Thirty-eight years ago, on February 8th, 1984, 50,000 spectators attended the opening ceremony of the 14th Winter Olympic Games at the Koševo Stadium in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. For twelve ensuing days, 250,000 spectators and 2 billion television viewers watched nearly 1,300 athletes from 49 countries compete for medals…or simply participate.
Sarajevo 1984 was the greatest sporting event in Yugoslavia’s history and the first Winter Olympics to be held in a socialist country. To many ex-Yugoslavs the Sarajevo Olympics are still that country’s brightest moment on the world stage, if not its last glorious hurrah.
How did the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics, the most unlikely of events held in a unique period of the Cold War, come about? What stories did these Olympics tell and what memories did it engender? And what is their future?
With Jason Vuic and Sanela Klarić.
The Remembering Yugoslavia podcast explores the memory of a country that no longer exists. Created, produced, and hosted by Peter Korchnak. New episodes two to three times per month.
PETER KORCHNAK: This is Remembering Yugoslavia, the show exploring the memory of a country that no longer exists. I’m your organizer, Peter Korchnak.
The 24th Olympic Winter Games are under way in Beijing. So it’s only natural that I would take a look back at the Sarajevo Olympics, which began 38 years ago this week.
On February 8th, 1984, 50,000 spectators attended the opening ceremony of the 14th Winter Olympic Games at the Koševo Stadium. For twelve ensuing days, 250,000 spectators and 2 billion television viewers watched nearly 1,300 athletes from 49 countries compete for medals…or simply participate.
The Games were special, and not only because my country, Czechoslovakia, won silver in the ice hockey tournament and the host country got its first and only medal in a Winter Olympics and Torvill and Dean got a since-unmatched perfect score in the ice dance competition.
Sarajevo ‘84 was the greatest sporting event in Yugoslavia’s history and the first Winter Olympics to be held in a socialist country. To many ex-Yugoslavs the Sarajevo Olympics are still that country’s brightest moment on the world stage, if not its last glorious hurrah.
But these are not the only story lines of the Sarajevo Olympics, the most unlikely of events held in a unique period of the Cold War and one that carries a heavy load of memory to this day.
JASON VUIC: Most Yugoslavs look back at this with nostalgia that somehow Sarajevo became the very center of the sports world, that Yugoslavia was watched by upwards of 2 billion people. And a lot of people think this is really the last gasp of communist Yugoslaviaof really being pertinent and in front of the [inter]national spotlight for something very positive.
PETER KORCHNAK: In today’s episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, I’m going to look at just how the Sarajevo Olympics came about, at the stories they told and the memories they engendered, and also at valiant efforts to revive more of their glory.
But before we light the Olympic cauldron, let me introduce some new champions of Remembering Yugoslavia: thank you Stevan and Vedran for becoming the latest Patreon sustainers and thank you Bill and Jelena for your contributions. It is only thanks to the heroic performances of listeners like Stevan, Vedran, Bill, and Jelena, that I am able to bring you the story of the Sarajevo Olympics and other tales of Yugoslavia’s memory month in and month out. So join these and other fans of Remembering Yugoslavia and make a donation to its organization and success. Go to rememberingyugoslavia.com/donate and, whatever option you choose, become a gold medalist of my heart.
Organizing the Sarajevo Olympics
PETER KORCHNAK: You may remember Jason Vuic from the recent episode about the Yugo car. He followed up the history of Yugoslavia’s most famous export with a history of Yugoslavia’s greatest two weeks. His book, The Sarajevo Olympics: A History of the 1984 Winter Games, came out in 2015, from the University of Massachusetts Press.
JASON VUIC: I really needed to find out how the Games came to be, how such an unassuming and offbeat part of Yugoslavia competed with cities around the world, competed in a milieu that was somewhat foreign to Bosnia. Bosnia was not a place in the 50s and 60s and 70s where fashionable Europeans would go skiing. And how Sarajevo, being a poor city, a capital within a poor republic–in 1970, Bosnia’s per capita GDP was 66% of the rest of Yugoslavia, you know, Yugoslavia as a whole. So this was not the place, the type of place that can win the Games. And so I set out to write a basic history of the Games.
And so in order to do that, you have to look back and understand the Olympic movement, how Games are bid for, how Games are organized, and how they’re paid for. And Sarajevo, bid for the games simply as a way to create a winter tourist industry. That’s what it wanted to do. They wanted to create and build two or three ski resorts, and to introduce Bosnia and to introduce its natural beauty to the rest of the world. And so this falls back into Yugoslavia’s developmental history in the 60s and 70s.
