Set, Spike - Sarajevo's 'Sitting' Volleyball Team Plays to Win BY: By David Rohde, Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor
THEY shout, give each other high fives, and pound the floor after a good spike. But crutches outline the court, and artificial limbs line the bench.
The Sarajevo sitting volleyball team ''Spid'' consists of men who play what is called, with black humor, Bosnia's ''sport of the future.'' They play hard, play to win, and most of all, play with dignity.
''You can feel it talking to [the young players],'' says team captain Mehmet Culic. ''They don't feel like they are handicapped.''
Spid's players are either missing one leg or both because of brushes with land mines or snipers' bullets in the Balkan conflict. And as Bosnia's three-year-old war drags on, the number of sitting volleyball teams in the war-torn country is growing exponentially.
Before the war, there were approximately 50 sitting volleyball players in Bosnia. Today, there are 500. Three prewar teams have grown to 15, and for the first time, women's sitting volleyball teams are forming.
The sport is nearly identical to traditional volleyball, but is played on a smaller court, with a 3-and-1/2 foot-high net. Players with long arms can just reach over the net. Spikes, blocks, and trash talking are common.
''Spid,'' which stands for ''Sports Society of Invalid Persons'' won Bosnia's first-ever sitting volleyball championship in June. Last week, it competed in the European Cup championships in Slovenia.
To reach the competition, they walked, with the aid of prostheses, through a government tunnel and made a 2-1/2-hour climb over a treacherous mountain targeted by Bosnian Serbs. The team placed 11th and will compete in the European Championships in the Netherlands in October.
Until then, they will return to Sarajevo and practice a game that boosts their morale.
''This game is much more dynamic than regular volleyball. You need a lot more physical strength,'' says Ismet Godinjak, a young, handsome former Bosnian Army special forces soldier who lost his left leg when he stepped on a land mine a year ago. ''It's really fantastic. The sport itself helps the [emotional healing] process go faster''
Spid's coach, Miralem Turcalo, who also coaches the national sitting and standing volleyball teams, marvels at his players' attitudes.
Supplies are a constant problem, he says. Practice is held five times a week in a dilapidated building. A net made of shoestring and sheets transforms a large conference room into a court.
The team has four volleyballs, and eight new brightly colored elbow pads are being shared by the players. They practice in orange, blue, and white T-shirts and sweat pants. Two players sport fluorescent green-and-white head bands.
The team canceled its first practice last month when the Bosnian government launched an offensive to liberate the city. It was the first practice canceled in three years because of fighting. Players say confronting shelling attacks to reach practice everyday is worth it.
''Sometimes I wonder what the snipers think when they see us,'' jokes a player who lost his right leg when hit by a sniper. ''Maybe they think they didn't do their job properly and should finish it.''
Practices are intense. The two dozen players - from teenagers to middle-aged men, do sit-ups and push-ups, pass volleyballs, and constantly razz each other.
Players quickly sprint back and forth on their hands as part of grueling conditioning drills. Turcalo calls out endless set plays, and players spring into position.
''We have a couple guys who can play for any European team,'' says Culic, who lost his legs and part of his hands while rescuing a family from a burning apartment in 1974. ''We just have less experience in games.''
The best team in the world is the Netherlands, which has a long tradition of sitting volleyball, according to Culic. But Iran, following the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, has also produced a strong team. He says the sport helped pull him out of depression after his injuries. He and other veteran players now recruit from Sarajevo hospitals.
''I overcame my psychological crisis through sport,'' says Culic, who played against the United States sitting volleyball team - made up mostly of Vietnam vets - in 1987.
Mr. Turcalo, the coach, says most people are at first uncomfortable watching the sport, but quickly appreciate it.
''At first people don't like to watch. They get accustomed to it,'' says Turcalo, dressed in sweat pants, T-shirt, and tennis shoes. ''These people are proving to society that they can do something despite being handicapped.''
But most of the players, who joked and teased each other throughout the practice, seemed more focused on winning upcoming matches.