Sarajevo's New Dream of Olympic Glory

Host to the '84 Winter Games, the city was pounded in Yugoslavia's ethnic war. Now, it's using a 2010 bid as a cause to rally around

By Christopher Condon

The view from Ahmed Karabegovic's office at the Zetra Olympic sports complex in Sarajevo is grim. There's the old speed-skating track and an outdoor hockey rink. Teenage boys race up and down the ice. But beyond, to the left, is the cemetery. Once a patchwork of wide-open practice fields rippling off toward Mt. Igman, now it's a seemingly endless stretch of grave markers, the death dates packed tightly from 1992 to 1995.

The view tells why Karabegovic's job may be one of the toughest in Sarajevo. As president of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Committee, he's at the helm of a most unlikely scheme, but one that's giving this city a buzz of hope and the whole country a cause for unity. On Feb. 4, Sarajevo will officially bid to host the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Says Karabegovic: "We don't have many projects here that bring people together. Maybe this is the first."

Of course, Sarajevo has done this before. The same Olympic flame that will make its way into Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City on Feb. 8, came to this little crescent-shaped city in the mountains of then-Yugoslavia in 1984. Mention that year to a local like Haris Huntic, and suddenly he glows. "Ah, it was like a dream," says Huntic, now 54, who helped manage logistics for ABC Television during the '84 Winter Games. "The city was beautiful. Everything worked perfectly, honest to God."


  Then came the war. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia disintegrated in a barbaric ethnic conflict. Bosnia-Herzegovina, which declared independence in 1991, became the bloodiest battleground of all. Croats and Serbs fought to carve off whole chunks of the young country and cleanse them of other ethnic groups. Bosnian Muslims fought simply for survival.

For more than three years, Sarajevo was surrounded and bombarded by Bosnian Serbs. More than 100,000 people -- three-quarters of the city's population -- fled, and 10,000 died in a slaughter broadcast nightly around the world. Today, in the frigid January gloom, the unavoidable scenes of destruction, the slushy grime, and an oppressive poverty give the city a hopeless feel.

In the seven years since the Dayton Accord brought peace, Bosnia has made glacial progress in building a multi-ethnic state that can solve problems, political or economic. New governments in neighboring Croatia and Yugoslavia have stopped supporting radicals in the Croat and Serb communities, reducing the ethnic divide's explosiveness, but the country still brims with tension.


  About 17,000 foreign troops, including 3,100 from the U.S., still patrol the country, and flashes of local violence remain common. Last May, a ceremony to mark the reconstruction of a mosque in Banja Luka turned into a riot when local Serbs stormed the event, killing one elderly Muslim.

Contributing to the tension -- or, at least, not reducing it -- local police and international bodies have failed to capture several prominent indicted war criminals, including Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic, the infamous wartime Bosnian Serb leaders. "As long as Karadzic and Mladic remain at large, this country cannot fully turn to the future," admits High Representative Wolfgang Petritsch, the man charged with enforcing civilian aspects of the Dayton Accord.

Political and economic reform is slowed not only by ethnic prejudice and mistrust but also by the Byzantine structure imposed by the 1995 Dayton agreement. The deal was essentially a tortuous series of compromises that dispersed power to several administrative levels, where it was split yet again among the three ethnic communities. Dayton succeeded in ending the war, but it made the peace nearly ungovernable.


  The economy, with industrial production still less than half the 1990 level, sputters along. Growth for 2001 was an estimated 5% but is expected to slow this year to less than 2%. Public-sector salaries and pensions are paid months late. Net household income averages $142 in the Republika Srpska (RS) -- the half of the country run by Serbs -- and $208 in the Muslim-Croat Federation. Unemployment is 40%, though many find jobs through the robust black market, which according to some estimates accounts for 60% of the country's real economy. The black-market strength also mocks the weakness of state institutions.

Since 1999, Bosnia has attracted a paltry $400 million in net foreign investment. And it's no wonder. Companies have long faced wildly differing tax rates, customs duties, and regulations depending on whether they were operating in the RS or the Federation -- and in the Federation, depending on which canton. Business also confronts a plague of corruption. The World Bank cites a typical example: One profitable operation in Tuzla reported that local financial police spent a total of 140 days last year inspecting their books, essentially bullying management into bribing them to go away.

Some progress has been made. In the first eight months of 2001, 50,000 refugees returned, a huge improvement over previous years. In a sign that extremist passions may be ebbing, the most ardent nationalist parties in each ethnic community lost ground in 2000 elections. That's giving more moderate leaders a chance to work toward common policies and create a few unified state institutions.


  The RS and the Federation have finally agreed to form a single electric-power structure, rail company, and depositor insurance agency. Taxes have also been largely harmonized and double taxation all but eliminated. Banking-sector reforms in the Federation have even drawn Austria's Volksbank and Raiffeisen Bank to set up shop. Timber, construction, brewing, and tourism could all attract serious interest from abroad.

Crucial elections loom in October that should determine the future of such progress. "If the trend continues away from the extremists, it will feed into privatization, utility reform, everything," says Christopher J. Hoh, deputy chief of mission at the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo.

Still, it's hard to believe that Karabegovic, looking out on the graveyards from his office, stands a chance of landing the 2010 Games. Sarajevo's bid might gather sympathy in the West, but today's Olympics are too big an industry for the International Olympic Committee to take such a giant risk. What's more, assuming it could beat out rich cities such as Vancouver and the Swiss capital of Berne, Sarajevo would have to raise about $500 million to actually host the Games. That's money, many will argue, the country cannot afford. So why bother?


  Sarajevo's energetic white-haired mayor, Muhidin Hamamdzic, offers several reasons. The city, he says, has the experience of hosting a successful Games. Also, much of the sporting infrastructure from 1984 remains usable, though damaged. Some facilities have already been rebuilt.

The mayor's most compelling argument is that by coming to Sarajevo, the Games would help heal the war's physical wounds. The city needs massive infrastructural investment in housing, roads, communications, and public transport. New hotels and renewed sports facilities are also crucial to reviving one of Sarajevo's biggest pre-war industries -- tourism. Hosting an Olympic Games, with its attendant sponsorship and TV revenues, could actually help finance the rebuilding that has to happen anyway.

Here's another reason: Sarajevo still has some of its old spark. Even as more serious state-building projects limp along, this ambitious dream seems to be gathering enthusiastic support, not only from Sarajevo's majority Muslims but also from local Serbs. "I'm delighted by the idea," says Maria Racanovic, a 21-year-old medical student from the Serb suburb of Bijeljina. "It would be good for our country and our economy." Tarik Hasibovic, 22, a Muslim barman at the Dublin Caffe in the Old Town, agrees: "It's a great idea. This is our chance to bring Sarajevo back to life."

Karabegovic hopes the Olympic bid can help to build goodwill between Bosnia's scarred and distrustful communities. And maybe that goodwill could carry over to the hundreds of state-building projects crying out for cooperation. Sarajevans may be dreaming when it comes to hosting the Games in 2010, but it helps to start looking forward. And there's always 2014.

Condon, based in Budapest, frequently reports from the Balkans

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