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Winter Olympics 1984: When the world came to Sarajevo

Sarajevo today: Many of the sports facilities built for the 1984 Winter Olympics were destroyed during the war. Some have been restored and rebuilt

Sarajevo today: Many of the sports facilities built for the 1984 Winter Olympics were destroyed during the war. Some have been restored and rebuilt

The joy and excitement were palpable in Sarajevo on Wednesday, February 8, 1984. The city's residents had been preparing for this day for months: building, organizing, cleaning and generally getting Sarajevo ready for this major international sporting event.

On the day itself, 60,000 spectators in Kosevo Olympic Stadium in Sarajevo and millions of television viewers across Yugoslavia and around the world watched the opening ceremony of the XIV Olympic Winter Games.

At the time, Sarajevo was capital of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the six constituent republics that made up the socialist state of Yugoslavia.

Excitement nationwide

The whole of Yugoslavia was euphoric about hosting the Winter Olympics, and today, 40 years later, the people who were around at the time remember the very special atmosphere in the city.

"If you ask me, Sarajevo was the center of the world that year," one woman in Sarajevo told DW. "Simply put, it was a time when we were all happy and joyous. It was wonderful."

Snowfall in the nick of time

"We were all very happy and very relieved when the Games began," recalls Zdravko Lipovac, a well-known sports journalist from Sarajevo, who reported on the Games in 1984.

"In the days before, we were all very worried because there was no snow. Normally there is always snow in Sarajevo and the surrounding mountains at this time of the year. But that year: nothing. And then, on the night before the Games began, a meter of snow fell. It was perfect," said Lipovac.

A welcome for the world

Early next morning, it became apparent just how much these Games meant to Sarajevo: All over the city, people came out of their homes and began clearing the snow from the streets and sidewalks.

They wanted everything to be just right for their international visitors. Then as now, hospitality is very important to the people of Sarajevo.

An important event for Yugoslavia

These Winter Olympics were important not just for Sarajevo, but for all of Yugoslavia. They took place just four years after the death of President Josip Broz Tito, who had led both Yugoslavia and the Communist party that ruled the country for almost four decades.

Tito had fought against the Nazis and their supporters as a partisan leader in the Second World War and founded the socialist, federal state of Yugoslavia when it was over.

Cracks begin to appear

Early rumblings of disunity in Yugoslavia came in 1981, when the first major student protests took place in Kosovo, which was at the time a province of Serbia. The students called for greater autonomy for the province.

Tito's successors were keen both to make a show of unity in the country and to prove that they were capable of stepping into the long-serving leader's shoes. No expense was spared to ensure the Olympics went off without a hitch.

Between East and West

The Sarajevo Games also attracted a lot of attention at international level, too. Just four years previously, the USA and most Western states had boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Soviet Union and its allies in Eastern Europe responded in kind, announcing that they would boycott the Summer Games in Los Angeles in 1984.

As a non-aligned state, Yugoslavia was the only place where both East and West could meet in sporting competitions. And so, for 12 days in February, Sarajevo was an international meeting place for athletes from around the world.

Local hero

When the Slovenian skier Jure Franko won a silver medal in the giant slalom for Yugoslavia — the country's only medal at the Games — the joy was boundless.

"I was there when there was a reception for Jure Franko in the city. That's something you never forget," said one Sarajevo resident who was a boy at the time.

Destroyed by war

Just a few years later, there was not much left of this joy and enthusiasm. After the collapse of Communism, Yugoslavia began to break up and descended into a number of brutal wars that lasted from 1991 to 1999.

Nationalists on all sides decimated and carved up the country. In 1992, Bosnian Serb forces surrounded and besieged Sarajevo.

Shelling from the mountains

From the mountains that had been used for sporting events during the Winter Olympics, Serb units now targeted the city below.

"Unfortunately, everything was destroyed. They destroyed the bobsleigh track on Trebevic mountain — the most expensive sporting facility of all. And also the Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo, which had been built specially for the ice hockey and figure skating events at the Games, was hit and went up in flames," recalls sports journalist Lipovac. "That was where the former East German figure skater Katarina Witt won gold and began her international skating career."

The worst of the shelling came from Trebevic mountain. "The city was spread out below them, as if on a platter," says Lipovac. His flat, which was in the former Olympic Village in Dobrinja, was hit and severely damaged in the shelling.

New hope

After the war, Sarajevo and Bosnia-Herzegovina, which by that time was an independent state, had other priorities than reconstructing the damaged winter sports infrastructure.

Over time, however, people remembered the outstanding conditions for winter sport in and around the city. The cable car at Trebevic was repaired and restored, pistes and ski lifts were re-opened, new hotels built, and a new toboggan run constructed. The Zetra Olympic Hall (now Juan Antonio Samaranch Olympic Hall) was also rebuilt with international funding.

Today, four decades after the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympics, Bosnia-Herzegovina is economically weak and politically divided. People there still think with fondness and nostalgia of the days when an entire city stood together, cleared snow and welcomed guests from all over the world with excitement and enthusiasm.

Many Bosnians say that these were the last happy days in the former Yugoslavia. To this day, Sarajevo's "Olympic Street" is a lasting reminder of the time when the eyes of the world were on Sarajevo and the Bosnian capital played host to the biggest winter sporting event of the day.

This article was originally published in German.