'84 Games in Sarajevo are bitter memory now

February 07, 1994|By Dan Fesperman | Dan Fesperman,Sun Staff Correspondent

SARAJEVO, Bosnia and Herzegovina -- The snow came late this winter to Mount Jahorina, just as it did a decade ago. And if it weren't for the Serbian trenches and gun emplacements on the slopes, it might still be a fine place for world-class skiing.

At the Zetra ice rink, where in 1984 a smiling Katarina Witt glided to a gold medal, there is no more skating. The barrel of a United Nations tank pokes from the main entrance. Mortar shells have wrecked the roof. The floor where admiring spectators tossed roses onto the ice is stained with blood from the building's days as a morgue.

Ten years ago this week, the games of the 14th Winter Olympics began in Sarajevo. Thousands of smiling children set the tone at the opening ceremony, marching and dancing in colorful costumes on a white field. The city's biggest worry then was the weather. Hardly any snow had fallen, and everyone fretted until a blizzard arrived on the third day of the Games.

Now, after 22 months of deadly siege by the surrounding Serbian army, Olympic memories have faded to bitterness for the people of Sarajevo. Every day they are pounded by shells lobbed from the same white hills where athletes once rushed to glory, and they feel forsaken by the world they welcomed so warmly.

"I remember a lot of smiles, a lot of open hearts from those days," said Igor Boras, who was 15 then, excitedly hopping from event to event with his friends. "Now I must ask myself if there is any Olympic spirit in the world."

On recent mornings you could find Mr. Boras sprinting up and down the dim hallways of a burned, shelled downtown building in Sarajevo. He is a bobsledder on Bosnia and Herzegovina's Olympic team, and he was stuck in the city until the last few days, when he received permission to go to Lillehammer, Norway, for this year's Winter Olympics.

Sledding is just about the only winter sport one still sees in Sarajevo, but you never saw Mr. Boras doing it. It can get you killed. A few weeks ago a mortar shell exploded among eight sledding children. Six of them died.

'Bullets near my head'

On the one day Mr. Boras let a television crew talk him into training outdoors, so there would be better light for filming, a sniper opened fire. "There were a lot of bullets near my head," he recalled.

So he stayed indoors, running down hallways in the Supreme Court building and lifting weights in a gym as he waited for permission to leave.

Even though Mr. Boras got out, he knows it won't be much solace for others. "If all of us on the team go, it is only 15 people," he said. "There will still be 300,000 here."

One of those 300,000 is Nina Markovic. She was 10 years old when she marched in the opening ceremony in 1984.

"Everybody in the city tried to get involved in the Olympics," she recalled. "Everyone was proud."

And practically no one complained, even among the children who practiced their numbing drills and dance steps for a year and a half. "No one took it lightly," she said.

Ms. Markovic is now 20. The fourth-grader who wore a red costume and danced before the cameras of the world is now a dental student hoping to resume studies if the war ever ends. Her downtown apartment faces Serbian army positions along the Miljacka River, and sniper bullets shattered her windows long ago.

When she looks across the river she can pick out her grandmother's apartment building in the Serb-held neighborhood of Grbavica. That's where almost all of her Olympic memorabilia sit in boxes, inside the empty apartment.

VTC "So I have none of my pictures from then, or from any of my childhood," she said, glancing toward the river. "It is sad."

Vusko survives

There are still plenty of reminders of 1984 around town, however, especially the mischievous smile of Vusko, the wolf-like mascot of the games. Often pocked with shell holes, his image lingers on the walls of burned buildings.

A more up-to-date Vusko appears on a Bosnian army poster. He is clad in combat fatigues and a green beret, with an AK-47 slung across his shoulder. He still smiles, if perhaps a bit wickedly, and flashes a thumbs-up above the words, "Sarajevo 93."

A poster at the offices of the Bosnia and Herzegovina Olympic committee depicts the five interlocked Olympic rings all in red, dripping blood onto the words, "Sarajevo, Olympic City." The word "City" has been turned upside-down.

Relatively few people in Sarajevo paid much attention to winter sports before Vusko and the Olympics came along in '84.

But by the end of the games everyone was hooked. The Alpine skier Jure Franko became an instant national hero by winning Yugoslavia's only medal, a silver in the men's giant slalom. Thousands of children began taking to the slopes and the ice rinks.

Mr. Boras gave up hurdling for bobsledding. And Ms. Markovic, like millions of other of the world's little girls, was captivated by the glittering, twirling figure skaters.

For a while she dreamed of becoming one.

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