IN HIGH SPIRITS: Syrian athletes hope to do nation proud in time of adversity
AS violence wracks Syria with rebels battling the regime of President Bashar al-Assad, a team of 10 athletes from the country are preparing to travel to London for the 2012 Olympics.
"We want to show the world a different image than that given by the satellite television stations," said Ghofrane Mohammed, a 23-year-old sprinter.
"It will be amazing to hear the Syrian national anthem played in London," said Ghofrane, whose specialty is the 400-metre hurdles.
"The whole world will know that we were able to train and participate despite the crisis," added Ghofrane, who trains at night in Damascus's Tishrin stadium in preparation for her first Olympics.
But the "crisis" that Ghofrane refers to -- a 16-month uprising against Assad's regime -- has put the Syrian Olympic team in the middle of a political and diplomatic storm.
The British government, which has implemented European Union sanctions against Assad's regime, reportedly declined to issue a visa to Syrian Olympic Committee head General Mowaffak Joumaa, who is close to Assad.
Joumaa, who calls himself "proud to be from the Syrian army," condemned a "conspiracy" against Syria and said his Olympic athletes would compete to show "their attachment to their country and its leadership."
The president of the country's General Sports Union also criticised what he termed the "violation of Olympic conventions" and condemned "the false democracy of the West." Syria's athletes will be "real ambassadors" for their country, he said.
The team "reflects the national unity between all the parts of our people," he added, referring to the diverse ethic and religious communities in Syria.
Jomaa denied that the Syrian delegation had been threatened or put under pressure to stay away from the London Games, though he acknowledged he had "seen something to that effect on social networks."
And he brushed aside the possibility that the team could come under attack at the Games.
"We talked about it with the team and they insisted that they would not submit to pressure or blackmail," he said.
On Monday, Assad himself received the delegation, as fighting began to ratchet up a notch in Damascus, and shortly before a devastating Wednesday bomb attack on members of his inner circle that killed four, including his brother-in-law.
The Syrian Olympic team will take part in seven competitions and has a total of 28 members, including the athletes.
This is the largest Syrian delegation since the 1980 Olympic Games were held in Moscow.
Syria won its first gold medal at the 1996 Olympic Games, thanks to heptathlete Ghada Shouaa, but had a disappointing showing at the Beijing Games in 2008.
Majd Ghazal, a 25-year-old high jumper who will carry his country's flag during the opening ceremony, won a silver medal at last year's Asia Athletics Championships but is not expecting a medal in London.
His main hope, he said, is "to do my best to honour" Syria.
Bayan Jomma, an 18-year-old swimmer, said the team "will do everything possible to present a good impression of Syria."
"We will try to avoid politics, we are athletes and what's important to us is to get good results," she said.
But for some athletes there will be little escape from the realities of the situation at home.
Show jumper Ahmad Hamsho, who earlier this year defended the government's efforts against the uprising, will also be attending the Games.
But his father Mohammed, a businessman, has been denied entry to Britain to watch his son due to EU sanctions over his alleged cronyism and corruption. AFP