Can sport help Bosnia forget the past?

BANJA LUKA, Bosnia (Reuters Life!) - The biggest sporting event Bosnia has organized since the end of its devastating war 14 years ago has excited thousands of spectators -- but left others lamenting how the old nationalist passions remain.

Germany's women's rafting team prepare to practice their slalom run down the Vrbas river near Banja Luka ahead of the World Rafting Championships May 17, 2009. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj

Bosnia’s second-largest city Banja Luka is hosting the world rafting championships this week.

Teams have come from 35 countries and five continents to race on the wild waters of the river Vrbas in northwestern Bosnia and the river Tara in the east.

Following the 1992-95 war between Bosnian Serbs, Bosnian Muslims and Bosnian Croats, the country has been divided into two rival ethnically based regions, the Muslim-Croat federation and the Serb Republic, joined under a weak central government.

Organizers of the rafting, and many citizens, hope that holding big sports events can help ease ethnic animosities and bring people from the two regions together.

“This is one of the most positive things that has happened in the past 10 years,” said Ana Lukic, whose whole family came to cheer the teams’ parade in the center of Banja Luka.

“Everyone came for sports only and not for some national reasons,” she added.

Certainly the competitors have been impressed.

“I did not know about Bosnia as a rafting destination,” admitted Australian Mick Weijsentfeld, carrying a boat to the river with his team mates.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, the right scenery, and I think this is going to be a good competition,” he added.

Australia was among the favorites to host this year’s championship but Bosnia won despite a much lower budget due to the enthusiasm of the organizers and good preparations, said Aleksandar Pastir, the championship’s director.

But booing of the U.S. and Turkish teams and huge ovations for the teams of Russia and Serbia highlighted again the dominance of politics in the Balkan country.

The Bosnian Serbs have been close economic and political allies of Serbia and Russia since the war.

Some war veterans’ organizations have also said they will hold protest meetings during the visit to Sarajevo on Tuesday of U.S. Vice-President Joseph Biden, showing their disagreement with a policy they say favors Bosnian Muslims.

“This is a metaphor of our life here,” said Banja Luka university professor Miodrag Zivanovic.

“Even this sports event was politicized, which shows that Bosnia will not be ready to organize in a dignified manner any sports or cultural event as long as it functions on ethnic patterns.”

Editing by Steve Addison