Downhill all the way

Will Sarajevo host the Olympics again?

Originally published in The Financial Times

On February 8, the day the games began, the snow on the ground was artificial. But immediately after the opening ceremony – in which, for three hours, students from across Yugoslavia performed gymnastics and ballet – thick flakes began to fall from the sky.

For ten days, the snow didn’t stop: the men’s downhill skiing had to be postponed, and the army was called in to clear the excess.

In Sarajevo, people can tell you exactly how they contributed to the winter Olympics of 1984.

Savo Vlaski, now deputy mayor, organised the arrival of the Olympic flame in Dubrovnik and its subsequent conveyance, by athletes dressed from head to foot in orange, around every Yugoslav republic. Zehrudin Isakovic, a journalist, was still at high school. As a visitor to the city – up with his classmates to help shovel snow – he was shocked to see local children riding the outside of trams; he instructed them to desist, lest they give the world a bad impression of Yugoslavia.


The idea for developing a world-class ski resort around Sarajevo was originally conceived in 1968, at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Leaders of the local community, pleased with the notion, persuaded president Tito that it would benefit Yugoslavia as a whole.

Tito gave his blessing, so in 1978, with virtually no infrastructure in place, Sarajevo bid to host the 1984 games – and won.

The American TV network, ABC, paid $91.5m for exclusive rights, and IBM, Kodak, Mitsubishi and Rank Xerox, among other sponsors, raised the total haul of hard currency to something like $100m.

The sports facilities were constructed on time, along with sufficient accommodation for many thousands of visitors: athletes, representatives of the media and tourists (whose numbers rose from 442,000 in 1983 to 574,000 in 84). The more extravagant schemes were abandoned to keep the cost down (Yugoslavia, in the early 80s, was burdened with huge foreign debts).

Even so, the games proved a triumph; and not only for the USSR, which won the most medals (25). The British pair, Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean collected the gold for figure skating: all nine judges awarded the maximum score of sest-nula (six-point-nought) for their interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero.

For the Yugoslavs, as they were still called, the most memorable medal went to Jure Franko – a silver in the men’s giant slalom – but what locals remember with particular pride is that the president of the international Olympic committee (IOC), Juan Antonio Samaranch, described Sarajevo as, “the best organised winter games in the history of the Olympic movement”.

The organisers’ attention to detail is hinted at in this note, from the head of the New Zealand Ski Association to the director general of the Olympic village:

“Dear Mr Seleskovic, I thank you on behalf of our Olympic team and our country for your gift of flowers to honour our national day. It was a very thoughtful gesture along with the many which have been made to us during our stay.”

By the start of the 1990s, Sarajevo had built on that success by hosting a series of other major sporting events, including world and European championships in speed skating, junior figure skating, bob sled, luge, junior luge, and skiing. The city was thriving, its population nudging 500,000 people; and gross domestic product, per head, stood at roughly $3,500 a year.

But then came the war.


In 1994, when the winter games took place in Lillehammer, Sarajevo had been under siege for nearly two years.

Slavenko Kilic, a 19-year old speed skater, was unable to get out of the city to Lillehammer but continued to train by running and cycling through the streets and “dry skating” in front of a mirror at home. Bob-sleigh rider Igor Boras, then 25, kept fit by running up and down the carpeted halls of the wrecked Supreme Court.

And this is what happened to Sarajevo’s Olympic facilities. Hotels were destroyed. The bobsleigh run, overlooking the city on Mt Trebevic, was turned into a position for snipers, with holes cut into its sides. At Dobrinja, near the airport, the Olympic village – which since 84 had housed ordinary citizens – was heavily shelled. And so was Zetra, the hall where Torvill and Dean had skated flawlessly.

Of course, four years of siege and war did more than wreck a few sports facilities. Altogether, damage to public and private infrastructure has been estimated as costing more than DM27bn. More than 10,000 citizens were killed, and vast numbers of others left the city, reducing the population, in 1995, to just 64 per cent of pre-war levels. Four out of five job were lost, and the annual GDP, per person, dwindled to $305.

As for tourism: in 1999, the most recent year for which figures are available, just 60,000 visitors came to Sarajevo – one tenth as many as in 1984 – bringing in little more than DM22m.

Nearly six years after the Dayton accord put an end to the fighting, buildings throughout the city remain hideously pockmarked. The tall parliament block, for instance, is virtually see-through.

Donations from overseas have done a bit to improve the infrastructure. Austria rebuilt the dome on top of the National Library, which was burned down in 1992 with the loss of 2m books and journals. Saudi Arabia has paid for fancy new mosques. Japan, the second biggest donor after the US, contributed a fleet of municipal buses. Switzerland presented a giant chess set, with pieces the size of traffic cones: every day, in the park, old men in baggy trousers shuffle round the painted flagstones, scowling and heckling as they take turns to play.

