"I hope all the problems finish quickly, because in the end we're all one Syrian nation," she said. (Reporting by Mohammed Abbas; editing by Jason Neely)

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