SI Vault
Bob Ottum
March 14, 1983
At the pre-Olympics, as visitors griped and the Yugoslav army diligently groomed the slopes, Sarajevans showed they can probably pull off the '84 Winter Games—in a style all their own
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March 14, 1983

They Were Real Troopers

At the pre-Olympics, as visitors griped and the Yugoslav army diligently groomed the slopes, Sarajevans showed they can probably pull off the '84 Winter Games—in a style all their own

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But oh, yes, the show will go on, despite the fact that each of the pre-Olympic events brought with it a little crisis. It's no wonder that many of the locals came out of the far end slightly dazed by the enormity of their project. There was one Yugoslav Alpine official who, when asked what might solve the serious problems with the physical layout of the men's downhill course, stared thoughtfully at the mountain for a long moment and then murmured, "Send shovels."

Not all the visitors were pleased with their hosts' efforts. As the four-man bobsled trials wound down, Austrian Coach Josef Haidacher stood at the bottom of the new $20 million run, full of melancholy. He didn't like much of what he'd seen, from the smoky city to the food to the disorganization of what he called lazy people. "We are getting out of town schnell, schnell, schnell," Haidacher said. "Three weeks in Sarajevo is like three weeks in your Sing Sing."

A few days later, the Organizing Committee of the XIV Olympic Winter Games issued a cheery statement pointing out that with a year to go before the opening ceremonies, "there is very little work left, only the cosmetics."

Those were two of the extreme viewpoints of the month.

As it turned out, both opinions were wrong.

As you go up on the chair lift, rising swiftly above the tree line, the sight is impressive. Scary at times. Mount Bjelašnica (Byel-ASH-nee-tza) is 20 miles out of Sarajevo on a tortuous, 1½-lane road. The mountain is bald on top, and somehow sinister. Perhaps it's the ice, polished to a soft shine by the wind. One dismounts with the feeling that, if the Good Lord had meant for there to be a starting gate for downhill racers at the top of Bjelašnica, at 6,780 feet. He wouldn't have exposed it to such a blast. For this is a place where the warm winds off the Mediterranean meet the chill winds coming off the Continent, and when they clash, they swirl crazily, sweeping everything before them—including downhill racers.

The Yugoslavs understand all of this. But Bjelašnica is the only mountain around that can handle the men's Alpine events, and when you've got the Olympics, what can you do? (The giant slalom and slalom runs start a thousand feet down the mountain, tucked away a bit more safely in the trees.) Sarajevo has had a weather station on Bjelašnica since 1892, one of the first in all Europe, and the Yugoslavs have learned a lot in these 91 years. The mountain averages 12 feet of snow cover a season; the snow blankets the upper slopes an average of 217 days a year. That's the good news. The weather people are less eager to recall that the winter storms are doozies. They last an average of three days, they create huge drifts that obliterate all the ski runs, and they're powered by winds that can twirl the lift chairs around the cable like propellers until the whole thing takes off and flies to Albania. There are also days, as there were last month, that bring glare ice to the top of Bjelašnica and 50° warmth below, with folks idling about improving their suntans. The Winter Games usually have only one storm day built into their 12-day schedule, and there will be a great holding of breath next year as everyone prays for good weather.

For all its icy splendor, Bjelašnica isn't really a big mountain; indeed, it comes about 25 feet or so short of providing the 800 meters of vertical drop required for an official Olympic men's downhill. So, perched smartly on the very tip-top of Bjelašnica, like a New Year's Eve party hat, is a new ski lodge-restaurant. The top of the ski lift vanishes into the lower level of the not-quite-finished structure. One walks up several short flights of stairs to emerge in what will be a restaurant on the top floor. It has windows all around and the view is breathtaking—even as the windows rattle in the wind. Off to one side is a sundeck. On the southwest side of the mountain, the back side, one can look down on tiny farms that have remained unchanged for centuries, a land undisturbed by Olympic activity. But on the southeast side...

There it is: the official starting gate for the men's downhill. The Sundeck Getaway. The new structure adds enough elevation to the course to meet Olympic standards, with perhaps three meters to spare. This may be the first Olympics in history in which a downhiller could hand his luncheon tray over to a waitress, buckle on his crash helmet and say, "Ta ta, dahling, I'm off to the races." There's only a small matter of a 51-degree drop to negotiate on the way to the main part of the racecourse. It's like skiing off the side of the World Trade Center.

The pre-Olympic racers learned this and a lot more. The icy section from the starting gate to the safety of the tree line is roughly 700 feet, and with the wind swirling through in bursts, as it does up there, winning an Olympic gold medal—or any medal—might well be a matter of luck over skill. He who catches the lull will be lucky.

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