Amel Tuka, one of Europe’s top runners, seeks Bosnia’s first-ever Olympic medal

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Since it first took part in the Games as an independent nation in 1992, Bosnia and Herzegovina has sent a small team to every Olympics, but they have yet to bring back a medal. Amel Tuka, one of Europe’s top middle-distance runners, is looking to change that.

When Amel Tuka was born in the little town of Kakanj, Bosnia in 1991, his country was on the verge of Europe’s most devastating conflict since World War II. The Bosnian war, in which Orthodox Serb troops carried out acts of genocide against Bosniak Muslims, left some 100,000 dead and more than two million displaced over the next four years. Yet even as war broke out, newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina sent its first delegation to the 1992 Olympics in Barcelona.

Since then, as it has gradually rebuilt from the war, the country of three million has sent a team to every edition of the Olympic Games, only for them to return empty-handed. This year, that could change, as middle-distance runner Tuka goes for gold in the men’s 800m race.

On Saturday morning, he qualified for the 800m semi-finals with a time of 1:45.48 in the first round. It was his first race in Tokyo but not his first at the Olympics: Tuka ran in Rio in 2016 but didn’t make it to the final, blaming stress.

“Rio was full of pressure and [I was] not sleeping due to being nervous,” Tuka explained in an interview with the head of the Bosnian Olympic Committee. “Some small things and the training was not exactly as it should have been. In the end, everything ended in the semi-finals.”

Already Tuka faced high expectations, as the country’s flag-bearer in the Rio ceremony and winner of Bosnia’s first-ever medal in a major international athletics competition the year before — a bronze at the World Championships in Beijing. Since his 2016 loss, he has continued to climb up the rankings, winning silver at the 2019 Championships in Doha with a time of 1:43.47.

He’s currently ranked third in the world in the 800m behind the United States’ Donavan Brazier (who failed to qualify for the Olympics after a disappointing race) and Kenya’s Ferguson Cheruiyot Rotich, who led the first round in Tokyo with a time of 1:43.47. World-record-holder and two-time Olympic champion David Rudisha is out of the running this year due to injury, leaving the gold medal up for grabs.

Friendship with Djokovic

Despite the bitter history between the former Yugoslav nations, Bosnia’s Tuka has taken the Games as an occasion to display his camaraderie with Serbia’s most prominent athlete: tennis star Novak Djokovic.

In a Facebook post last Saturday, Tuka wrote that he was carrying food back to his teammates in the Olympic village when he heard someone call his name. He turned around to find it was Djokovic, who, “with every gesture and sentence, showed all his modesty and humanity”.

“Nole [Djokovic] is a man, athlete, humanitarian,” Tuka wrote. “Nole is our friend and good and honest man and I wish him gold in Tokyo from the bottom of my heart.” (Djokovic missed his chance at a Golden Slam Friday after losing to Germany’s Alexander Zverev, but could still win Olympic bronze.)

Tuka — who, at 30, is one of the oldest members of Bosnia’s seven-person team in Tokyo — has also styled himself as a mentor for his younger teammates.

“We’re here to be taken seriously… No one will get past us easily,” Tuka said.

He advises his younger colleagues to train hard, but also to keep a level head if they can.

“Somehow, the members of the team need to go there relaxed, to get the experience and stability, as well as accept that pressure. They can come unburdened and maybe get a very good result,” he said.

Tuka, with his chance at the gold, doesn’t shy away from his own burden.

“I have to make certain of bringing my body to its peak,” he told the Olympic committee head. The lead-up to Tokyo took him to a special high-altitude base in St. Moritz, Switzerland, where he trained alongside Olympians from around the world.

Tuka’s next test comes on Sunday, when he competes in both the first round of men’s 400m heats and the 800m semi-final, which he hopes will earn him a place in the final on Wednesday.

Whatever the outcome, Tuka is committed to giving the competitions his all.

“We need to fight to give our best at that moment and we will never regret if we are defeated when we know we did our best,” he said.

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