How Lillehammer set the standard

Remember Sarajevo

Safety concerns and worries over possible terrorist attacks are part of every Olympics now. But what happened after the 1984 Sarajevo Games was far worse than any horrors that worrisome visitors imagine for Sochi.

Ten years after hosting the Olympics, Yugoslavia was splintering and Sarajevo was under the longest siege in modern warfare. More than 10,000 people would be killed and 50,000 wounded when the Bosnian Serbs shelled the city during a nearly four-year siege. Just before the Lillehammer Games began, 68 residents were killed during a mortar attack on Sarajevo's public market. So many people had died in Sarajevo that the old Olympic skating arena was turned into a morgue, its wood seats used to make coffins.

"Now Sarajevo is the largest concentration camp in the world," the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Olympic Committee said at a news conference in Lillehammer.

When Blair paused to think about the siege during those weeks in Lillehammer, she wondered about the family who hosted her own family in Sarajevo. Was that family still there? Was that family even alive?

"It really was sad to know that they were using the 1984 ski jump as a missile launch," Blair says. "And that our rink was now a graveyard."

A moment of silence for Sarajevo was held during the Lillehammer Games. We all stood and waved thin, black flashlights that had been labeled "Remember Sarajevo." I still have mine.

The day after the Olympics opened, Bosnian bobsledder Nizar Zaciragic told me he enjoyed the opening ceremony, that it was terrific. "But yesterday, every single athlete was so empty. It was awful," he went on. "I felt so terrible. It was the worst feeling I have ever had. I felt, 'Should I be here? Is this right?' I thought of all the people suffering back home. They have nothing. No heat. No clothing. No food. I am here to help our battle against the fascists, but should I be here?

"I notice everything here, but I can't feel it. I was a young man before the war. I used to chase girls. I used to have fun. Now I just spend my time sitting in my room writing."

Zaciragic was part of Bosnia's four-man bobsled team that was made up of two Muslims, a Croat and a Serb. "In our small bobsled, we try to symbolize our country and show the world that we can and we must live together," Igor Boras told reporters that day.

They finished last, but the important thing is they were there.

A right to play

With apologies to Michael Phelps, Eric Heiden, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and even the 1980 U.S. hockey team, the greatest Olympic performance of all time -- the one that best symbolized every aspect of the Olympic ideals -- was by speedskater Johann Olav Koss in Lillehammer. He won three gold medals and set world records in each race. And that's not even what makes his performance so special.

Several months before the Games, Koss traveled to Eritrea with Olympic Aid, a charity providing help to war-torn countries. Eritrea had recently emerged from a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. The trip changed Koss' life.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...