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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And now the time has come to head back down the pathway and check out the refreshment stands. One or two of the bobsleds have gone belly up, but there are no critical injuries.

Quite a few spectators have gone belly up, too.

She blasts under the finish line banner in perfect form, in a full racing tuck with legs firmly apart and head down, and then, after skidding to a stop, grabs the team radio to report back to the racers waiting on top. "It's in better shape than I thought," says Cindy Oak of the U.S. ski team. "Tell them just to put their heads down and punch it." Then she looks back up the course to watch her competition. Oak is wearing a crash helmet emblazoned with what appear to be Harley-David-son wings, and when she pulls it off, her tawny blonde hair falls in braids. She's 22, 5'8" and lean at 145 pounds. "I don't know," Oak says as she watches other, slightly faster, times being posted. "Maybe I hit it too hard."

This is the finish of the women's downhill, a pre-Olympic and World Cup event being staged in an out-at-the-elbows ski resort called Jahorina, the least attractive of all the Olympic venues. This mountain is on the other side of town from Bjelašnica and is more modest in almost all of its dimensions. The start is perched at 6,140 feet, and the course snakes through thick stands of fir and evergreens over a 1,794-foot vertical drop, most of it ambling along at an average 29-degree grade. There's one stretch in the middle where there's a 56-degree pitch. With all that, the course can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to be. "It's too short for an Olympic run," says Hanni Wenzel of Liechtenstein. "In the middle it's more like a giant slalom."

"There is, sure enough, a bit of GS in there," says Holly Flanders, 25, from Deerfield, N.H. "The problem is that the course runs right through this narrow gully or gulch, and about the only thing they could do was to put more control gates in there. It's marginal. It's not the best downhill we've ever had."

The winner is perky Maria Walliser of Switzerland, who covers the course in 1:19.28. Nobody seems particularly impressed. It all might be just one more stop on the circuit.

But, at last! Drama is about to come to Jahorina. A howling storm strikes in the middle of the night, and the officials decide that if they don't tell anybody about it, perhaps it'll go away.

It doesn't. Indeed, by early Sunday morning, when the troupes of racing innocents are busing slowly up the narrow road from Sarajevo for the women's giant slalom, Jahorina is being slashed by the most savage storm of the season. Winds are blasting through at 75 mph, the lift is shut down and flags, poles, and gates have long since vanished under snowdrifts. Some racers and team captains are out on the course awaiting instructions; everybody else huddles inside the lodge, faces pressed to the windows. Finally, about noon, team by team, the racers start to escape, groping their way through the parking lot with arms outstretched and parkas flapping as if in a scene from Lost Horizon.

Back downtown, the Organizing Committee produces a bulletin announcing that it had decided at 8:10 not to conduct course inspection and at 8:35 had decided to call everything off. "Teams were notified of this immediately," the bulletin says. It sounds efficient, but unhappily, as Nick Howe of the U.S. team points out, it simply isn't true. "Our people and other teams as well were on the hill and on their radios all morning trying to find out what was going on," he says.

The departing women have a suggestion for 1984: If it's storming that badly on Jahorina, simply hang out a sign at the bottom of the road, CLOSED FOR INVENTORY. Or whatever.

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