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Feature 16 Sep 17

World’s Top Cliff Divers Take On Old Bosnian Tradition

Red Bull has been organizing cliff-diving competitions since 2009, but when it included Mostar on its list of venues two years ago, it came to a place with its own, centuries-old, tradition of diving.

Igor Spaic
BIRN
Mostar
The jump from the Old Bridge in Mostar. Photo: BIRN

Plunging off the Old Bridge in Mostar in southern Bosnia has been a local test of courage for young men for generations. The tradition of high-diving may be older than the famous bridge itself.

Everything is ready for this Saturday’s cliff-diving championships that will take place before thousands of spectators.

Hotels are fully booked and a platform that raises the height of the jump from the water to the bridge to the required 27 meters is being set up.

But people in Mostar have been gathering to watch brave young divers leap into the rushing waters of the Neretva – and into local stardom – from Medieval times all the way to the time of the current champion, Lorens Listo.

This muscular, tattooed 37-year-old has won the high-diving competition 11 times.

He grew up only 500 meters away from the bridge and his entire life has revolved around it.

“I have watched those jumps since I was a boy. I saw Emir Balic, Jadranko Fink and other great jumpers, and always dreamed about jumping like them some day,” he told BIRN.

Ancient tradition fascinated Ottoman traveller

Emir Balic jumps off the Old Bridge in 1960.

The 17th-century Ottoman traveller Mehmed Zilli, better known as Evliya Celebi, who crossed the empire for 40 years, wrote in his travelogue he never saw such a high bridge anywhere throughout the 16 provinces of the giant empire.

“As if it was thrown from one sky-high cliff over to another,” the bridge was built over the emerald waters of the Neretva by Mimar Hayruddin, a disciple of the great Ottoman architect, Mimar Sinan, Celebi wrote.

“When observed from the distance, it looks round like a bow out of which an arrow just flew out, and the bow froze,” he said.

Legend has it that Hayruddin left the construction site before the bridge was completed. He could not bear to watch what would happen when the workers removes the scaffolding.

Sultan Suleiman the Magnificent apparently threatened to chop his head off if the bridge fell down.

“Many courageous children from this town hang around the edge of the bridge. They then jump down into the river, flying down like birds and each performing some kind of an acrobacy,” Celebi wrote in 1664.

Champion won’t let his child watch him

As a boy, Listo trained hard, making up to 70 jumps a day from heights of 10 to 15 meters while always eyeing his goal – the Old Bridge.

He was 18 when he first applied to jump off the construction that briefly replaced the bridge after it was destroyed in the conflicts of the 1990s.

He only told one friend, calculating that, if he failed, it would be best if few people knew about it.

“Although I lived so close, I think it took me two hours to get to the bridge from my house that day,” Listo recalled.

“I felt like I was taking one step forward and two steps backwards. Everything was passing through my mind, my whole childhood. I didn’t know if I would survive,” Listo said.

But there was no way back, people were watching.

“Mostar is like that,” Listo said. “Once you apply, there is no turning back. My heart was beating like never before,” he added.

His first jump was head-first. It all went well but he forgot one small detail. It was broadcast live on TV, so his mother saw him.

“She almost had a heart attack,” Listo said. When he came home, she just told him, “You are not normal.”

The second jump, he claims, was even worse because he knew what kind of a hit he was about to take.

“It’s like flying, you don’t even see the last few meters. You just hear an explosion when you hit the water. You can’t imagine the pain,” he said.

Even today, Listo sits down on the riverbank immediately after coming out of the water.

“Everything seems shaky after the jump. I don’t want to walk around looking like I’m drunk,” he said.

His chest has turned blue from the impact. Last year, he broke a finger and twisted a wrist. In the past, he also injured his vertebra and broke two ribs.

His mother has never watched him jump live, and he doesn’t want his eight-year-old child to see it, either. Every jump is a risk, even today, he said.

With his 11 victories, Listo could be content with his record, but he still feels he is not really where he wants to be.

He wants to match the man he always looked up to, Mostar’s living legend – Emir Balic.

Living legend started aged 15

Emir Balic and Lorens Listo. Photo: BIRN

Today, Balic is 83 years old. His name is synonymous to the jumping tradition, and he has been a role model to the youth of Mostar for decades.

But it all started with a clumsy jump 68 years ago, when he was only 15.

Balic, too, had watched his predecessors and one day went to the bridge in his bathing suit. “I stood there for a long time, hesitating,” Balic told BIRN.

“The water was far shallower then than now. Everyone already started to whistle and shout ‘Go, already,’” he recalled.

Everyone was watching but still, “I sat down on the bridge, crossed over to the other side, sat down again, and so on until I finally jumped – on my feet,” he said.

“The feeling in the air was terrible. It’s only three-and-a-half seconds, but it seems like eternity,” he said.

His mentor, Adil Djukic, who he said was like a father to him, was passing by the river at the time and saw his “pathetic” jump. He told him to train to dive head-first.

Balic went on to practice at a nearby cliff until he came back to the bridge when he was 16.

This time the jump was good.

“People were clapping, but I just walked past everybody and went home to heal for the next five or six days, full of bruises. After those days passed, I went out into the town with my head held high,” he recalled.

From then on, over the next 20 years, Balic won 13 times, finished second four times and took third place three times. He never went home without a win.

One of the local legend’s most precious possessions is a sculpture he received for his 1000th jump.

Balic’s life has also revolved around the bridge. He was in Zagreb when a journalist called him in 1993 to tell him the bridge had gone.

“She said it in such a sad way, as if it was about my father. They killed my bridge. I was devastated,” he remembered.

When he returned to Mostar, Balic jumped one more time in 1996 at the age of 60 from the platform where the bridge used to stand.

He regularly took walks to watch how the reconstruction was going.

Over several years following the 1992-5 war in Bosnia, international experts pulled the stones of the bridge out of the river on to the bank and then put the bridge back together, stone by stone, like a giant jigsaw puzzle.

It could not be a new Old Bridge. It had to be the old Old Bridge, UNESCO said, before it certified the rebuilt structure as a World Heritage site, after it reopened on July 23, 2004.

There it was again, Mostar’s soul, elegantly arching over the river and once again attracting the young from both sides of the town, which has remained divided between Bosniaks and the Croats since the war.

And there they were again – the jumpers.Balic did not jump at the opening ceremony. It was time for new kids to carry on the centuries-old tradition.

They climbed up the bridge, holding burning torches. Before they jumped, they respectfully handed the torches to Balic. Among them was Listo.

“If I win twice more, I will be like Emir. We would have the exact same number of first, second and third places, both in a 20-year career,” Listo said.

“No, you have to beat my record,” Balic added.

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