SARAJEVO, Yugoslavia -- The runway at Beirut airport was being shelled as they left, but Lebanon's four-man Alpine ski team said Friday they had to come represent their war-torn country in the Winter Olympics.
The four young skiiers come from the Christian-dominated part of Lebanon where the slopes attracted jet-setting skiiers in the '50s and '60s, but they don't stand any chance of winning a medal at Sarajevo. It doesn't much matter to them.
'We're here to represent Lebanon, not to win. We want to let people know that with all our troubles, we have skiiers. We're not all barbarians,' said Serge Axiotiades, 22, of Beirut.
He lives not far from the Ministry of Defense and U.S. residence in Yarze, which regularly gets shelled. 'Not a good area to live in now,' he says, laughing. The University of Beirut, where he studies computer science, was hit earlier this week.
Serge, and his teammates Nabil Khalil, 21, and Tony Sukkar, 20, flew out of Beirut airport with Michel Samen, the chief of the Lebanese ski delegation, Sunday, the day that Moslem militiamen seized the main road leading to the airport and the nearby U.S. Marine base.
'The pilot took off very quickly, which was strange. Usually they taxi down the runway and turn around, but this time he didn't,' Serge recalled. 'The hostess told us the pilot had taken off without clearance because of shelling on the runway.'
Samen had been late for the plane. He told the skiiers afterwards that a shell had crashed 200 meters away from his car on the airport road. The next day, two other delegation members tried to get out of Lebanon and couldn't. The airport was closed.
The fourth member of the team is Samen's son, Michael, who flew in from the United States where he is studying civil engineering at the University of California at Davis.
They have all been touched by the war in their homeland, seeing friends die, so problems like not having a ski lift to get them high enough up a mountain for downhill practice because of the fighting seems silly. They just do slalom and giant slalom instead.
Yet from 1977 to 1979, there was no skiing at all in Lebanon because the ski stations were under fire from Syrians invading from the east. No trainer would come in 1982 because of the Israeli invasion. Practices are only on weekends now at the Cedars near Tripoli and at Faraya and Faqra near Beirut.
'Lebanon is like this Coca-Cola,' says Tony, grabbing a can in their Olympic Village recreation room. 'Why do 100 persons want to drink this one coke? Lebanon is for us, the Lebanese, not for the Iranians, the Syrians, the Israelis, the Americans, the Marines.'
All four are good natured about their prospects of winning an Olympic medal, which are zero.
'If all of the others fall, we can get some medals,' says Serge, cracking them all up. Sarajevo is beautiful for two weeks, he said, but they want to go home, even if it is to a bomb shelter.
'There's more important things than sports. You have to survive first.'