Sarajevo 30 years later: From games to war and back
The 1984 Winter Olympics were a shining moment for Sarajevo and Washington Olympians. No one foresaw the terrible ethnic war that would tear the city apart.
Special to The Seattle Times
SARAJEVO – A city desperate for snow suddenly had too much.
The biggest blizzard in 50 years hit Sarajevo the night before the 1984 Winter Olympics were to begin, and rumors of cancellation grew with the snow piles. Aida Cerkez remembers her mother waking her at 3 a.m. Standing in her pajamas, she looked out the window with pride as she watched soldiers from the Yugoslav Army marching down the street to pack the snow as it fell.
“There were whole neighborhoods going down with tea and cookies,” she said with tears in her eyes. “I will never ever in my life forget that.”
When daylight came, Sarajevo was covered in clean, white snow. The city was ready. International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch opened the 14th Winter Games at Kosevo Stadium.
“Hvala, Yugoslavia,” he said. Thank you.
The Olympics marked Sarajevo’s entrance to the world, and the city welcomed foreigners with an “Olimpijske osmijeh,” an Olympic smile learned through television and radio campaigns. For the first time there was Coca-Cola.
As the world turns toward Sochi, Sarajevo will celebrate its Games’ 30th anniversary, rousing memories of the turbulent years that followed.
Tales of 1984 are met with tears and smiles from Olympians and locals, and many recall 1984 as some of their happiest times. Torvill and Dean scored perfect sixes skating to “Bolero” under the roof of Zetra Hall. And the Mahre brothers and Debbie Armstrong of Washington brought glory to the U.S. Alpine team.
Sarajevo won the bid over Sapporo, Japan, by three votes and spent $135 million to prepare for the world. Citizens even voted to have money taken from their paychecks to help construct new venues.
The city was a stop on the 1983 Alpine World Cup circuit. Armstrong, a Seattle native and member of the 1984 U.S. Ski Team, remembered the city as dreary and gray.
“There was still a long way to go,” she said. “Then we show up in ’84 and it was so evident that this city was ready. I felt like it was a coming-out party for Yugoslavia and Sarajevo.”
The dirty air and thick smog that hung over the Miljacka Valley in 1983 was gone. A new gas pipeline replaced the coal people used for heat, leaving the city with clean air and revealing pristine, white snow for the first time.
“They rolled out the red carpet for the world,” said Phil Mahre, a member of the 1984 U.S. Ski Team. Mahre, a Yakima native, competed at Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and Lake Placid, N.Y., but for him 1984 is most memorable, and not just because he won gold.
“They were probably the most colorful Games I went to,” he said. “It was just a completely different atmosphere.”
Washington’s gold rush
The heavy snow created poor conditions, but on the day of the slalom the sky was blue and the snow was firm. Mahre felt good.
Four years before in Lake Placid, he stood on the second tier of the podium, listening to someone else’s national anthem, something that almost drove him to quit the sport. His gold in Sarajevo, however, was bittersweet. He’d snatched it from his twin brother, Steve.
It wasn’t until the “Star-Spangled Banner” played and the American flag was raised that Phil discovered that this was bigger than him.
“I realized that that’s not my flag, that’s America’s flag. And it became America’s moment, not my moment,” he said.
Armstrong, then 20, shocked herself and the media when she won gold in the giant slalom. Winning in Sarajevo made it more special.
She’ll always remember a lift attendant giving her a good-luck charm. It was a “little thing that I was able to attach to my ski team parka,” she said. “And it’s still attached to that parka today.”
Bill Johnson won the men’s downhill, Phil and Steve Mahre finished one-two in the men’s slalom, and Armstrong and Christin Cooper took the top two spots in the women’s giant slalom. Skiers won five of the United States’ eight total medals. The others were won by figure skaters Scott Hamilton, Kitty and Peter Carruthers, and Rosalynn Sumners of Edmonds.
If Washington state were a country, it would have tied the United States for medals.
There was enormous pressure to create the perfect Olympics, and though most people wanted to help, often they didn’t have a choice.
“Officially, I was a volunteer,” said Fikret Kahrovic, who, as a member of the Mountain Rescue Service, spent 22 days on the men’s downhill course. “But if I didn’t go, I would be put in jail.”
“The place went nuts”
Never before had a host country failed to win a medal, so pressure was high on Yugoslavian athletes like 21-year-old Jure Franko.
I met Franko, now 51, near the shores of Lake Bled in Slovenia for cream cake and coffee. Sharply dressed and wearing sleek glasses, he punctuated sentences with laughter and a wide smile as he recreated race day 1984.
Fourth after the first run of the giant slalom, his goal for the second was to beat his teammate. When it became clear that he’d skied well enough to medal, the crowd erupted. Franko fended off kisses from men and women alike.
“The place just went nuts,” he said. “It really brought the whole country together.”
The silver was Yugoslavia’s first and last medal, but one was enough.
Even after 30 years, the feel of the Sarajevo Games has never been replicated.
“It was Disneyland for athletes inside that Olympic Village. It was fabulous,” said Armstrong.
“The beauty of those Games especially was that it was a small little community,” said Phil Mahre, noting how disconnected Olympics feel in big cities like Salt Lake City and Vancouver. “There will probably never be another Games like that. Those Games were special.”
