The head of the Syrian Olympic team offered a delicate defense of the Syrian army on Saturday while it pounded his own home city from helicopters to flush out rebels.
Maher Khayata told The Associated Press he was worried about his family, trapped in the city of Aleppo during one of the most significant battles of a 17-month uprising against the government of Bashar Assad.
Khayata said the army was trying to “protect people and keep them safe,” and said the expulsion of the armed opposition from Aleppo is “maybe the way to stop bloodshed throughout Syria.”
Acknowledging his sensitive position, he said: “I am a sportsman, not a politician.”
Back home, Syrian forces moved to wrest Aleppo neighborhoods from rebel hands in fierce fighting that has raised fears among activists and the international community that a massacre could be looming.
The athletes are competing at the Olympics to present “a good image of Syria and achieve good results,” Khayata said.
Three Syrians were competing Saturday at the London Games, in swimming, shooting and boxing. They stayed clear of politics and focused on their performances and the atmosphere of competition.
“I am just soaking up this place, this event, the Olympics, and going ‘wow’ every time I see these incredible athletes in the same place with me,” said Azad al-Barazi, a 24-year-old swimmer.
Al-Barazi, who goes to college in Hawaii and holds dual American and Syrian citizenship, failed to reach the final of the 100-meter breaststroke during heats on Saturday.
“It was not my best time, not my fastest result, but it’s my first Olympics, and I was very nervous,” al-Barazi said. “It’s hard to put in words, but I am just so happy to be here. It’s an important achievement in itself.”
More than the pressure of war back home, shooter Raya Zin Alden said she felt the heat of appearing at her first Olympics. She finished 50th out of 56 in women’s 10-meter air rifle competition.
“It was stressful, but I’m a little disappointed I shot the same as my Olympic qualifying score, 388,” Zin Alden said, adding that she had hoped to have done better because she had good training in Syria and in Kuwait.
“Everything was perfect. I wasn’t affected by the war at all,” Zin Alden said.
Syria’s best medal hope in London, bantamweight boxer Wessam Slamana, lost his opening bout 15-7 to Kazakhstan’s Kanat Abutalipov. Slamana trained outside Syria, at camps in Kazakhstan, Mongolia and Wales, before the Olympics.
“I apologize because I lost the first bout,” Slamana said. “We tried to win and get to a bronze medal.”
Winning medals for Syria in London was not top priority for the strife-ridden country, Khayata said.
“When we got out of Syria, we had one aim, and that is for our athletes who have qualified to participate in the Olympic Games and give a good impression of Syria,” he said.
“We would like to return with Olympic medal, but what we want more is to return to our homeland with the news that fighting has stopped and nobody is killed anymore.”