Thirty years after Olympics, Sarajevo mourns brotherhood lost
The partialy rebuilt winners podium of Sarajevo's abandoned ski jumping venue at Mt. Igman near Sarajevo on February 5, 2014 - by Elvis Barukcic
"I was so excited that I could not utter a single sentence" speaking by phone from Athens where the International Olympic Committee session was held on May 18, 1978, recalls Nikola Bilic, the radio station's special envoy to the meeting.
Against all odds, Sarajevo, then the capital of Bosnia, one of six republics that made up the communist Yugoslav federation, won over its rivals, Japan's Sapporo and Sweden's Gothenburg.
Bilic, a veteran Bosnian journalist, said the town and its mountainous surroundings soon became a major construction site, rather like Sochi, the Russian venue of the 2014 Olympics which open on Friday.
"A new stadium, ice skating and hockey ring, ski runs and bobsled slopes, ski-jumps in the mountains, everything was finished in two years," Bilic told AFP.
But all the infrastructure was demolished during the bloody inter-ethnic war that broke out in 1992, so implausible only eight years before, as most of the trails were on the frontlines.
Eighteen years after the conflict, there is a layout of a trench along the bobsled track on the Trebevic mountain overseeing Sarajevo, where Bosnian Serb forces held the capital in siege for more than 44 months.
Now forgotten, the concrete-strengthened track, still pierced here and there by rockets and grenades, crawls through a marvellous thick pine forest.
Sarajevo "breathed as one soul"
It is almost impossible to imagine the fervour in February 1984 in a city that "breathed as a one soul."
"The city was ablaze, everyone was happy. On the street, strangers lingered to discuss 'Olimpijada' (Olympics), everyone had an idea on how things should be done," said Drago Bozja, at the time chief of the mountain emergency services.
In the other five Yugoslav republics, "they thought we would not be able to host the Games," Bozja said, but it was a feeling shared by many in Bosnia.
"When the mayor called me at home to ask me to join the organising team, I told him that I knew nothing about the sport.
"He answered: 'Me neither, but we will learn,'" said Bozja.
But weeks before the opening, there was not a single snow flake on the slopes around Sarajevo.
"At the official opening of the Olympics at the Kosevo stadium, there was still no snow and the organisers covered the ground with white canvas," remembered Bilic.
But when Croatian skater Sanda Dubravcic climbed the stairs to light the Olympic flame, the first snowflakes fell.
"Like in a fairy tale," Bilic said with a hint of melancholy.
For copper craftsman Ismet Huseinovic, "there has never been and will never be such an event in Sarajevo."
"We defended the honour of Sarajevo, but also of the former Yugoslavia," Huseinovic said.
All the nations -- Bosnians, Serbs, Croats, Macedonians, Slovenians and Montenegrins, as well as about a dozen national minorities living in the communist Yugoslavia -- "were all together," he said
"We all wanted it (the Olympics) to be a success," said Huseinovic.
"We were ordered to keep our shops open around the clock," said the artisan who had made more than 50,000 souvenirs, including the figure of the Sarajevo Olympics' mascot Vucko (Little Wolf).
The Winter Games in Sarajevo were "the last great project of Yugoslavia as a 'brotherhood of nations'," said Tomislav Lopatic, four-time Yugoslav champion in biathlon.
"Everyone lived for the games, prepared and organised with an open heart. All the nationalities living in Yugoslavia took part," said Lopatic, himself a participant.
"Yet a year or two later, they headed to a disaster," added Lopatic, a Serb from Pale, near Sarajevo, a wartime Bosnian Serb stronghold.
Now he coaches the Bosnian national biathlon team, but the memories are still painful.
"The war destroyed my ambitions at the height of my career," he said, glancing at medals, trophies and photos in a small garage of his house.
The war in Bosnia left some 100,000 dead and displaced about two million people, almost half of the country's pre-war population.