From games to war
What happened next, nobody saw coming.
Sarajevo is nestled in a narrow valley along the Miljacka River, surrounded by low-lying hills. You can see an Orthodox church, a cathedral and a mosque without turning your head, a reflection of the city’s rich history and diverse population.
The center of the Old Town is the pigeon-ridden Bascarsija, a bazaar built during Ottoman times. One-story shops with the same red-tiled roofs flank stone streets. The Turkish quarter bleeds into an area dominated by Austro-Hungarian architecture as you walk along the pedestrian-only street, Ferhadija.
It’s not uncommon to see a woman in a hijab strolling alongside one in a miniskirt. They blend seamlessly into the mass of people who walk slowly down the main drag, Marsala Tita. The evening call to prayer mixes with the clamor from cafes, where lively patrons smoke cigarettes and drink pivo (beer) or coffee.
Bosnia prided itself on being a multiethnic republic, demonstrating that people could coexist despite their differences. People coexisted until they didn’t. Principally a war over territory, Bosnian-Serb forces were part of the attempt to create a greater Serbia, becoming aggressive after Bosnia’s declaration of independence, which they opposed. Those treasured hills made Sarajevo vulnerable, trapping the majority-Muslim residents in the valley at the mercy of attackers above.
Eight years after the Olympics, foreign press returned to Sarajevo. This time they weren’t counting medals, but shells and bodies.
“To see people be so united and then to see the country being torn apart was a shock to everybody. It was a shock to us,” said Franko. “It was hard to believe that people who lived in relative peace for 50 years are suddenly capable of doing things like that to each other.”
“We didn’t see any of that tension when we were there, and it’s kind of hard to grasp,” he said. “You go to bed one night and your neighbor is your neighbor, and the next day he’s your enemy.”
Death, despair, destruction
Greg Lewis, a broadcast journalist who was making a film about the Games, remembers a sense of despair mixed with hope when he returned during the war.
“To see death, to see destruction, to see artillery fire in the Olympic logo of Sarajevo — it’s incomprehensible and it’s so disheartening,” he said. “And that’s too bland of a word. It breaks your heart.”
From 1992 to 1995, Sarajevo came under siege. The Yugoslav Peoples Army that Aida Cerkez had watched from her window had turned its weapons on her. Attacks from the hills took the lives of 11,000 people, and in Bosnia more than 100,000 people were killed — 80 percent of them Muslims.
“The expression ‘sniper alley’ was only for tourists,” said Fikret Kahrovic, now a hiking and city guide, as we walked through trenches above the city. “Every single street was sniper alley.”
The Olympic Village had been turned into apartments, and due to their proximity to the heavily guarded airport, they became one of Sarajevo’s deadliest areas.
During the Games the bobsled course was illuminated, snaking its way up Mount Trebevic. Today its pockmarked exterior is littered with graffiti. Internal steel frames protrude through concrete, exposed and rusted. “Now, it’s nothing but a terrible memory,” said Kahrovic, standing on one of the course’s curves.
The chairlift where Armstrong received that token of good luck was destroyed. Land mines salted the hills surrounding the city. Today the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Committee estimates that there are still 200,000 active mines in Bosnia.
Zetra Hall, where Scott Hamilton skated to Olympic gold, was flattened. The adjacent speedskating oval became a vegetable garden. The stadium became a graveyard — there was nowhere else to bury the dead. Today it borders cemeteries; the white posts marking hundreds of Muslim graves are visible from a distance.
Most of the buildings in Sarajevo have been rebuilt, though others remain pockmarked with bullet holes. The ground is still gouged in places from shelling, and some holes have been filled with red acrylic — Sarajevo’s “roses.”
A peeling billboard in front of the train station reads “Welcome to Sarajevo,” adorned with faded Olympic rings and the 1984 Games’ mascot, Vucko the wolf. Pens fashioned from old shells bear the word “Bosnia” and are sold alongside mugs adorned with the Olympic symbols in Bascarsija — reminders of the city’s happiest memories and its most awful.
“Sarajevo gave such a gift to the world with the 1984 Olympics. You can’t take it out of those people. That’s their history and legacy and pride,” said Armstrong, her voice catching as she spoke. “1984 was the true spirit and reflection of the people. That’s who they are.”
Armstrong went back to Sarajevo just before the Salt Lake City Games with Global Re-Leaf to plant trees to stabilize the barren hills around the city where trees had been used for fuel.
The world is starting to trickle back again. After an unsuccessful bid for the 2010 Olympics, the city was selected to host the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2017. That will require updating some of those Olympic sites that have fallen into disrepair.
Though its structures remain scarred, Sarajevo’s people are welcoming, though not without a dark sense of humor. The hills above the city are friendly, dotted with cafes that provide prime seats for sunset. The treasured memories and the ones people would rather forget are not mutually exclusive; they never are.
The Olympic Festival will likely resurrect the good. And Edin Numankadich, the director of the Olympic Museum, believes the event will give children a taste of the glory of 1984.
“We care about the future and about this generation. We want them to have and to know this good culture and heritage,” he said. “Now when I look back, that was the best period of my life. Everything was the best.”