SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina – 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 of her apartment 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 as we sat in that same apartment last August. “I will never ever in my life forget that.”
When daylight came, Sarajevo was covered in clean, white snow. The city was ready. Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee, opened the 14th Winter Games at Kosevo Stadium.
“Hvala, Yugoslavia,” he said.
Washington athletes dominated
The West had boycotted the 1980 Olympics in Moscow, and Russia boycotted the 1984 Summer Games in Los Angeles. Part of what made Sarajevo remarkable was that everybody came.
The Olympics marked Sarajevo’s entrance to the world, and the city welcomed foreigners with an “Olimpijske osmijeh,” an Olympic smile they learned through television and radio campaigns. For the first time, there was Coca-Cola.
Now, as the world’s eyes turn toward Sochi, Russia, Sarajevo will celebrate the games’ 30th anniversary, rousing memories of the turbulent years that followed. The jubilant Olympic city descended into a brutal war and rebuilt itself. Sarajevo is a city of contrasts and extremes, and while the story of war is a tragic one, there are other stories too.
Tales of those games are met with tears and smiles from Olympians and locals, and many recall 1984 as one of the happiest times of their lives. British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Chris Dean scored perfect 6s skating to “Bolero” under the roof of Zetra Hall. And the Mahre brothers and Debbie Armstrong, all of Washington, helped bring glory to the U.S. alpine skiing team.
Sarajevo won the bid over Sapporo, Japan, by three votes and spent $135 million in preparation for the arrival of the world. Citizens even voted to have money taken from their paychecks to help construct new venues.
Sarajevo was a stop on the 1983 Alpine World Cup circuit. Armstrong, a Seattle native, remembered the city as dreary and gray that year.
“There was still a long way to go; we didn’t know what we were going to get,” 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,” Phil Mahre said.
Samaranch called them “the best organized games in history.” And to many they still are.
Mahre, a Yakima native, competed at the Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria, and Lake Placid, N.Y., but for him 1984 is most memorable, and not just because he won gold.
“I met a lot more people and took in the experience. I took a week away from skiing and just played volleyball and basketball and hung out at the village,” he said. “They were probably the most colorful games I went to. It was just a completely different atmosphere.”
The heavy snow had created poor conditions and brought in overcast skies, 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. “I became very emotional and made a complete change in the way I looked at my career.”
Twenty-year-old Armstrong shocked herself and the media when she ended up winning 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, Wash.
If Washington state were a country, it would have tied the United States for medals.
‘Those games were special’
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.”
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.
He was fourth after the first run of the giant slalom. His goal for the second run 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 medal was Yugoslavia’s first and last, 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,” Armstrong said.
“Nowadays you have the Olympics and it’s spread all around. This was one of the last Olympics where everybody was staying in the Olympic Village,” Franko said. “And you’d walk across the plaza and – I’m getting goose bumps – you could see Christin and Debbie and Phil and Steve on a daily basis.”
Washington athletes felt the same.
“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, B.C. “There will probably never be another games like that. Those games were special.”
The world came, and left again
Many locals still long for those two weeks when Sarajevo was the center of the universe. Because as quickly as the world swept into Sarajevo, it left again.
Sarajevo is nestled in a narrow valley along the Miljacka River, surrounded by low-lying hills and the Dinaric Alps. Modest homes perch along cobblestone streets that wind up tree-covered hills on either side of the river. 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 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, past the eternal flame that commemorates World War II. The evening call to prayer mixes with the clamor from cafes, where lively patrons smoke cigarettes and drink beer or coffee.
Even after Yugoslavia broke up, Bosnia prided itself on being a multiethnic republic, demonstrating that people could coexist despite their differences.
Then came the war. In what was principally a struggle over territory, Bosnian-Serb forces were part of an attempt to create a greater Serbia. Those treasured hills made Sarajevo vulnerable, trapping the majority-Muslim residents in the valley at the mercy of attackers from 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,” Franko said. “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.”
Phil Mahre agreed.
“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.”
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 was under siege. 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 Kahrovic, now a hiking and city guide, as we walked through old enemy trenches above the city. “Every single street was sniper alley.”
The Olympic Village had been turned into apartments. 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 and visible from town, 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,” Kahrovic said as we stood on one of the course’s vertical curves.
The chairlifts where Franko had dreamed of stereos and Armstrong received that token of good luck were destroyed. Land mines salted the hills and mountains 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 Torvill and Dean and Scott Hamilton skated to Olympic gold, was flattened. The adjacent speed skating 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 buildings in Sarajevo have been rebuilt, though some 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 game’s mascot, Vuèko 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.”
‘Sarajevo was a cultural experience’
Phil Mahre splits the year between Yakima and Park City, Utah, where he runs the Mahre Training Center with brother Steve.
Armstrong went back to Sarajevo just before the 2002 Salt Lake City games with Global ReLeaf to plant trees to stabilize the barren hills around the city; all the old trees had been used for fire and fuel. Today she runs the Alpine Competitive Program for the Steamboat Springs Sports Club in Colorado.
“The Calgary Olympics were fabulous, but they were just an Olympics,” she said. “Sarajevo was a cultural experience.”
The world is starting to trickle back again. After an unsuccessful though largely symbolic bid for the 2010 Olympics, the city was selected to host the European Youth Olympic Festival in 2017.
This will require updating some of those Olympic sites that have fallen into disrepair.
Though its structures remain scarred, Sarajevo’s people are welcoming. The hills above the city are dotted with cafes that provide prime seats as the sun sets. 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 for Edin Numankadich – the director of the Olympic Museum, a collection he saved from destruction during the war – the event will give children a taste of the city’s greatest times.
“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.”