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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Now, back to the ski-jump venue. But this time the day is so bright, the skies are so brilliant, that a couple of thousand or so Sarajevans have trekked up from town. Lord knows how; the nearest parking is back on the road, far, far down the mountainside. They've brought the kids; they've brought homemade sleds and picnic lunches in plastic sacks; and they've brought many, many bottles of you-know-what. Blankets are spread on the snow, and before long, snowmen appear magically here and there, many in the likeness of Vučko—Wolfie, in Serbo-Croatian—the Olympic mascot.

Men are falling out of the sky. They are etched vividly for brief seconds against the blue and then the green of the fir trees as they descend from the 90-meter jump.

The 90- and 70-meter ski jumps sit side by side, towering over the rolling Plain of Igman. Legendary Igman, the Yugoslavs call it, because on a bitterly cold February day in 1942 a band of 1,200 partisans escaped German encirclement by means of a forced march across the plain. The plain opens upward into a stunning high-mountain meadow, a shoulder of Mount Bjelašnica, whose peak, even on this bright day, is lost in swirling snow.

Making giant looping circles and figure eights through the meadow are Nordic racecourses, most of them laid out to follow the natural rolling terrain. All 14 Nordic skiing events will be staged here next February, and a lodge will be built at the far edge of the meadow to serve the competitors. For pure sport, far from the madding downtown crowd, Nordic competitors usually have the best of it. "We're happy," says Mike Gallagher, the chief U.S. men's cross-country coach. "The courses are good, though the women's are a bit tough. We'll have some winners and some losers, as they say."

Happy, indeed. The U.S. teams now being assembled and hammered into shape by Nordic Team Director Jim Page might be the surprise of next season. Lean and powerful, Nordic combined ace Kerry Lynch, 25, put in a dismal day at the 70-meter jumps, finishing 22nd, and then came back the next day to blow everybody's doors off in the 15-km race, to pull up to 10th overall. In 1984, says Page, "Kerry should consistently finish in the top five."

The star of the show, of course, is Bill Koch, who, at 27, strides across the landscape with mature confidence. His silver in the 30 km at Innsbruck in 1976 made him the first American ever to win an Olympic medal in cross-country, and here on the Plain of Igman, the reigning World Cup champion puts on a couple of stunning new moves. Early in the competition, Koch breaks a basket on a ski pole just after the start of the 15 km and finishes far back in the pack. Then in the murderous 30 km, he's last in the starting sequence. He's using no-wax skis, because he and Gallagher figure that the weather is so changeable, and one of the skis is broken. Well, it's a favorite pair and it isn't a bad break. By the end of the first lap Koch is running second. "I passed more people today than I ever have in my career," he says later. He finishes first, in 1.29:56.8, to continue his World Cup domination. The next man in, Norway's Lars Erik Erikson, is two minutes back. "I didn't feel really good," says Koch calmly, "but my skis were great."

That's what Koch said, all right. But here's what the Organizing Committee official bulletin said he said:

"I went for all or nothing. I simply had to rehabilitate from the failure in the 15-km race. I went for the finish so to say from the start. I didn't care about the snow that stuck to my skis nor the wind that froze my breath. I had the best intermediate time, which gave me strength to hold out to the finish. I am especially happy with this victory. I really wanted to triumph in Olympic Sarajevo. I hope that I'll have a similar success in 1984 at the Games...."

This is indeed a strange country, as promised, and not all the picnickers know what's going on, only that it's something truly big and it involves flags and a lot of fun. Back in town, journalist Aida Beglerović had said, "We are not an intense people. It's not our nature to be caring too much for schedule." And that says a lot about the Winter Games to come; the independent-minded Yugoslavs are in the process of getting up an Olympics of gentle chaos.

Walking up the stairway alongside the 90-meter ski jump, Jeff Hastings, 23, America's premiere jumper, pauses to survey the party scene far below. "The thing about Yugoslavia," he says, "is that I hover between elation and despair at the organization. But the people are so nice."

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