Bosnians keep up tradition with high-dive plunge off Mostar bridge

Spectators watch as a diver jumps from the Old Mostar Bridge during the 452nd traditional annual high diving competition, in Mostar, Bosnia, 140 kilometers (87 miles) south of the capital Sarajevo, Sunday, July 29, 2018. (AP Photo)

Extreme sports might seem like a modern innovation for adrenaline junkies, but in the ancient Bosnian town of Mostar, jumping or diving from the 27-meter (89-foot)-high bridge is a test of courage that dates back more than 400 years.

For centuries, the annual contest in Mostar has been drawing crowds eager to witness the daring skills perfected by generations of relatives and neighbors.

Stari Most or Old Bridge – originally built by the Ottoman architect Mimar Hayruddin, apprentice of Mimar Sinan – in 1566, is a UNESCO World Heritage site. It was destroyed during Bosnia's 1992-95 war, but was painstakingly rebuilt after the conflict.

Each summer, a few dozen men enter the contest to take a 27-meter (89-foot) plunge from the bridge into the cold, Neretva River.

Organizers said the competition held Sunday was the 452nd. Anticipation grew as divers took turns in regular feet-down jumps or the eagle dive typical of Mostar.

A panel of judges picks the winner. For an ordinary jump, creating the smallest possible splash scores points. But in the eagle dive category, the bigger and louder the splash, the better.

A Mostar native, Lorens Listo, claimed the title for the second year in a row, his 12th award since he started competing 19 years ago. The crowds cheered he was proclaimed the winner, but went silent to watch Listo's victory dive.

"Every new victory is dearer to me every year!" he said.

The trip from the top of the bridge river lasts nearly three seconds and divers reach a speed of around 80 kph (50 mph) during their falls.

At just 16, debutant Emil Petrovic is the youngest participant in this year's contest.

"In this town, it's an obligation for every boy my age to dive off the Stari Most," he said.

Sunday's contest drew 40 local and international competitors and an audience of several thousand.

"It's a fantastic feeling," he said after emerging from the chilly emerald water to cheers of relief and admiration from the crowd.

"I wanted to preserve the tradition -- but also to show that I'm grown-up and brave," he said, adding that he had wanted to compete last year, but his mother said 'no.'

"This time, my father persuaded her, and they are both proud."

The first written account of young men leaping off Stari Most into the rushing waters of the Neretva comes from the 17th-century Ottoman explorer Mehmed Zilli, known as Evliya Çelebi, who traveled the empire for 40 years, recording his observations in his Book of Travel.

Celebi wrote that, when seen from a distance, the bridge "looks round like a bow out of which an arrow has just flown, and the bow froze."

He said that the divers "run up before jumping from the bridge, fall down into the river and fly through the air like birds performing tricks."

To this day, the "swallow dive" that Çelebi celebrated is still performed by Mostar's divers - although Petrovic took a safer option, jumping in feet-first.

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