The country grew rapidly after World War Two but borrowed heavily from the West. And by the 1980s, by the 1970s was desperately in need of hard currency. This is the same story of the Yugo, you know, exporting the Yugo car for hard currency. And so Bosnia needed money. Bosnia was big on infrastructure projects, roads, dams, bridges, and so Bosnia was open to anything at all that would bring tourists money, to bring, you know, American dollars or British pounds, or especially German marks to pay down its developmental debt.
PETER KORCHNAK: In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Yugoslavia’s economic heyday was coming to an end. The ballooning foreign debt, exacerbated by the oil crises, and a slowdown in investment across the board led not only to a decline in living standards but also in attractiveness to and visits by foreign tourists. So development planners saw the Olympics, one of the best marketing tools for any city, as a potential catalyst to reviving the country’s tourism industry and an injection of much-needed foreign currency to keep the economy running and meet its debt obligations.
That said, it wasn’t a slam dunk, or should I say an empty netter.
JASON VUIC: No one in Yugoslavia thought Bosnia had any hope, Bosnia had any business applying. My question coming into the book was, “Why didn’t Slovenia apply?” I mean, the Slovenes are good at this stuff. The Slovenes had international competitions when the Bosnians almost never had any competitions at all. I compare Bosnia in its bid for hosting a Winter Olympics, it would be as if Charleston, West Virginia bid for the Olympic Games. Yes, Charleston is a city with hotels and bars and restaurants, and yes, it has beautiful mountains, within driving distance, but no, this is not a place that can compete with Innsbruck, this is not a place that can compete with Vail.
PETER KORCHNAK: Right, so why did Slovenia not apply or why did Yugoslavia not use Slovenia where all these facilities are pre existing, as you say, you know, there’s history of winter sports, there’s beautiful mountains. You’re right, I mean, the economic development piece is one thing of course, but why not Slovenia? It would have been so much easier.
JASON VUIC: Slovenia had the ability, it had the ski lodges, it had had international skiing, ski jump competitions, for example. And it had the expertise on the ground. Very few people in Bosnia knew how to run any type of winter sports event. Right, you have to think in terms of just organization, not just money. I think the Slovenes probably thought it’s a massive undertaking. There might have been, you know, some thinking, you know, yes, we can do this and, you know, we hold our own in winter sports, but we’re not Swedes, we’re not the Swiss, you know, we’re not Austrians who have the money and the wherewithal, you know, there was thinking that among the Slovenes that it was going to cost too much money. We probably wouldn’t win if we bid and then we’d have to pay for it if we did. And so I think that’s why the Slovenes didn’t bid and never even thought of bringing the Games.
But Bosnia did.
PETER KORCHNAK: In addition to Yugoslavia’s development policies, the drama in the Olympic movement itself played into the eventual Olympics in Sarajevo.
JASON VUIC: Through the 1960s and 70s, the Olympic Movement was at a low ebb. You have a number of problems in a row: you have ‘68 in Mexico City, right, before the Mexico City games you have, you know, the student massacre in Mexico City were protesting students were shot at and murdered in droves. Which to an extent was a pre-Olympic cleanup effort, you know, you’re not going to protest during the Games, we’re going to be tough on you. And it got out of hand. You have ‘72 in Munich, you know, with the horrible murders, the terrorist attacks. ‘73, Denver had won the Winter Games and in a referendum the residents of Denver voted to give it back. They didn’t want the games, they didn’t want to pay for them. ‘76 Montreal, cost overruns into the billions, you know, it was outrageous. And then, you know, you have through the 70s, the movement to boycott the 1980 Games in Moscow. So there’s politics or just getting into the Games at an incredibly high level, interfering with the Games, money is starting to creep into the Games. And cities do not want to face massive debt.
You would bid for Games six years in advance and in 1978, the big problem was Los Angeles. Los Angeles was the only viable bid for the 1984 Summer Games. Right? No one really wanted it. Riyadh had thought about it, Tehran, imagine Olympics in Tehran in 1984. And Los Angeles bid for the games, but the city of Los Angeles said, we are not going to take on any debt from these Games. This is a private proposal, this is not a proposal from the city of Los Angeles. And the Olympic movement, they couldn’t believe it. The IOC members, they were very rich men at the time, think of a country club full of the sons and brothers of dictators, blue blooded Americans and Brits, princes and dukes and earls these kinds of people plus high ranking Communist officials. The IOC just couldn’t believe that Los Angeles would be so crass as to not take on a billion dollars in debt in the name of the Olympic Games.
