War-scarred Sarajevo celebrates 40th anniversary of 1984 Winter Olympics and looks to the future

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) — War-scarred Sarajevo is looking back to happier times from February 1984 as it celebrates the 40th anniversary of staging a successful Winter Olympics.

“Our Olympic spirit is alive,” said Izet Radjo, president of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Committee, with Sarajevo eying a bid to host the 2032 Winter Youth Olympic Games.

It was a time of opportunity for Yugoslavia, of which Bosnia was then a part, but less than a decade later everything had changed. Bosnian Serb forces laid siege to Sarajevo in the early 1990s during the bloody breakup of Yugoslavia. About 350,000 people were trapped, for 46 months, subjected to daily shelling and sniper attacks and cut off from the outside world.

And its Olympic venues lay in ruins.

Ahmet Karabegovic, who served as secretary general of the 1984 Winter Olympics, said the sporting legacy aided the city’s post-war recovery, with the world both familiar with Sarajevo and shocked by what had happened.

Nestled among mountains, Sarajevo had successfully welcomed thousands of tourists and nearly 3,000 athletes, coaches and officials from 49 countries. The sleepy socialist town built new alpine and Nordic ski trails, ski jumps, bobsled and luge runs, a skating rink, dozens of apartment blocks and numerous hotels. It also changed from coal to gas heating, reconstructed its water and sewage systems and expanded its airport and roads.

While the U.S. led a boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics, followed by the Soviet Union-led boycott of the 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics, “everybody came to Sarajevo,” Karabegovic said. That included European royals, Hollywood stars and a Soviet cosmonaut. In the immediate post-Olympic years, Sarajevo flourished, establishing itself as a winter tourist destination.

Majda Hanic belongs to the post-war generation of Bosnians who managed to resurrect hockey in the country — at Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo. The hall was destroyed during the war and fully rebuilt in 1999 with financial help from the International Olympic Committee. Hanic said Bosnia took a decade after the war “to gather 50 women who wanted to play ice hockey.” Now she is the captain of Bosnia women’s hockey team.

From the windows of her flat, Hanic can see the Olympic rings and the logo of the 1984 Winter Games on a tower near Zetra, and that makes her “contemplate the day when we’ll reach the first round of Olympic qualifiers.”

Bosnian and international athletes and officials gathered this week in Sarajevo to mark the city’s 40th Olympic anniversary, and IOC president Thomas Bach offered words of encouragement by video.

The Sarajevo Winter Olympics “stood out because at the height of the Cold War, they brought together the best winter sport athletes from political rivals and sworn enemies in a peaceful competition.”

Because of “our joint efforts,” Bach added, “when the guns fell silent (after Bosnia’s 1992-95 war) you rebuilt your Olympic heritage.

“Thank you for carrying this Olympic legacy into the future.”

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