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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The day is so dismal and wet that anybody out in it should be stopped and questioned. It's raining and snowing at the same time, and occasional bursts of wind sweep diagonally across the 70-meter ski jump. Because of the weather, from the side of the hill it's impossible to see the start of the jump, and after the jumpers do come into view they pass out of sight as abruptly as they appeared. Yet they're still coming down the run, their skis making a sizzling sound. They take off into the mist with that characteristic upward lunge, uncoiling with a thrust of their thighs. Then they vanish in the storm. It borders on the bizarre: swoosh, lunge, and they are gone.

They're landing somewhere not too far below, 275 feet or so, and one can hear the soft whomp of skis hitting the icy outrun. But no other sound marks the landings, mostly because there's no crowd around to do any cheering, and one suspects that packs of wolves may be dashing out of the pine forests on either side of the run to drag the jumpers away.

Other strange things are going on, adding to the sense of unreality. Shadowy figures ghost in and out of the mist in wraps of transparent plastic, cut from heavy-grade stuff of the kind used to cover construction equipment that must be left outdoors. It turns out that the source of this rain gear lies under the lip of the ski jump, a dark area almost like a cave, where a group of workers and ski-jumping officials have taken refuge. Anton Erman, chief of the distance judges, a round, bear of a man, craggy-faced, is turning out ponchos with his Swiss army knife. He has already outfitted all of his judges, who must stand exposed alongside the jump. "Some officials have big heads to match their egos," he says, "and so for them, I cut bigger holes." He grins at the wonderful lunacy of the scene.

There's a sudden, whispery shoom just overhead as another jumper goes off. The workers all turn and peer out as the jumper is enveloped by the mist, and then they shrug. The shrugs aren't unsympathetic, just the reaction of people who figure that jumpers are crazy anyway. A soaked cardboard box lies at their feet, piled high with sandwiches—ham and pungent white feta cheese between thick slices of bread. Now one of the workers gets out an unlabeled bottle of homemade slivovitz and pours three or four fingers into a plastic glass for a visitor. Drinks are poured all around and toasts are proposed, with the glasses held high in mittened hands: "Živili [ZHEE-vu-li]!" The slivovitz, high-octane plum brandy, sears all the way down, and soon the warmth spreads up over one's cheeks and forehead. Within minutes, blood starts surging back into fingers and toes. Each drinker knows he could breathe on the side of a house right now and cause the paint to peel.

But aside from the modest animal pleasure afforded by standing under a ski jump belting slivovitz, what's the point of this exercise? This peculiar jumping event is taking place on Friday, Feb. 11, near the end of a month of competition in and around Sarajevo, Yugoslavia as part of a preliminary test of the various venues that will be used in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Some of the competition has been good; much of it has been ineptly run. Almost everything has been staged in nasty weather and under difficult conditions. Very unusual weather, the Sarajevans said. Perhaps. But two weeks before the ski-jumping events, the first attempt at the men's downhill had to be postponed because the course lacked snow. Ten days after that, on still another mountainside, the women's giant slalom was completely blown away in a storm so fierce that the empty chairs on the ski lift were strung out horizontally from their support cable. And now, sure enough, at the 70-meter ski jump, word arrives that this event is to be postponed, too. That caps it.

The handling of this winter's pre-Olympics raises the serious question of whether Yugoslavia can actually succeed at the formidable task of staging the 1984 Winter Games. The Sarajevo Olympics will be a $135 million production, in a nation that is far from rich, that has $20 billion in foreign debt and is wracked by 30% inflation. But it is, of course, too late to turn back, organizational foul-ups and uncertain weather notwithstanding. A country's pride hangs in the balance, and if the Games aren't a success, some say, no amount of slivovitz will be enough to soften the sense of shame.

But this isn't a suspense story. The answer is: Yes, they'll do it. Sarajevo will pull off the 1984 Winter Olympics. However these won't be the Games we've come to know, with the icy professionalism of Innsbruck or Sapporo. Sarajevo will present the Olympics as Theater—a wide-ranging drama in which a few sporting scenes will be played. There will surely be moments of disaster. Ah, but when that occurs it will be romantic disaster, whimsical disaster, which definitely wasn't the case at Lake Placid, circa 1980, when an entire community displayed a growing meanness of spirit as things went wrong.

While Sarajevo is a place of warm and lively people, it has its problems as an Olympic site. The city lies under a permanent pall of smoke; most pre-Olympics athletes came down with what came to be known as Yugo Throat, and it's likely to strike again next year. There aren't enough hotel rooms, and there are few parking places in town and definitely not enough at the Olympic venues. There is, however, plenty of Yugoslav white wine, and it's terrific. And cheap.

The spoken language, Serbo-Croatian, rings and clangs with harsh sounds, and the written version is festooned with accent marks that hover above the words like tiny black gnats. Next year 98 translators will be working with the press at the Games. At times the English version of printed or spoken matter as rendered by translators on the job this winter resembled dialogue written for a 1930s Hollywood screenplay, back in the days when broken English was considered screamingly funny. "We have a nice history here," said translator Olivera Todorović, a 19-year-old premed student hired to work the pre-Olympics. "But after 500 years under the Turks, we are the world's most backwardness."

Asked to identify the tiny black birds that gather to sing raucously in the Sarajevo trees after dark, she said, "They are called"—Todorović makes the translation in her mind and then nods with assurance—"they are called 'insignificant birds.' " Aida Beglerović, another translator, said, "Our people, they are still surprise by all this. I mean, we are seeing our very own downhill or bobsledding racing showing on our television, and we are all thinking, 'My God! This program could only be coming from another country!' "

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