If Los Angeles in 1978 said, “Take it or leave it,” and the Olympic Committee said, “We’ll leave it,” the Olympics were dead. The Olympics would probably have not survived 1984 if the IOC had not gone with Los Angeles and let Los Angeles have a for-profit Games that would sink or swim, you know with a private Olympic Committee.
So in the midst of this turmoil, three cities bid for the Winter Games. The first was Gothenburg, Sweden, the home of Volvo, and then Sapporo, Japan, which had had the Games, I believe, in maybe ‘72. And then Sarajevo. And no one in their right mind thought Sarajevo had any chance, none. No one followed it, no one really cared–until out of the blue, Sarajevo wins, which was shocking and how it came down.
PETER KORCHNAK: This was the second narrative of the 1984 Winter Olympics. Sarajevo were the Games that saved the Olympic movement. Kate Meehan Pedrotty has written that, “In order to capitalize on an image that the International Olympic Committee was already promoting, the Sarajevo Olympic Organizing Committee, the Tourist Association of Yugoslavia, and other Olympic and tourist organizations worked to construct Sarajevo and Yugoslavia as healthy embodiments of universal values in an otherwise fractured Cold War world, stressing the allegedly “natural” harmony of Yugoslav non-alignment diplomacy and international Olympic brotherhood. Woven into this image—advanced in tourist brochures, guidebooks, internationally-circulated Olympic newsletters, and special exhibitions—was the implication that Yugoslavia’s people actively lived this universalism on a daily basis by virtue of their citizenship.” End quote.
But, as you’d expect, there was a difference between the rhetoric and reality.
JASON VUIC: Sarajevo in its bid, it was small time. Most cities spend in the tens of millions just to bid, just to propagandize, just to get the IOC to vote for the city. You know, it’s chaos, and the money is huge. Sarajevo’s entire entire operation was to send, you know, a delegation to Athens to put on their proposal, it was a couple hours, you stand there and you show slides and you talk about your city, and they actually sent a train car, they took out the seats, and they put poster boards up in it to show the Olympic Committee members, some of the richest men around, they come in one side of the train car and they look at the exhibits and come out the other. That was the extent of Sarajevo’s bid.
Now, the reason Gothenburg didn’t win, that was the obvious choice. The problem was the Nordic events and the arena events would be on the coast in Gothenburg but the Alpine events would be 500 kilometers away. So there would be two Olympic villages. And in those days the IOC couldn’t handle that. So they said no. And Sapporo had already had the Olympics. So Sarajevo wins the bid.
And once they won the bid, the Slovenes went crazy. Most Yugoslavs could not believe, Serbs, Croats, people in authority, most newspapers, just couldn’t believe it. And the Slovenes particularly were angry. They did not want to invest their money in a Bosnian Games. They thought a Bosnian Games was beneath them, that the the Bosnians had not asked the Slovenes for help with their bid. You know, they even at one point, leaders of the Slovenian government will go to Tito, in ‘79, before Tito died, they actually visit him at his mansion and try to get him to give the Games back. You know, that’s the level of the rancor and animosity. I mean, I think on one level, there was a supreme desire to not face massive debt. But on another level, I think there was a great deal of jealousy by the Slovenes.
Sports Illustrated they sent a famous Olympics journalist to the country to drive around and, you know, he interviewed Slovene tourist officials, and they were all calling Bosnian names, you know, Mujo and Haso, making fun of them, like Laurel and Hardy, as morons, as people who weren’t, you know, had the ability to, to do anything. They said that, yeah, the Games are going to go on, but no one’s going to change the lightbulbs. You know, no one’s going to do the basic things that need to be done, that you would see in Germany or Sweden or Austria or Japan. That was the fear, not that they couldn’t put the Games on, but that it was just going to be not well done.
And Winter Games had problems. Even Lake Placid was a disaster in terms of organization, and that was the Americans with many many millions behind them and knowledge of these events and so that that was why the Slovenes were so angry.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Sarajevo Olympic Games exposed and perhaps exacerbated some of the economic and political issues that had by then already been splitting Yugoslavia apart. Inter-republican rivalries for resources, disputes about proportional republican financing for the joint venture of these Olympic Games, suspicions of corruption and financial malfeasance, allegations of nationalism and other isms, all injected an ugly aspect into the Games. Invisible to the naked eye of casual sports fans, of course. So behind the sense of pride, for being the center of the sporting world, for having pulled off the impossible, the rifts that led to the country’s dissolution were intensifying in the run-up to the Olympics.