But a huge amount remains to be done. And as Ibrahim Djicic, assistant minister at the foreign office, tells me, the time for donations has gone. Bosnians want to take control of their economy, and set it on a reliable course. But how can they do that?


Asim Handzic owns a company. It’s worth emphasising this fact, because the transition from communism, difficult in any circumstances, was severely disrupted in Bosnia by the war, and Handzic’s long-standing status as proprietor is by no means commonplace.

His factory, in a former mosque overlooking the old town, produces engraved brass fixtures of the type you might screw above your office door. During the war there was little call for brass plates – except on graves – so Handzic developed an alternative product. He takes a sample from his shelf, blows off the dust, and hands it over.

It’s made of iron, and has the size and shape of a child’s beaker, with a narrow triangular pattern engraved on its exterior. When the war began – explains Handzic, who wears his hair in a pony tail, with metal-framed spectacles that exaggerate the size of his eyes – citizens improvised grenades using Coke cans, with shoelaces for fuses. These were not much use. Handzic ’s grenades represented a real improvement: exploding into sharp fragments, delineated by the deep engraving, they proved consistently lethal.

Since the war, Handzic has stopped manufacturing grenades. These days, to judge by the goods in his office, he’s moved exclusively into commemorative trophies and wall-hangings.

Just days before I visited his factory, in June, a delegation led by Sarajevo’s mayor, transported one of Handzic ’s keepsakes to the IOC in Lausanne, in Switzerland, as a gift for its president. This comprised a hefty block of wood, darkly varnished, with one plaque glued to the front and another to the back, topped by a miniature sled on which the following legend has been engraved: “Sarajevo Candidate For The 2010 Winter Olympic Games.” (I know what it looked like because Handzic kept a replica, which he generously presents to me along with the dusty grenade, after carefully wrapping them both in clingfilm.)

The idea for hosting a second winter games arose in 1999, around the time of the reopening of the Zetra – a symbol of civic pride as significant to Sarajevo as Wembley is to London.

Nobody seems entirely clear who came up with the idea: it may possibly have been Samaranch, a guest of honour at that ceremony. But whoever conceived it, Sarajevo’s mayor, Mohidim Hamamdzic, recognised the scheme’s potential. The Olympics, a fond memory for so many, offered an unrivalled opportunity to motivate and unite Sarajevo’s demoralised population.


Politically, the bid requires Bosnia’s two entities – the Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina and the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Herzegovina – to work together. The Federation runs most of Sarajevo, but the Republic presides over a small corner near the airport. (Of the Olympic sites, the Federation oversees Mt Igman and Mt Bjelasnica, while the Republic runs Mt Jahorina.) People pass freely between the two entities: the only difference easily remarkable to an outsider is that signposts, in the Republic, tend to be written in Cyrillic.

One man who personally embodies co-operation between the two entities is Zdravko Radjenovic, president of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Committee (a former handball player, part of the team which won Olympic gold at Los Angeles). Though he lives in Banja Luka, in the Serb Republic, Radjenovic travels several times each month to the committee’s headquarters in Sarajevo, where he works to bring together the fragmented governing bodies of Bosnian sport.

But relations between the entities are still less than ideal. Community leaders formally signed an agreement to co-operate on the Olympic bid just one day before the Bosnian delegation took its gifts to Samaranch. And no representative of the Serb Republic took part in the trip (owing to ill health, so I’m assured).

Despite the trip to Lausanne, and various official announcements, Sarajevo’s candidacy remains for the moment theoretical. At a conference in Moscow next week, the IOC will announce the host of the 2008 games (and the identity of Samaranch’s successor as president), but bids to host the winter games of 2010 are not officially submitted until September. After that, the IOC will announce a shortlist in January next year, and bidders will have a year to put together a detailed plan. The winner will be announced in July 2003. (Others expected to bid for 2010 are Bern-Montreux, Calgary, Granada, Jaca in Spain, Kosciusko in Australia, Muju-Jeonju in Korea, Munich, Quebec, Vancouver-Whistler and Zurich.)

It’s to assess the city’s prospects that I have come to Sarajevo.

The deputy mayor, Savo Vlaski – a member of the planning committee – takes me for dinner at a traditional restaurant in the old town. (Dr Vlaski speaks no English, but thankfully his wife can translate.) Over the course of the meal we speak about many things, including: the horrors they endured during the siege; the anti-Serbian sentiment that led to the removal of tourist attractions relating to the former local hero Gavril Princip, a Serb, whose assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1918 precipitated WWI; how this makes the Vlaskis feel (Dr Vlaski too is Serbian, but like many others always opposed Serb nationalism); and the likelihood of tourists coming back to Sarajevo.

Much of what the Vlaskis tell me makes sense. Only occasionally do their claims become excessive: Mrs Vlaski tells me the city is ideal for holidays on the beach. “We are close to the sea – just 205km.”


