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Former Olympic Champion’s Remarkable Link With BRI Project in Croatia

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Niksa Kaleb, a member of the Croatian national handball team that won a gold medal at the 2004 Summer Olympic Games in Athens, Greece, might never have imagined that he could forge such a close relationship with China and the Chinese-built Peljesac Bridge, a project of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

After having played as a professional handball player for 20 years, Kaleb retired in 2008. Instead of becoming a handball coach, he opened a small diving company in his hometown here as diving had always been a passion.

In 2018, work began on the Peljesac Bridge project, constructed by a Chinese enterprises consortium led by the China Road and Bridge Corporation (CRBC). The 2.4-km Peljesac Bridge, stretching over the Mali Ston Bay, connects Komarna with Brijesta on the Peljesac Peninsula.

The bridge, the largest infrastructure project in Croatia, has been hailed as an example project of the BRI which envisions trade and infrastructure networks connecting Asia with Europe and Africa along the ancient Silk Road routes.

For Kaleb, the Peljesac Bridge project offered him and his diving company “a great chance” as they won contracts to lay pipelines at the bottom of the sea — an area where Kaleb and his colleagues operate.

As a CRBC partner for the Peljesac Bridge project, Kaleb told Xinhua that he and his colleagues used to dive over 100 meters deep into the sea to lay pipelines on the seabed.

“The length of pipe was 3 km and we had to use 35 tons of concrete blocks to fix the pipe on the seabed” which was a very challenging thing to do, Kaleb said.

The pilings of the Peljesac Bridge project are over 130 meters deep and have set a new record in this regard, as the CRBC showed the world China’s advanced technological level, Kaleb noted.

“This is a great example for everyone to see in Europe what we can have in cooperation. On one side is Chinese technology and company, and on the other side is a European country and this is excellent cooperation between the two sides,” he said.

Kaleb has been among the more than 250 locals employed at the Peljesac Bridge project, along with 18 design consulting companies, 45 construction companies from the European Union, and 112 equipment and material suppliers from Croatia, Germany, Poland and other countries, according to CRBC Manager Lu Shengwei.

The Peljesac Bridge project, following the Belt and Road cooperation guiding principle of extensive consultation, joint contribution and shared benefits, has delivered tangible benefits to local residents like Kaleb.

What makes Kaleb proud is that people once got to know him for being an Olympic handball champion, but now people get to know him for being a diver for the Peljesac Bridge project.

“Of course, it means a lot for me to be employed on this project and to cooperate with this great company,” and having been employed for four years on the bridge project, “now it looks like my own bridge,” Kaleb said.

“I look at this bridge like my own house. I take care of it, and I am watching the bridge every moment, every day. So, it means a lot for me and I have to say I am very proud,” he told Xinhua.

What makes him prouder is that he was invited to attend the bridge’s grand inauguration ceremony in July last year.

And what makes Kaleb happier is that he need not worry about having to find a new job after the Peljesac Bridge opened for traffic because his company will continue to work for maintaining the bridge facilities under the sea for 10 years over its maintenance period.

“This is a never-ending job,” he said with a grin.

Kaleb disclosed to Xinhua that he, with the nickname “China” since childhood, was bound to have a link with China. He forged close friendships with Chinese colleagues, who called him “China” and taught him how to use chopsticks to eat Chinese food while he called them “brothers.”

One day during the COVID-19 pandemic, when Kaleb and his Chinese colleagues were working at the bridge, wearing masks and yellow clothes with CRBC signs, a Croatian truck driver needed help and Chinese colleagues called him: “China, China, please come.”

Kaleb went and helped the Croatian truck driver solve the problem and the grateful truck driver, who thought Kaleb was Chinese, asked him curiously: “When did you learn Croatian language so well?”

“Listen, my friend, you will not believe — I have been learning since I was born,” Kaleb answered humorously. 

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