JASON VUIC: The hero of the book, in my opinion, is Sarajevo, is the Olympic Organizing Committee.
It started with the head of the Communist Party in Bosnia, Branko Mikulić, a hard line, to many groups through the 80s oppressor, not afraid to use the police to tamp down on crime and dissent, even, you know, what we would consider rightful or lawful dissent. But he was such a pro-development proponent, he was not afraid of building roads, he was not afraid of trying to pull Bosnia kicking and screaming into the next century. I’m not praising this man, I’m just saying, you know, who he was and what he wanted. And so the Olympic Games fit in with his vision for Bosnia.
When you look at Olympic expenditures for cities, you know, some cities will say, Yeah, we turned a profit, like Atlanta. But what they don’t put is that 50 new buses and bus lines and an entire subway stop or an entire university wing, you know, was built by some other entity. So they hide expenses, especially infrastructure expenses, off the books. And that’s essentially what Bosnia did. Through the 70s and 80s, they had this plan to cut down on pollution in Sarajevo, to essentially rip up most of the downtown streets, replacing sewer lines, expanding the airport, expanding bus lines, you know, cleaning up Sarajevo and taking it from a very dirty, very, very polluted city– the river was polluted, the air was polluted… I mean, most people liken Bosnia in the 70s to Pittsburgh and Cleveland of the 30s, you know, a tough industrial place. And Mikulić did that.
And so once that was finished, you know, he used that extra taxes, he used and requested the Yugoslav national army to help clear ski slopes, he had student worker actions (3,000 students came in from all over Yugoslavia and all over the communist bloc to help build socialism by building ski slopes for the Sarajevo Olympics). And by hook and crook and also with about 110 million, $100 million in you know American TV money, money from sponsors all over the world, they essentially pulled it off and broke even. Which is amazing, you know, absolutely amazing compared to the monumental losses of other Olympic Games, that Sarajevo probably broke even, even with support of the Yugoslav national army and even with Mikulić building new roads and bridges and things. And so that’s the real, real amazing story of these games.
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Remembering the Sarajevo 84 Winter Olympics
SANELA KLARIĆ: I was 14 and my memories are great, because actually everyone was excited about that.
PETER KORCHNAK: Lifelong Sarajevan Sanela Klarić is an architect, a university professor of architecture, an expert in rural as well as sustainable development, and last but not least, a member of Federation parliament.
Like many people in the former Yugoslavia, Klarić remembers the Sarajevo Olympics fondly.
SANELA KLARIĆ: Firstly, it was a part of the memories when I was [a] very happy person. Yugoslavia for me, me for me means, and my family means a lot: means prosper and freedom.
For us, it was really the period of time that we were proud that we are able to continue and to live together.
Also now I think that it’s important to also promote that identity because somehow we lost any other identities except the war and the suffer[ing] and divisions and fascism. So I think it’s really important to promote many other, very good pictures about us and identities, and of course Olympic[s] is the one.
And we were organized in a way to have guests from all over ex-Yugoslavia. And I was hosting some of the children my age in my house. And we had organized buses every morning, just to have flags of Yugoslavia in our hands and they are driving us to the different sport places to support, to be in the audience.
The places were very very crowded with different people but they want us to have the Yugoslavia flag and we are actually promoting our country.
So imagine, as a 14 years old girl, I was on all over the places for the two weeks, watching and supporting different people. And it was really great. And we also had a lot of fun with our friends, same ages.
But also after the Olympic Games, we continue to work in our schools. And I remember I was with my teacher on the Trebević on the bob slide and we are competing there. It was also very exciting. And I remember I was very afraid but I did slide on the bobsled.
PETER KORCHNAK: So bobsled was part of the school curriculum?
SANELA KLARIĆ: Yeah, in that moment, yes.
PETER KORCHNAK: With the caveat that the bobsled track actually has three sections, which can be separated or combined by a switch into tracks for racing, training, or recreation. Thanks to this first-in-the-world feature, the bobsled track can be used year round. And with its 13 curves and the average slope of 10 percent, the race track is said to have been the steepest and the fastest in the world, with speeds exceeding 140 kilometers (or 88 miles) per hour.
Did you stay friends with any of the people who stayed at your house from other places, other parts of the country?
SANELA KLARIĆ: Yes, yes, during war we were in contact very much, and even now. In my case I had friends from Slovenia.
PETER KORCHNAK: You visit each other still?
SANELA KLARIĆ: Yes, and we are in contact.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Olympics were the high point of Yugoslav history, Yugoslav sports history, especially in the 80s after Tito died, right, so what did it mean in terms of that, in terms of the country, school, media, that kind of stuff, was that rhetoric about, what did you hear, what do you remember, was there anything else that impacted you as a school-age child?
