Athletics without Borders
Local lifeguard swims in the Rio Olympics for survivors of Syria’s civil war
By Joe Piasecki
Azad al-Barazi lives in the water. He surfs. He swims. A Los Angeles County lifeguard since 2007, his day job is keeping watch over Santa Monica Bay.
A resident of Venice for the past five years, al-Barazi is a Southern Californian through and through.
A dual citizen of the United States and Syria, the 28-year-old is also one of only seven athletes representing the war-ravaged Middle Eastern country in the 2016 Olympic Games.
On Saturday, al-Barazi took to the water in Rio de Janeiro to race in the first heats of the men’s 100-meter breaststroke competition.
It wasn’t his first Olympic appearance — al-Barazi swam the same event four years ago in London — but this year everything is different.
Friends and former Syrian national teammates are swimming as refugees. He had to finance his own training and even his plane ticket. And more than ever before, al-Bazari has to be careful about what he says and does in order to avoid the appearance of taking sides in Syria’s civil war, which includes disassociating himself from the Syrian flag and any identifying feature other than the letters SYR.
This year, being on the Olympic stage also has a deeper personal meaning. With Syria awash in chaos and violence, al-Bazari hopes his very presence in the Summer Games will serve as a beacon of hope for young people trapped in the violence.
After arriving in Rio last week, al-Bazari spoke to The Argonaut via telephone from the Olympic Village.
You’ve emphasized that you’re competing for the people of Syria, not the government of Syria. What’s your motivation?
When I got my Syrian citizenship in 2010 after graduating college, the war wasn’t going on yet. The war was just starting when I was competing in London in 2012, and I didn’t think it would ever get to this level. I was naïve, just enjoying the Olympic journey.
After 2012, I thought about quitting swimming and going back to school to become a physician’s assistant. But watching the news and reading about all the stuff happening in Syria — the refugees leaving, people dying — I wanted to help. I wanted to do something about it. I couldn’t go to Syria. I realized the only way I could give something to the people of Syria was swimming for them, having a presence in Rio. Being an Olympic athlete is not easy, and there’s not much money in the low end of Olympic sports. A lot of countries help their athletes, but Syria does not fund me whatsoever.
I live in Venice, and here we get sidetracked by social media and the whole bubble we live in. It can be a struggle to pay rent here and just buy the things I need. But what they’re going through in Syria fuels me to swim faster. It motivates me to get up every morning and feel blessed to have a roof over my head and drinking water — the basic essentials we often take for granted.
What’s your message for them?
I’m focused on the next generation. That’s who’s going to make Syria a better place. My message is don’t give up on your dreams — that’s the biggest thing. Have a goal and go for it. Keep going, even though you’re struggling.
With relatives in Syria, do you have to watch what you say and do?
I’m always walking on eggshells around Syrians here. I’m not trying to speak out against the government or anyone. I’m keeping politics off my tongue. That’s what’s getting people detained or killed, and, having family members out there, I don’t want to hurt them because of selfishness or ignorance.
What do you think about anti-refugee sentiment in Europe and immigrant bashing in the United States? Is that a motivator?
Yeah, for sure. But I can see how if your country is struggling it’s hard to have all these refugees coming. I try to see both sides, but people have to realize this is the largest displacement of refugees since World War II.
I also know it’s tough for other countries to step in, put their foot down. You saw what happened when the U.S. stepped into Iraq and how things are happening there. And if the president of Syria steps down, what’s next? Is it going to get better? Get worse? We’re looking at Egypt, and they’re struggling after they overthrew their government.
How do people react when they find out you’re swimming for Syria?
My Venice neighbors are 100% supportive. When I tell people I’m going to the Olympics, the first thing they say is “U.S.A.?” And when I say my home country is Syria, their eyes widen. When you hear about Syria, it’s always negative, negative, negative. People dying. People leaving. But when I say I’m swimming for Syria, my Venice community and my L.A. County family is behind me. So I’m not just swimming for Syria, I’m swimming for the L.A. County Lifeguards and my Venice community. I’ve never gotten any negative feedback, like “Why don’t you swim for the U.S?” It’s “Good for you,” or “That’s inspiring.” Their support lifts my chest up. It feels good to have support from non-Syrians, from Americans.
What about other Olympians?
The same. They understand what’s going on. When I watch other Olympians, like Team U.S.A., they get all this apparel and all this gear and cool stuff. Me, I have to make my own stuff. But a lot of my friends from Team U.S.A. gave me a bunch of gear. I’m getting support from them.
Make your own stuff?
I do, because Syria is giving me stuff — it’s minimal — but it has the flag on it, and I’m trying not to wear any of the flags, just to show I’m not taking any sides. If I march out with that flag, if I wear that flag, people would say “he’s for this side, or taking that side.” I’m trying to wear no flags. I want people to know I’m here for Syria, but there’s no political side I’m taking. Pretty much all my gear just has the Olympic rings, Rio and SYR.
How’s your experience this year different than in 2012?
I’m older. I’m more humble. I’m faster. I definitely better understand the breaststroke. It’s night and day, London and Rio. This one means more because of what’s going on in Syria with the civil war and all these refugees.
And there wasn’t ISIS in 2012. When I landed here in Rio, I spent almost five hours detained in the airport trying to prove that I’m really an Olympic athlete. It’s not the Olympics’ fault. Syria was supposed to notify the Olympic Committee that I was coming, and they didn’t. [Customs officers] had no record of me. So here’s this guy carrying a Syrian passport and a U.S. passport, and the Syrian passport’s not even stamped — I just use it to be able to come to the Olympics. … So I could see where they’re coming from. I wasn’t angry at them.
Why the breaststroke? Doesn’t being 6’7” make the technique that much harder?
It is a challenge, because the breaststroke is an accordion stroke. You’ve got to be long and small at the same time. Me weighing 230, that’s weight I have to drag in the water. So I just have to maintain my technique and hold it.
Swimming is a weird sport. You don’t choose your stroke; your stroke chooses you. The breaststroke came naturally. You race all the events growing up and in college, then you look at what’s your best event and you start focusing on that. There are only three or four tall breaststrokers in the world; most are 6’2” or shorter. But I’m trying to change the game. I like when people tell me I’m too tall for this.
At this level of completion, is it more about physical or mental toughness?
The physical part, I’ve already done that — trained, pushed my body to the limits of fatigue. At this point it’s pretty much mental: How well you can keep your composure stepping up on the block. It’s about confidence. You can’t get sidetracked looking at other swimmers. You’ve just got to believe in yourself, believe in your training, and be mentally strong. When you’re fatiguing at 15, 20 meters, it’s about mental self-control to keep yourself holding that technique.
What’s it like in the Olympic Village?
The Olympics is pretty much the only time all nations can get together and compete without [geopolitical] drama. Just being here in the village — I wish the whole world could experience the energy and the camaraderie. It’s like a big family. It doesn’t matter where you’re from, what religion you are, what skin tone you are. People look up to you because you’ve made it this far. You’re in the village. It’s almost unreal. Definitely a peaceful movement.