The Tragedy of Sarajevo's Olympic Triumph
Sarajevo dazzled the world with the 1984 Olympics. But eight years later, the city was under violent siege. We have pictures of the infrastructure from those games, which now mostly lies in ruins.
The 1976 Montreal Summer Olympics were a financial disaster, and there’s been a raging debate ever since if the value of hosting the Olympic Games is worth the steep costs to the area in question.
But not long after Montreal, the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games were considered a huge success, for both Sarajevo and for the Olympics themselves, bringing the world back together after the highly politicized 1980 Moscow Olympics.
Thanks to the Games, Sarajevo gained a tremendous amount of new infrastructure:
An updated tram system and better parks.
An expanded airport, improved train and bus stations, and over a hundred kilometers of new roads.
Accommodations for athletes that later became hotels and local housing.
The sports venues themselves, which were intended to continue drawing athletes and vacationers to the area.
The host city, then part of Yugoslavia, even showcased the Olympic ideal of unity as local Muslims, Catholics, Jews, and Orthodox Christians worked together to create a very successful event.
But eight years later, the Soviet Union fell, and Yugoslavia collapsed into a series of brutal wars. Sarajevo, now the capital of a country known as Bosnia and Herzegovina, fell under a violent, four-year siege by neighboring Serbia.
The siege killed almost 14,000 people and destroyed most of Sarajevo’s Olympic venues, along with much of the city.
We recently documented how Sarajevo’s Olympic bobsleigh and luge runs — used by Serb forces during the war to shell the city below — have been transformed into haunting ruins.
Some Olympic venues, like Koševo City Stadium and Zetra Olympic Hall, have been restored, but most have not. Skenderija Center, where ice hockey was held and medals were awarded, is still partially in use but is a shell of its former glory.
Brent and I recently took a day-long tour that included a visit to the Igman mountain plateau, where the ski jump, Nordic, and cross-country events were held, and a hotel had been constructed. Our guide was Almir, who, at age sixteen, enlisted as a soldier in the Bosnian War and engaged in extended combat at both the ski jump and hotel sites, which are now in total ruin.
Igman Ski Jumps
Before being chosen as a location for events at the Winter Olympics, this area, also known as Malo Polje, or “little field,” had long been popular with cross-country skiers.
To build the ski jumps, as well as the trails for Nordic Combined and cross-country events, first a road from Sarajevo had to be built. Once that was completed, two concrete jump chutes were constructed, along with a judges’ tower, and chairlifts to carry competitors to the top.
The smaller jump is seventy meters, the larger is eighty.
During the games, Matti Nykänen of Finland set the hill record of 116.0 meters (381 ft) as 90,000 cheering spectators looked on.
But those glory days didn’t last long.
During the Siege of Sarajevo, Serb forces took control of the area. In a gruesome twist, the medal podium was used by Serbian forces to execute captured Bosnian soldiers.