The starter, when it arrives, comes on wooden plates. It consists of cornmeal topped with a noxious specimen of runny cheese, like sour milk. I pretend to enjoy this, so the Vlaskis heap my plate with a second helping, then a third. For the main course, I take refuge in the safety of grilled chicken breast. After that, Mrs Vlaski asks if I would like desert. I pull a face intended to convey easy-going ambivalence, so they summon a waitress who, for my benefit, utters the English words “ice cream”. I ask if anybody else will have any and the deputy mayor appears to nod, so I accept. But this was a mistake, because it turns out that they do not have any ice cream yet. A man is sent out to get some. When, some minutes later, a generous portion arrives, I do my best to look suitably grateful. Dr Vlaski, meanwhile, has slipped away to wash his hands, so I wait till he gets back before starting. But even when he returns there’s no sign of his ice cream, and after a few minutes mine starts to melt, so I tuck in. When I finally put down my spoon, there is still no sign of the deputy mayor’s ice cream: only now does it occur to me that the large slice I have eaten may perhaps have been intended for both of us.

In the course of researching this article, the Financial Times – that is, I – accepted a certain amount of hospitality from parties interested in promoting the cause of Sarajevo. Asim Handzic gave me the trophy (and the grenade). The Federation of Bosnia-Herzegovina kindly provided return flights (economy class, via Budapest, where the grenade proved a hit with security officials). The Vlaskis, in addition to dinner, gave me drinks at their apartment. A former history professor, journalist and author, Mirsad Zorabdic, gave up his weekend to show me round the city and the Olympic facilities, variously ruined and repaired, in the nearby mountains. The city also provided a driver, Ismet Basalic, who applied his foot to the accelerator with unvarying force and good humour. (The first time I reached for the seatbelt, instinctively, he wagged his finger and smiled: “No!”) For Sunday lunch, Mirsad and Ismet took me to a hostelry – formerly the headquarters of the Bosnian army – set amid forests crowded with bears and wolves, and laid on savoury doughnuts with further helpings of liquid cheese.

I put all this on record, in some detail, because where the Olympics are concerned you can never be too careful about accepting bribes. In recent years, members of the IOC have greedily accepted gifts and hospitality from candidate cities in return for their votes.

The investigative journalist Andrew Jennings, having spent a decade investigating this, gives in his most recent book, The Great Olympic Swindle, a particularly droll account of how Atlanta won the 1996 games. Purposely targetting the most corruptible members, Atlanta offered first-class plane tickets, prostitutes, rounds of golf on the Augusta national course, “free” shopping trips, directorships on overseas boards of American companies, medical consultations, scholarships and tickets for the Oscar ceremony. Following revelations of similar shenanigans relating to the candidacy of Salt Lake City, the IOC chucked out a handful of members and introduced various reforms – including, notably, the abolition of visits to candidate cities by IOC members. But Jennings believes corruption is unavoidable. City officials, even if they don’t bribe the IOC, are themselves susceptible to bribery from construction companies eager to carry out the substantial building work. “The Olympics is like a poison coming into your community,” Jennings says on the phone from Athens, where his investigations continue. “And don’t tell me that nobody pays kick-backs in Bosnia, because they do in other places.”


Nor does Jennings believe the Olympics can necessarily be relied on to transform Sarajevo. The Olympic facilities in Sydney, he argues, are no more use now that their time is past than London’s Dome. Each time it is the same: construction companies enter a candidate city, he says, and needlessly reconfigure its infrastructure at vast expense.

But Ibrahim Djikic, the assistant foreign minister, points out that Sarajevo needs its infrastructure reconfigured. A new Olympic village – like the old one – would afterwards provide housing for citizens. Enhanced transport and telecoms might attract overseas businesses. Refurbished winter sports facilities, even without the Olympics, could bring in tourists. And the process of bidding to host the games could itself provide a sense of purpose that has been missing for too long. “It is necessary to be ambitious and idealistic,” says Djikic . With luck, he adds, the Olympic bid may even bring home some of the many thousands of citizens who have left Sarajevo to seek better lives elsewhere.

If this persuades you, and if you care about what has happened there, you can add your name to a long list of supporters on websites such as Many who have done so already indicate their belief that Sarajevo “deserves” the Olympics – that the world owes the city this fresh start. But it’s not the world that decides. It’s the IOC.

If you want to help, forget the supporters’ websites. Instead, take a trip to Sarajevo as a tourist. I honestly recommend it. It’s closer to Britain than you may think: no further south than Marseille, nor further east than Italy’s heel. The vestiges of war, though excessively abundant, are horribly compelling: more salutary, arguably, than yet another national gallery, or spa treatment. The winter sports facilities, some of them already fixed, lie within easy reach of the city. The streets in the old town are constantly lively: young people, many of them having little else to do, file through the pedestrianised precincts modelling some stunning achievements with hair dye. The hotels and restaurants are cheap, and the people are friendly – to outsiders, at any rate. If you give it time, you might even get used to the cheese.


See also: Travel Writing: Things I’ve Tried