SANELA KLARIĆ: In that moment in Sarajevo, everything was really about reconstruction, preparation, and even the snow come the day, that night actually just before the competition. So for us, it was like we are blessed, let’s say, even though in that moment most of us was were atheists. But we were like the feeling that, you know, everything is around to help us to show how strong and how brave and proud we are.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Sarajevo 1984 mascot became (and remains) everyone’s friend. Vučko, or Wolfie, was an illustrated wolf, the animal being a strong, courageous native of the region’s forests. He was an avid sportsman, a funny furry friend of all, and a bit of a rascal. The humorous little clips of Vučko getting into trouble doing various sports were legendary. My favorite is when he takes off from a ski jump, lands, and, unable to stop, ends up in a ćevapčići restaurant.
836 artists participated in the design competition. Jože Trobec’s Vučko won among the six shortlisted proposals in a popular vote by newspaper and magazine readers. The other candidates were a snowball, a mountain goat, a weasel, a lamb, and a hedgehog. Trobec was Slovenian, so Slovenes did end up playing a major part in the Olympics after all…
One of my prized possessions as a boy, and pretty much the only objects from Yugoslavia I had, were two metal pins, značke, with Vučko on them. I still have them. They were among a gazillion souvenirs made for the Olympics, and in fact, Vučko continues to adorn souvenirs from Sarajevo. You really can’t visit the city without running into Vučko.
The logo of the Olympics was a stylized, abstract snowflake, still present around Sarajevo on buildings from the Olympics, like the Holiday Inn Hotel or the Skenderija hall. There’s one embedded in the pavement on the Ferhadija promenade and it makes an appearance in some newish graffiti. And while the main Olympic posters were drawn by the Bosnian artist Ismar Mujezinović, 16 world artists made special edition posters as well. Andy Warhol was one of them with a poster of a speed skater. But it is Vučko who continues to embody the Sarajevo Olympics, and to many Yugoslavia itself.
Mi smo Vučkovi, Vučko je naš.
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Sarajevo 1984 Olympic Winter Games from the American Perspective
PETER KORCHNAK: Vuic’s history of Sarajevo ‘84 is written from a U.S. perspective. I mean his ancestry may be from the Balkans but he’s an American. As a fellow American, I’m curious about that side of the Olympics, the American side.
Of course, it’s about the money.
JASON VUIC: The games were in American endeavor through the 1980s, enormous American endeavor, financially and culturally.
You can’t take away American money from the modern Olympic movement, especially American television money. For most of the post World War Two history of the games, American television money drives the entire engine of the Olympics. Big, big money. The ‘84 Los Angeles Olympics, those rights sold for $225 million. And the Sarajevo rights sold, I believe, for about 100, 103, 104 million to the Americans.
The overwhelming piece to this is American money, which is ironic: an Olympics in a communist country, infrastructure built in a communist country, coming from American television money.
You interview people in the city, and no one really had negative memories of the Games. And neither did Americans. You know, a lot of American journalists went, they would, they would talk about how the city was, you know, the buildings were brown and there was a lot of smog, and they all commented on how many cigarettes Yugoslavs smoke. They were blown away. You know, one journalist wrote that his two boys came with him, two 12, 13 year old boys or something, and they wanted to go somewhere and they just jumped in a taxi cab, and he wrote, I can’t believe it, you know, my sons in Detroit might not have gotten there if they had jumped in a taxicab, you know, they were blown away at you know, the hospitality of Bosnians. Oh, we these children are in taxi cab, this journalist writes, that when they got where they were going, the cabbie offered the two boys cigarettes, right. I mean, they were just blown away by the coffee. they didn’t understand the coffee, the Westerners coming here. And the smoking, even though smoking was ubiquitous in America then it wasn’t close to you know, those Games.
Americans were coming off of Lake Placid. And Lake Placid is almost mythical to Americans in sport. You know, the Miracle on Ice in hockey.
PETER KORCHNAK: The notorious victory of an amateur Team USA beating the mightiest hockey team in history, the zbornaya of the Soviet Union.
JASON VUIC: But Lake Placid was a mega disaster. You know, it went in debt by many millions. Lake Placid was a tiny city. The press center was the high school, right. I mean, this is not a place that should be hosting hundreds. I mean, there were 230 or 40-odd journalists just from the communist bloc that came to Yugoslavia. They couldn’t handle that many in the press center in Lake Placid.
