A Flame Extinguished Flickers Again

In Sarajevo, ghosts of glory and the gory mingle

Thirty-five years ago this week, the 1984 Olympics were in full swing, and the world was in Sarajevo, that multicultural city in Yugoslavia, previously known primarily as the place where the shots were fired that triggered WWI.  Yugoslavia at the time was hailed in the West as a Communist country it could deal with.  It defied being pulled into the USSR’s orbit, having established itself under Tito without much direct Soviet influence. We thought it was kind of cute–the home of the Yugo, full of old-world charm.  Sarajevo itself was a magical place, almost, even in the tales of the athletes that competed there–a relaxed, friendly place, where people from a mix of ethnicities lived and partied together.

Part of the interest of those ’84 games now is that they took place on a historical knife edge between two eras. Communism was sputtering out, while nationalism’s pilot light suddenly snapped on. The story of what followed the Olympics is unbearably sad and still hard to believe. Only five years after the world came to lovely, mellow Sarajevo, the first signs of ethnic tremors could be detected. Another three years after that and Sarajevo was trapped in what would turn out to be the longest siege of a city in the history of modern warfare.

In the time span of two Olympic cycles, the mountains and valleys where countries had competed for sporting glory became war zones. The bobsled run turned into an artillery position. The men’s downhill ski area was commandeered for a military base. Where medals had once been awarded below the ski jumps, podium steps were used for executions.  The Zetra arena, known as the place where Torvill and Dean skated to Ravel’s Bolero, was completely destroyed, its basement used as a morgue and its seats scavenged for coffins.

Today, as the warfare recedes in history’s rear view mirror, the city has slowly returned to a simulacrum of itself. The city is now officially divided between Bosnian and Serb sections, although the two sides generally cooperate these days  The Zetra arena has been rebuilt, and Torvill and Dean skated there once again in 2014.  Some of the Olympic venues have been reclaimed, such as the Jahorina ski centre, but others lay abandoned as the entire area was heavily mined by the Bosnian Serbs during the war. Ruins still tell the story of what was lost. The photos are haunting. They never fail to arouse in me an ache, a feeling of the immense loss of goodwill and civility and the realization that the dark forces within human history are real.

Still, there is hope. This week, the European Youth Olympics are being held in Sarajevo, thirty-five years after it last beheld Olympic dreams being realized.

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An interesting story of hunting for the ruins of the Nordic ski sites can be read here.

A recent story with a collection of photos from the ruins can be found here.