Skydiving World Cup 2013. Banja Luka, Republika Srpska, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
When I searched inside my brain for anything I may have ever known about Bosnia I found only scary words. Words left over from television news when I was a teenager with no real grasp of how the world is and can be. Words like genocide.
That was ages ago now though. The war here ended in 1995 and since then an entire generation have had the time to be born and grow into adulthood. The guide book I skimmed before leaving claimed that while older folk like to discuss it, young people here would rather talk about anything else.
Banja Luka is a shabby but safe-feeling town where it is said the female population outweighs the male by seven to one. It is midsummer, hot enough to liquify the guano on top of the bronze statues of local heroes and historical figures that you have never heard of, and have it trickle like sweat down their temples. Around the place you only have to peel back a layer or two of paint to find an agreeable amount of Eastern Bloc, be it in the decor of an hotel room or the exterior of an old apartment complex. Locals doze in the shade next to their watermelon stalls, one piece always left out as a sacrificial cow to the hungry angry wasps. Bored teenage girls read school books or text in the quiet gaps between selling too-sweet looking ice cream.
I have been lucky enough to see some of the world, and this place looks to me like a country roughly equidistant from Hungary, Romania and Greece should look and feel. I have always enjoyed noticing the ways countries ooze into one another contrary to the lines on a map. This seems especially true of the little, tightly packed nations of central and eastern Europe, where people of different roots and ancestry all live up close with one another. I suppose that can be how the trouble starts.
The skydiving club is just a few kilometres from the city centre. There has been no jumping here since their Cessna went in last year killing all five on board, which represented a full quarter of the active skydivers in the country. The organisers and locals are clearly excited to kick off an event they have obviously been working towards for a long time.
The only safety briefing we receive consists wholly of the words “It is big” and “It is safe” accompanied by some gesticulation in the general direction of the open space out beyond the tents. However, after the first practice morning of career skydivers landing their tiny zoomy canopies in not-entirely-the-same-direction this is expanded magnificently to include “Can the big parachutes please not land next to the little parachutes”. In a brazen display of Britishness there is sudden bunting. The strings of tiny little Union Jacks appear like the tendrils of an evil sentient plant and soon cover not only the half dozen or so tents our hefty contingent has nabbed, but our alphabetical neighbours to either side as well as half of the packing area. I am sure this is more or less the same way they did it back in the day.
We only get a couple of rounds each day so we snooze and watch the swoops, perking up every now and then when the small military helicopter goes to collect the off landings, tempting every one of us into a mini adventure. Activity stops at lunchtime as they serve boring but nutritious food in an old military canteen that is outwardly sinister enough to deserve being dubbed ‘The Asylum’. I have had to say nice things about much worse in the past, so I do my level best not to complain about it and hope the resulting good karma is enough to appease the gods and be spared the jiffy tummy plaguing some of the others.
It would be nice to go faster and get it finished, but we end up busying ourselves with the VFS competition. It turns out that they need one more team to validate the competition and we are the only real option. So as the collected force of one freefly team and one freestyle team with the combined total of no previous experience, and despite some last minute coaching from the rockstars of this category, we manage to score fewer points than the actual number of rounds. It was free though, we learned some stuff and the others got to have their competition.
For the artistic disciplines we had the use of two Porters on loan from the Slovakian army. Neither of these had anything as convenient as a camera step and for most of us the door was on the wrong side of the plane altogether, making our hot shit exits that much more difficult. So we grumble and make the best of it and I spend the time attempting to contort my two meter body into the same shape as the teeny gap between the door, the strut, the wheel and the other two, trying as much as possible to get myself in the same place I would be when exiting from a sensible aircraft like we have been doing all bloody summer.
It ended with us in fourth place, one low scoring jump having kept us off the podium. The frustrating part is that the compulsory round we fluffed was the one we had nailed consistently all throughout our training. Such is the way of things, but we had a good battle involving some fine gentlemanly conduct with the Norwegians. Fourth is perfectly respectable result for an international competition, and we come away from it a little stronger and a little wiser. The French took gold over the Russians, although from our perspective it should have been the other way around.
The freestyle podium was all France. It is an impressive sight to see such dominance and so many beautiful matching tracksuits, but it is most likely some kind of crime against our national traditions to allow for so much Frenchness at the top of this game. The long and short of it is they get government money and we don’t, which makes it seem unfair, but we can be proud that despite the scarcity of support we as a nation turn out the most teams but a significant margin. Teams willing to put in the time and the money and the effort just because it is a good thing to do.
We may not win the most medals, but we have the best time.