And so there was a lot riding on this, with the Olympic Movement, Juan Antonio Samaranch, television–a lot was riding on this. No one had spent up to that point a $100 million for the broadcast rights to the Games.
Unfortunately, in the U.S., everything was on tape delay. And so the press would get the scores and call the scores back to the U.S. or send it by teletype, and everyone knew that the American hockey team had lost right out of the gate. So it was a disaster for ABC Sports. I don’t know how much money they lost, but they lost a lot of money.
This Olympic Games had nothing to do with the U.S. government. The U.S. government was just as shocked as anybody else that Bosnia bid, or they didn’t even pay attention, Bosnia is bidding, they’re not going to win, like why pay attention. Yugoslavs were largely on their own in this but in the background, you have that push in the 1980s to keep Yugoslavia afloat. You know, whatever we can do as Americans to encourage business. This is when you see Coca Cola, bringing over Slovene wine, and that was simply Coke’s way of trying to get its money back from selling Coca Cola in Yugoslavia. You know, barter trade, barter trade. And so the Olympics was pushed by the embassy, the Olympics was pushed by American companies, like any Olympic Games would be. But also in the background was the State Department wanted people to do business in Yugoslavia. And so that’s how the Games helped promote business, but really, by the mid to late 80s. a lot of that starting to wrap up, you know, it didn’t work. It didn’t work. Yugoslavia is failing. It’s too in debt. And then you have the rise of Milošević and others.
PETER KORCHNAK: The Soviet Union dominated the ice hockey tournament by winning all its games and outscoring its opponents by a combined score of 58 to 6. Yugoslavia came last in the Sarajevo ’84 hockey tournament.
JASON VUIC: With that being said, we had other stories. You know, you had Scott Hamilton in figure skating, and then you had Torvill and Dean who were British, from the UK but who transcended– they were one of those great Olympic Olympians that the world embraces. I mean, if anyone dominated Sarajevo it was Torvill and Dean. And also Katarina Witt. Katarina Witt shows up, she’s beautiful, she’s stunning–and wins.
PETER KORCHNAK: 19-year-old Katarina Witt won her first Olympic gold medal in Sarajevo. That year she was voted the GDR female athlete of the year.
A figure skater from Zagreb, Sanda Dubravčić, was the final of 1,600 Yugoslav torch bearers. She lit the cauldron at Koševo, and then finished 10th at the tournament. She later became a physician and did some research work on sports injuries among figure skaters.
Another narrative of the Sarajevo Olympics unfolded on the backdrop of the Cold War.
JASON VUIC: Geopolitically, they were a momentary bridge, right? Remember that the Americans boycotted Moscow. Who knows what the Soviets spent on their Games, and who knows what they lost on those Games, but it’s crazy money. So they were going to extract their pound of flesh from the Americans as well, they weren’t going to come. So this was a momentary bridge between those two games.
PETER KORCHNAK: That’s 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, which the Americans and 65 other countries boycotted, and 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, which the Soviets and 14 Eastern Bloc countries and allies boycotted. Makes the Beijing Olympics diplomatic boycott look like child’s play, doesn’t it?
No country boycotted the Sarajevo Olympics, and in fact a record 49 nations participated, including Egypt, Puerto Rico, and Senegal.
JASON VUIC: For a time there that Cold War angst was largely forgotten.
But it was, as someone described it, it was just a brief interlude before everything falls apart. It was one of the last small Games, one of the last semi-innocent Games in a way. The marketing hadn’t yet overwhelmed the Games. I mean, you go to LA in ‘84, holy smokes, you know, you see the 7-11 Velodrome, the McDonald’s Aqua center, you know, that kind of stuff.
It was just this brief interlude for the Olympic movement when things actually work for once. The politics weren’t nasty, we don’t have all of the things that make the Olympics crazy in the coming years.
PETER KORCHNAK: They worked until they didn’t. Most of the infrastructure cities build for their Olympic Games, summer or winter, remains in place afterward but sometimes it doesn’t get used as much, or even at all. I remember seeing abandoned and overgrown facilities in Athens a mere decade after the 2004 Games. A similar thing happened in Sarajevo, albeit on a much smaller scale.
JASON VUIC: If you think about it, if you live in Zagreb, are you going to take that bus or that train that was somewhat arduous. I’ve taken a bus from Zagreb to Sarajevo, and it’s a long winding path? If you’re in Croatia, in 1988, and you can go to a ski resort outside of Sarajevo or you can go to Slovenia, where are you going to go? And then, you know, you have Kopaonik and some other places that that are built in Serbia, and so the Serbs have a place to go. If you’re from Austria, you’re not going to Bosnia, if you’re from France, you’re not going to Bosnia. It gave the city some nice resorts, it certainly gave it a very nice Zetra Hall for community events, for big city events, like any city the size of Sarajevo it does need a big basketball arena.
