Today’s the day. After two days of searching through the war-scarred mountains south of Sarajevo, I am finally going to locate the cross country ski venue from the 1984 Olympics. This theoretically simple quest has not been simple at all, requiring about a bronze medal effort in the detective work department. Of course, as I set off in the morning from my resort hotel in a rented Chevrolet Aveo with Hungarian plates and make the turn down another narrow, snowy road in Republika Srpska, I don’t yet know I’m going to find it today. All I do know is that this must be the most neglected, unmarked, unknown former Olympic site on earth.
It’s March 2012 and I’m on a two week road trip through the former Yugoslavia. I have wanted to come here for 20 years, ever since I spent time in Budapest in the early 90′s before the war. Despite living an easy train ride away in neighboring Hungary, somehow I failed to visit the socialist, multi-ethnic republic before its violent end – a major mistake in retrospect. But I was still curious what the place was like and eager for a second chance to find out.
Before arriving in the history-soaked land of Habsburg and Ottoman, already high on my “to see” list was the Sarajevo ski venue. Sure, I wanted to see traditional tourist sights like the Adriatic coast, the Mostar bridge, Počitelj old town, and the Slovenian Alps. But I really wanted to stand on the ground where Olympic ski racing had come to the Balkans during the twilight of the Cold War.
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. Any search for Sarajevo’s Olympic past, it turned out, would also have to address the more recent Bosnian war.
War tourism is a tricky business. Often I had to temper the humor and fun of my own adventure with the knowledge that real people died here, that most people I saw every day had probably lost someone in the conflict. And of the people who were 40 or older, some of them had killed people. Nothing in my account here is meant to discount in any way the terrible suffering the Yugoslav wars caused.
I rented a car in Budapest. After crossing Romania and Serbia, I arrived in Sarajevo, where it was cold and snow lay on the ground. The dreary gray of Central Europe hung in the air like cigarette smoke, mixed liberally with exhaust fumes from old East bloc cars and – a lot of real cigarette smoke. Sarajevo is wedged in a tight valley with mountains on three sides, and when a winter inversion descends, the results are poisonous. Instead of staying down in that toxic soup, I headed up to Jahorina, the women’s downhill venue and still an operating alpine ski area.
One of the first things you notice about Sarajevo is how close the city is to the countryside and surrounding mountains. Sarajevo is not a large city, though the old town feels dense and crowded. From the urban crush of a market packed with vendors, it’s a mere 12K to the rural landscape of farms above. A little farther up and you’re at a ski area. From city center you can look right up to the hills where the guns used to fire from.
But to get from the city to the mountains you first have to enter a different country – or at least another administrative entity. Heading east or south out of Sarajevo, you enter the Bosnian Serb sub entity that was created as part of the Dayton Accords at the end of the war. Ah yes – Republika Srpska. (Queue the theme music from JAWS.)
What was Republika Srpska (or RS as it is abbreviated) like? I had no idea. There had to be some residual anger toward the US from NATO bombings in 1995 and 1999, right? Americans couldn’t be real popular here, could they? Well, my car had Hungarian plates. That should cover me. But – I slowly realized that no Hungarians would ever come here. So… that meant the Bosnian Serbs could see right through my little ruse. To them, Hungarian plates clearly signified: “American infiltrator in rental car.” Hmmm. I was marked. (Bump up volume on JAWS music.)
Each time I tried to use Google Maps for directions anywhere in Bosnia, I got the mysterious “you can’t get there from here” message. Why was that? Was that because you weren’t actually allowed to go into RS after all? Would there be a checkpoint stop on the RS border where they frisk you and confiscate all Nutella products? Churning the scenarios gave me something to worry about other than air pollution, but as it turned out (of course), all my concerns were completely unnecessary. Entering Republika Srpska was as uneventful as driving two miles east of Sarajevo and watching a large “Welcome to Republika Srpska” sign flash by. RS was no problem at all. (Cut the JAWS music.)
So there I was. Within hours of arriving in Sarajevo I was embedded in a mountaintop ski hotel outside Pale, the Bosnian Serb war time capital. I can’t say this was part of the originally conceived plan, but it seemed to be working out. It was a 25 minute drive to get down into the city – a small price to pay for clean air and mountain quiet. As I was sure the Olympic venues would be among the most visited attractions in the Sarajevo area, I did not make particular haste to find them. I’d already found one (Jahorina) without even trying, and I was now staying there in a hotel. This was going to be easy. I’d look around the city for a few days, top up the culture tanks, and then make a pilgrimage to the nordic ski shrine.
But it was not to be. Several days later when I took up the Olympic torch, finding the nordic venue was not a slam dunk at all. Basically, a combination of no maps or signs, a big language barrier, and a local lack of interest in cross country skiing all conspired to keep the venue location top secret. At least from me. Basically they could not have hidden it any better from visitors if they wanted to.
