To most observers, the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, were an unalloyed success. That year, the unlikeliest of candidate cities in the unlikeliest of candidate countries did what many had thought impossible: It lit the torch, housed and fed athletes, welcomed tourists, provided security, and broadcast a positive image of socialist Yugoslavia to the world. From the outside, the Sarajevo Olympics seemed to epitomize “Olympism” – the principle that sport should serve the harmonious development of man through the promotion of a just and peaceful society.
The Sarajevo Games were the first Olympics to feature both Soviet and U.S. athletes since the Americans boycotted the 1980 Games in Moscow. They were the first Winter Olympics held in a communist country, and only the second Olympics held in the Balkans. A record 1,437 athletes from 49 countries competed in Sarajevo, an estimated 640,000 spectators attended the events, and two billion people tuned in to watch them on TV.
Fast-forward 10 years, to February 1994. The Bosnian war is in full swing. Sarajevo is under siege. The opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Lillehammer, Norway, features, as usual, the “parade of participants” – the iconic march of all the athletes past thousands of cheering spectators. The parade begins with Greece, the symbolic “first” Olympic country, followed by American Samoa, the United States (or Amerikas Forente Stater, in Norwegian), Andorra, Argentina, and five other contingents. Then in walks Bosnia-Herzegovina. The crowd roars its approval: Bosnia, which had declared independence in 1992, had never been to a Winter Olympics, and this team had traveled a long way to get there. Several members had trained in refugee camps. Others had braved sniper fire and land mines to leave Sarajevo, and two had escaped the city aboard a United Nations cargo plane by using falsified press cards.
In spite of Bosnia’s ongoing civil war, its nine-person Olympic team consisted of two Croats, three Serbs, and four Muslims. For the four-man bobsled, members from each group were in the same sled. “Our bobsled team is a real example of what most people believe in Bosnia,” said one member, a Croat. “We try to symbolize our country, to show the world we can live together.” Although Bosnia finished 29th out of 30 in bobsled that year, the International Olympic Committee praised its effort as “the best possible example of the Olympic spirit at the worst of times.” And for Bosnia, it was the worst of times: A week earlier, a mortar shell had landed in a crowded Sarajevo market, killing 68 people and wounding 144 others.
The shelling happened on the first day of what was supposed to have been the Olympic Truce, a one-month cease-fire proposed in January 1994 by International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch. Although Samaranch repeatedly acknowledged that sustaining the truce would be difficult, he pleaded for peace. “Please stop the fighting,” he said just before the games, at a meeting of committee members in Lillehammer. “Please stop the killing. Please drop your guns.”
Then, during the Olympics, Samaranch left Lillehammer for a two-day visit to Sarajevo. He arrived on a chartered UN flight, wearing a flak jacket. It was his “dearest wish,” wrote the Olympic Review, “to go to Sarajevo in February on the tenth anniversary of the XIV Winter Games. These Games took place in 1984 in the capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, then a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural melting pot which offered the world the impressive richness of its shared traditions.”
Fast-forward again, to February 2002. The Bosnian war is over, and Sarajevo submits a brave but unlikely bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics. Many of its buildings are still pockmarked and uninhabitable, its city hall has a gaping hole punched through it, and thousands of refugees are living in what was once the Olympic Village. “We believe it is possible to get the Olympics again,” said a spokesman for the city’s candidacy committee. “We can do it – no problem.”
Sarajevo didn’t get the 2010 Winter Olympics. It didn’t get the 2014 Winter Olympics, and it didn’t get the 2018 Winter Olympics. But Bosnians of all ethnicities still see the games as more than a sports competition or an international festival. They see them as a cultural marker, a symbol, the apotheosis of an earlier, idealized period in which Yugoslavia still existed and Serbs, Croats, and Muslims got along.
Now it’s 2012. This month, the Summer Olympics will open in London. Officials expect 10,000 athletes from 200 countries, including Bosnia. Yet Bosnia isn’t the only one to have known civil war. There’s Afghanistan, Angola, El Salvador, Eritrea, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Lebanon, Libya, and at least a dozen other nations where – for money, power, religion, or ideology – neighbors, brothers even, have gone to war against each other.
Critics say the Olympics are too nationalistic. They’re right. Often, people pin their collective hopes, as well as their hatreds and passions, on the performance of a single athlete. Remember Zola Budd, the white South African distance runner who collided with Mary Decker at the 1984 Los Angeles Olympics? Somehow Budd, a quiet 18-year-old, became the symbol of apartheid and had to be escorted to the airport under armed guard.
Yet nationalism can be a good thing, especially when war-torn countries send athletes to the Olympics, and those athletes bring people together. In 1992, Ethiopians of all ethnicities rejoiced when distance runner Derartu Tulu became the first black African woman to win an Olympic gold medal. This was welcome news for Ethiopia after years of famine and a 17-year civil war. Paddy Barnes, a boxer and practicing Catholic from Belfast, Northern Ireland, captured a bronze medal in Beijing in 2008. As another local boxer put it, “If you can fight well, it doesn’t matter what side of the community you’re from, the people of Belfast will come out and support you.”
In 1984, Jure Franko, a Yugoslav skier from Slovenia, won a silver medal in the men’s giant slalom. It was Yugoslavia’s only medal in Sarajevo, and its first medal in a Winter Olympics. “It was getting toward the end of the games, and we had no medals,” Franko remembers. “People had climbed the lift towers, and they were yelling and reaching to touch me as I rode by. There were thousands on the hill and at the finish. When I won my medal, people began jumping on me, kissing me, practically tearing me apart, and all I did was laugh and laugh. Because of my medal, a medal for Yugoslavia, it suddenly all made sense that the country had pulled together to put on these games. It made sense then that we were feeling such harmony, such peace, such brotherhood as Yugoslavians.”
This, to me, is what the Olympics are about: peace and harmony within states, and brotherhood among all people. That’s why, this year, I’m cheering for Bosnia. I’m cheering for Liberia and Lebanon and Macedonia too, and for any country that happens to need a Derartu Tulu, a Jure Franko, or a Paddy Barnes.