But at the same time, you knew that the whole idea of jumpstarting a tourist trade was going to fail. I mean, anyone could see that, and so that’s what happened, you know, and then once the tourists aren’t really coming in, then the services start to decline, and then you’re back into that trap of not having enough hard currency to be able to pay for, you know, things you need. And so these facilities, even before the war start to decline. They were still quite nice and beautiful places probably in 1990, 1991.
PETER KORCHNAK: And then they got largely destroyed or heavily damaged during the Bosnian war, during the Siege of Sarajevo.
JASON VUIC: Very few games return to us. We keep writing books about and love to talk about the Berlin games. Right? 36. We also talk about Munich, the murder of these Jewish athletes. Games will return periodically. But very few games have ever entered the national consciousness again like Sarajevo 10 years later, because Juan Antonio Samaranch and the Olympic movement, 10 years later, they find themselves with a former Olympic venue that’s under siege right. Most trees in Sarajevo or scrub brush, it was cut down during the war for firewood. And so they actually use the seats of Zetra Hall for coffins. And if you go to Sarajevo today, Zetra Hall is surrounded by graves. I mean, big cemetery and it was bigger because of the war.
And so in Lillehammer, in 1994, the entire leitmotif of the opening ceremonies of the games was “Remember Sarajevo.” Everyone in the stadium got a mag light that said on it, “Remember Sarajevo.” All the greats from ‘84 Um, you know, are going to be asked what did Sarajevo mean to you, Scott Hamilton? What did it mean to you Torvill and Dean? What did it mean to you, Katarina Witt? Messages for the people under siege.
And so, you know, the Sarajevo Olympics came back with a vengeance during the Bosnian wars, kind of a way to drum up sympathy to refocus the world’s attention. And that’s what the Olympic Games are, they’re a public theater.
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Renovating the Bobsled Track or Barcelona-Sarajevo Olympics 2030?
PETER KORCHNAK: Sanela Klarić spent the siege in Sarajevo, doing what she could to continue her architecture studies. She also painted, she designed and made (and exhibited) clothes, she made (and exhibited) sculptures…
The Trebević mountain, where the bobsled track is located, was one of the locations where the Bosnian Serb army positioned artillery and snipers for a clear view of the city. The bobsled track served as a sniper nest, with some 50 holes drilled into the structure. After the war, the place was essentially looted and stripped of all remaining valuable parts and materials; only the concrete structure of the track remained.
The abandoned ruins of some of the Sarajevo ‘84 infrastructure, including the bobsled track, continue to fascinate ruin porn enthusiasts.
Much less visible, or popular, are the rebuilt and reconstructed facilities, like the Koševo Stadium, Zetra Hall, and the Skenderija complex.
But there’s an effort under way to renovate the bobsled track, or should I say the bobsled and luge track, as the now-derelict track can be used in both sports.
One of the leaders of the effort is Sanela Klarić.
SANELA KLARIĆ: So I have to say that I didn’t visit mountain Trebević until 2014. Imagine! Because I was refusing to go, to climb on that mountain. And once when I went I was amazed how many nice memories I got because that was the most nearest mountain to the city. We had spent a lot of time with our parents, with this cable car. Imagine how was fun in the cable cars when you are a child. So once when I climb and I see the bobsled I actually said, “No, nobody will take that mountain from me.” And then I started to work on that with students and some partners from the universities from Germany on the landscape architecture projects and then the bobsled.
PETER KORCHNAK: The reconstruction and revitalization of the bobsled track on the Trebević mountain.
The track is located within a 70 hectare complex which included other Olympic facilities, like the press and information centers, parking lots, and others.
It’s accessible by road and, since 2018 again, by cable car from the center of town.
Some basic repairs and cleanup have already been made in recent years. Bobsled teams from various countries unofficially train there in summer time; I’m proud to say Team Slovakia was the first to do so, in 2014. The place is also popular with mountain bikers. No winter activities take place here. Yet.
SANELA KLARIĆ: I started to arrange different events to promote but also to gather the people around that project to support that in the future to actually have enough budget to reconstruct.
PETER KORCHNAK: Those efforts received a boost in 2018 when Klarić was elected to the parliament of the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, one of the country’s two constituent entities, the other being Republika Srpska.