My research began in Sarajevo. While visiting museums, cafes, etc., I was on the lookout for Olympic signs or displays. Didn’t see any of those. Then I looked for handouts or maps. There was a print map with an artist’s rendering of the area, but it was not sufficient to navigate by. It also didn’t say where the CROSS COUNTRY skiing was. You mean there is more than one kind?
I started asking people where the CROSS COUNTRY (carefully enunciated extra emphasis added) ski venue was. Surprisingly few people I encountered spoke English, and yet my French, German, and Hungarian didn’t work either. Once they heard the word “ski” they would say “Jahorina”. That’s the women’s downhill venue where I’m staying deep inside Republika Srpska.
“No, no. The CROSS COUNTRY ski area. CROSS COUNTRY.”
After running through that drill a few times, I asked someone up at Jahorina. At least they didn’t have the out of answering “Jahorina”. They said “not here” (aha!) but provided little additional info. Someone else said to go down the road and “go left”. So on the first official day of my search I did that. I “went left”.
The road was snow covered with some ice. The Aveo was no Subaru but it would have to do. I trundled along past farms and several bombed out and abandoned buildings, and I assumed there would be signs. There MAY HAVE BEEN a sign for what MAY HAVE BEEN a ski venue. But it certainly wasn’t clear given my language problems.
What I did find the first day were numerous destroyed hilltop installations that had been used to fire on the city below. Standing in these trashed buildings today, you can instantly grasp what the siege must have been like. Gruesome. I also passed the remains of the bobsled run, which was almost totally gone. The road continued to descend and at some point after about 20 miles I realized this couldn’t be where the cross country venue was. I ended up down in Sarajevo. Because the road was steep and narrow, this expedition took a good part of the day. I returned to the hotel empty-handed. At this point I didn’t have a lot of time left in Sarajevo. I had to find the cross country venue soon. Like tomorrow.
On the second day of the quest, I took a different road heading for the men’s downhill ski venue, Bjelašnica. Surely someone in the lodge there would know. Again the language bloc was almost total. I had to do some physical miming of what cross country skiing was, and still I had the feeling that they had no idea what I was talking about. A few people were consulted. But incredibly none of them knew. Or maybe I was not asking in the right way? It turned out that the CROSS COUNTRY venue was about three miles from that lodge. But they either did not know that or I did not understand their answer.
I set off again in the car, continuing my circuit heading west through the mountains. I knew it had to be there. The lack of signage was frustrating. And then a completely unmarked but plowed road appeared on the left. Aha. I turned down it and found a small weathered sign that had the Olympic symbol on it. Not the rings but the symbol for the Sarajevo games. Bingo.
Funny enough, when I pulled up to the youth hostel that is now the only building on the location, the person there did not know if this was the venue. How could you not know that you work on a former Olympic site? She referred me to someone outside in the ski rental shack. Again no English. At this point I was reduced to just saying the word “Olympics” and pointing down to the ground. Here? Nothing. “Olympics. Olympics.” Nope. “Olimpija.” I improvised a Slavic delivery. Aha. That got something. “Yes.” And she motioned down the road. “Not here?” Again, about a 20% level of confidence that a) she understood what I was asking and b) I understood what she answered. It turned out she was sending me off down the road to the ski jumps.
I headed outside and started wandering around an open meadow. There were small groomed ski tracks, but nothing like an Olympic venue. And no buildings or landscaping to indicate a stadium. Oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get that big definitive YES THIS IS THE PLACE moment.
And then out comes the groomer guy, a tough burly dude with a military crew cut dressed in a one piece insulated maintenance suit wearing badass boots. He looks like a commando. Blank-faced, he pantomimes firing a gun and motions for me to follow him. Hmmm. Well, I figure either he has seen through the Hungarian plates and has plans for me, or we’re on to something. Like – biathlon?
YES. We walk over to a flat open meadow, and through 100% physical gestures we confirm that YES THIS IS THE PLACE and that he was here for the 1984 Olympics. Thank god. At that point a guy from Sarajevo who is studying in Germany and does speak English skis by and we recruit him into the communication effort. And then all questions are answered.
Except the ones I couldn’t ask. Like what the groomer guy (likely a Serb) was up to between 1992-95. Like what the student from Sarajevo (likely a Muslim) remembers from the war. In hindsight, that moment of random meeting and interaction was a good sign of gradual but steady normalisation of life in Bosnia. It probably could not have happened 10 years ago.
How strange that what could be a major tourist sport destination is so hard to find and completely undeveloped. As I drove home, what should be next door but the ski jumping venue, also with barely any signage and in a similar state of decay.
Maybe Sarajevo will rise again. I did hear mention of the idea of applying again to host the winter Olympics there. Could it happen one day?
For anyone else about to embark on this pilgrimage (and I highly recommend a visit), here is the key info you need to know. CROSS COUNTRY skiing took place at Igman, Veliko Polje and ski jumping took place at Igman, Malo Polje.
You should have no problem finding it. Really.
Just follow the signs.
The author’s narrative in photos. Please click the thumbnails for a larger version.
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