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."
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.