When put back into operation, the track will be one of only 17 bobsled tracks in the world. The location is now a place of public interest, included in the Sarajevo canton’s development plan, with a corresponding financial allocation. The Trebević Mountain has since 2014 been a protected natural area. International sporting organizations have also taken an interest.
And, in an unlikely, if fascinating twist: a campaign is underway to submit a combined Barcelona-Sarajevo bid for the 2030 Winter Olympics. The two cities have been sister cities since the year 2000. Bobsled, luge, and ski jumping competitions would be held in Sarajevo. To combat some of the issues that befall Olympic cities, with gobs of money spent on building new facilities that go unused after the event, the IOC now requires 70 percent of facilities to be already in existence before bidding.
SANELA KLARIĆ: Now we have a chance with Barcelona. I’m always very positive Live and I believe so why not maybe Sarajevo will host the next Olympic Games in 2030. It’s better to talk about that than about next war that everybody [is] talking about . And as the architect for me those sports infrastructure is very expensive and it’s more expensive during use. So it’s very important to have [a] sustainable approach.
PETER KORCHNAK: Unfortunately, at this point in our conversation, technology gave out. We had to switch tools and the call quality plummeted faster than a luger at Trebević.
But this is the scoop: a team of stakeholders, which includes the Winter Olympic Games ‘84 organization, are applying to register their effort with the authorities, after which they will be filing a master plan for the reconstruction. Then comes the fundraising: the equivalent of about $11 million dollars is needed for the project, which the group hopes to finance from the canton and country governments, which have declared the project a priority, the European Union, the International Olympic Committee, the governments of Catalonia and Spain, individual donations, and other sources.
The biggest challenge: things move slowly in Bosnia and Herzegovina.
But Klarić has built a good team, has support from her family, students, and the community, and she is full of energy, the kind you get and the kind that drives you when you work collaboratively toward a good cause.
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PETER KORCHNAK: I was in first grade during the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, and have no recollection of the event. It must have been big in Czechoslovakia, what with the hockey team’s success.
But rather than stories about individuals or teams, to me the biggest story of the Sarajevo Olympics is as Yugoslavia’s high point.
The Sarajevo Olympics remain a fond memory among people of the former Yugoslavia. “Fairy tale” the news media still calls it in anniversary throwback pieces.
The chances of the Barcelona-Sarajevo bid for the 2030 Games are beyond my expertise to assess. It seems like a long shot but again, I don’t know. What I do know is that, as Sanela Klarić told me, the bid offers an opportunity to focus on something positive in the country riven by the talk of secession and war, not to mention corruption, mass emigration, and other ills. “It’s better to talk about that than the next war,” indeed.
A friend of mine tells an amusing little story of being a child of the Sarajevo Olympics. I hope she’ll forgive me for telling it, but it’s too good to keep to myself. The friend’s mother went to the hospital the day of the opening ceremony, on February 8. It was a balmy, spring-like February, and because there was no snow and seemingly no chance of it, the Olympics organizers were worried the skiing events would have to be postponed. But that night a huge snowstorm hit, so big that those outdoor events were indeed postponed but now due to bad weather. So much snow fell that the newborn and her mother couldn’t leave the hospital on their own and her father couldn’t drive his Stojadin, a Zastava 101, to pick them up because the car was too light to drive in the fresh snow. So he dragooned a couple of men from a kafana to weigh the car down and ride to the hospital with him. And just before the family reached their home they were stopped by a funeral taking place across the street.
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PETER KORCHNAK: Next on Remembering Yugoslavia.
JASMINA TUMBAS: And Yugoslavia was such an exceptional place of socialism, where women, you know, had so much emancipatory power that they enjoyed more legal rights and social mobility, you know, including access to education and labor mobility than in really most other countries.
PETER KORCHNAK: “Jugoslovenka” (A Yugoslav Woman) is a famous song by Lepa Brena and a starting point for a story of Yugoslav women’s emancipation through art. On the next episode of Remembering Yugoslavia: Jasmina Tumbas and the Jugoslovenkas among us. And a book giveaway, too!
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PETER KORCHNAK: That’s all for this episode of Remembering Yugoslavia, thank you for listening. Find additional information, videos, and the transcript of this episode at RememberingYugoslavia.com/Podcast.
And please participate in the organization of Remembering Yugoslavia. Visit RememberingYugoslavia.com/Donate to make a contribution today.
Outro music courtesy of Robert Petrić. Additional music by Petar Alargić licensed under Creative Commons. Other clips and music used for educational purposes. Special thanks to Valery Perry.
I am Peter Korchňak.