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22 October 2001

Sarajevo goes for gold

After six years of war, the capital of Bosnia needs to restore its people's morale. What better way

By John-Paul Flintoff

If you’re bidding to host the Olympics, it’s important to understand what might appeal to the International Olympic Committee. In the run-up to the 1996 games, the city of Atlanta carefully targeted the committee’s most corruptible members. In return for their support, the city offered first-class plane tickets, prostitutes, rounds of golf on the Augusta national course, “free” shopping trips, directorships on overseas boards of American companies, medical consultations, scholarships and tickets for the Oscars ceremony.

Following similar shenanigans relating to the candidacy of Salt Lake City, the committee chucked out a handful of members and introduced various reforms – including, notably, the abolition of visits to candidate cities by its members. But Andrew Jennings, the investigative reporter who, in his book The Great Olympic Swindle, provided a priceless account of the corrupt practices, believes that the Olympics and corruption come as a package.

Construction companies enter candidate cities, he says, and needlessly reconfigure the infrastructure at vast expense. City officials, even if they don’t bribe the committee, are themselves susceptible to being bribed by construction firms seeking big projects funded at public expense. “The Olympics is like a poison coming into your community,” Jennings says. “And don’t tell me that nobody pays kickbacks in Bosnia, because they do in other places.”

Why Bosnia? Because the city of Sarajevo is bidding to host the Winter Games in 2010. City officials and their counterparts in the government have decided that a bid could provide a focus for the demoralised population. And this – Jennings, take note – is a city where the infrastructure really does need to be reconfigured.

Mirsad Zorabdic, a former history professor, journalist and author, showed me round the city recently. He introduced me to Asim Handzic (whose factory, in a converted mosque, switched from engraving plaques to manufacturing grenades during the war), who presented me with a sample of his latest product: a trophy commemorating the Olympic bid. For good measure, he gave me an old grenade case, too.

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Zorabdic also took me to winter sports facilities, variously ruined and repaired, in the nearby mountains. At the foot of Mt Jahorina, he showed off new facilities subsidised by Benetton, a smart new hotel, the Marsal, and the ski jump.

It is a sign of how much things have changed in Sarajevo that citizens no longer wish to tell the world about the bad shape their city is in. After all, nearly six years have passed since the fighting ended: this is as long as it took London, after the Second World War ended in 1945, to put on the Festival of Britain. Anyway, it’s not as if Sarajevo wants to put on the Olympics now, but in nine years.

Sarajevo has hosted the Winter Games before. Leaders of the local community persuaded President Tito that building a world-class ski resort would benefit Yugoslavia as a whole. Tito gave his blessing, and in 1978 – with virtually no infrastructure in place – Sarajevo bid successfully to host the 1984 games.

The American TV network ABC paid $91.5m for exclusive rights, and IBM, Kodak, Mitsubishi and Rank Xerox, among other sponsors, raised the total haul of hard currency to around $100m. Sports facilities were constructed on time, along with accommodation for visitors, including 574,000 tourists.

The games were a triumph; and not only for the Soviet Union, which won the most medals (25). Britain’s Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean collected the gold for figure skating: all nine judges awarded the maximum score of sest-nula (6.0) for their interpretation of Ravel’s Bolero. For the Yugoslavs, as they were still called, the most memorable medal went to Jure Franko – a silver in the men’s giant slalom – but what locals remember with particular pride is that the then president of the International Olympics Committee, Juan Antonio Samaranch, described Sarajevo as “the best-organised Winter Games in the history of the Olympic movement”.

The organisers’ attention to detail is hinted at in this note, from the head of the New Zealand Ski Association to the director-general of the Olympic village: “Dear Mr Seleskovic, I thank you on behalf of our Olympic team and our country for your gift of flowers to honour our national day.”

In the years immediately after, Sarajevo built on its success by hosting a series of other major sporting events, including world and European championships in speed skating, junior figure skating, bobsleigh, luge, junior luge and skiing. The city thrived, its population nudging 500,000 people, with gross domestic product, per head, at around £2,400 a year.

But then came the war. In 1994, when the Winter Games took place in Lillehammer, Sarajevo had been under siege for nearly two years. Slavenko Kilic, a 19-year-old speed skater, was unable to get out of the city to go to Lillehammer, but continued to train by running and cycling through the streets and “dry skating” in front of a mirror at home. A bobsleigh rider, Igor Boras, then 25, kept fit by running up and down the carpeted halls of the wrecked Supreme Court. And this is what happened to Sarajevo’s Olympic facilities. Hotels were destroyed. The bobsleigh run, overlooking the city on Mt Trebevic, was turned into a position for snipers, with holes cut into its sides. At Dobrinja, near the airport, the Olympic village – which since 1984 had housed ordinary citizens – was heavily shelled.

Four years of siege and war did more than wreck a few sports facilities. Altogether, damage to public and private infrastructure has been estimated as costing more than £9bn. More than 10,000 citizens were killed and many others left the city. In 1995, the population was 64 per cent of prewar levels. Four out of five jobs were lost, and the annual GDP, per person, dwindled to around £200. As for tourism, in 1999 – the most recent year for which figures are available – just 60,000 visitors came to Sarajevo.

Since then, donations from overseas have helped the city. Austria rebuilt the dome of the National Library, which was burned down in 1992 with the loss of two million books and journals. Saudi Arabia paid for fancy new mosques. Japan contributed a fleet of municipal buses. Switzerland presented a giant chess set, with pieces the size of traffic cones. Now, every day in the park, old men in baggy trousers shuffle around on the painted flagstones, scowling and heckling as they take turns to play.

But the time for donations is past, says Ibrahim Djikic, the assistant foreign minister of the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina. Bosnians want to take control of their economy and set it on a reliable course. The idea of hosting a second Winter Games arose in 1999, and Sarajevo’s mayor, Muhidin Hamamdzic, recognised the scheme’s potential. The Olympics, a fond memory for so many, offer an unrivalled opportunity to motivate and unite Sarajevo’s demoralised population.

Politically, the bid requires Bosnia’s two entities – the Federation of Bosnia-Hercegovina and the Serb Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina – to work together. The federation runs most of Sarajevo, but the republic presides over a small corner near the airport.

People pass freely between the two areas: the only discernible difference is that, in the republic, signposts tend to be written in Cyrillic characters. One man who embodies co-operation between the two entities is Zdravko Radjenovic, the president of the Bosnia-Hercegovina Olympic Committee. Though he lives in Banja Luka, in the Serb Republic, Radjenovic – a former handball player and member of the Olympic team that won the gold at Los Angeles – travels several times each month to the committee’s headquarters in Sarajevo, where he works to bring together the fragmented governing bodies of Bosnian sport.

“It is necessary to be ambitious and idealistic,” says Djikic, speaking through a cloud of cigarette smoke in his office. And optimistic: like others I spoke to, Djikic asserts that the process can be funded entirely by increased revenues from tourism, and from sponsorship and broadcasting rights. After assessing the official bidders, the International Olympic Committee will announce a shortlist in January next year, and bidders will then have a year to put together a detailed plan. The winner will be announced in July 2003. If you care about what has happened to Sarajevo, you can add your name to the list on websites such as

Thousands who have signed up already say that Sarajevo “deserves” the Olympics, that the world owes the city this fresh start. But don’t assume that adding your name will make any difference: it’s not the world that decides. It’s the International Olympic Committee: an organisation with no great tradition of awarding events on humanitarian principles.

John-Paul Flintoff is a feature writer for the Financial Times