Can a Wounded City Snare the Games?

By Christopher Condon

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

The view tells why Karabegovic's job may be one of the toughest in Sarajevo. As president of the Bosnia-Herzegovina Olympic Committee, he is at the helm of a most unlikely scheme, but one that is giving this city a buzz of hope. 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 city in the mountains of then-Yugoslavia in 1984. Mention that year to a local, and he glows. "Ah, it was like a dream," says Haris Huntic, 54, who worked for ABC Television during the Games. "The city was beautiful. Everything worked perfectly, honest to God."

Then came the war. In the early 1990s, Yugoslavia disintegrated in a barbaric conflict between Serbs, Croats, and Muslims. For more than three years, Sarajevo was surrounded and bombarded by Serbs. Some 100,000 people fled, and 10,000 died.

During the seven years since the Dayton Accord brought peace, Bosnia has made glacial progress in building a multi-ethnic state. About 17,000 foreign troops still patrol the country, and flashes of local violence remain common. The treaty set up power-sharing arrangements so Byzantine that it's hard for the central government to do anything. The economy, with industrial output below half of its 1990 level, sputters along: Growth for 2001 was an estimated 5% but is expected to slow this year to less than 2%. Official unemployment is 40%.

True, there has been some progress. In the first eight months of 2001, 50,000 refugees returned home. The most ardent nationalist parties in each ethnic community lost ground in 2000 national elections. New elections loom in October. "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 this city stands a chance for the 2010 Games. Sarajevo's bid might win sympathy, but today's Olympics are too big an industry for the International Olympic Committee to take such a giant risk. And assuming it could beat out rich cities such as Vancouver and the Swiss capital of Berne, Sarajevo would have to raise $500 million. That's money, many will argue, this country can't afford. So why bother?

Sarajevo's energetic, white-haired mayor, Muhidin Hamamdzic, offers several reasons. Much of the sporting infrastructure from 1984 remains usable, though damaged. But his most compelling argument is that by coming to Sarajevo, the Games would help heal the war's physical wounds. Housing, roads, public transport, and communications cry out for improvement. New hotels and renewed sports facilities are also crucial to reviving one of the city's biggest pre-war industries--tourism. Hosting the Games, with its attendant sponsorship and television revenues, could help finance the reconstruction that has to happen anyway.

There is another reason. Sarajevo still has some of its old spark. Even as more serious state-building projects limp along, this ambitious dream is gathering support not only from Sarajevo's majority Muslims but 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."

What Karabegovic hopes is that the Olympic bid can build goodwill between Bosnia's scarred and distrustful communities. Sarajevans may be dreaming when it comes to hosting the Games in 2010, but it helps to start looking forward. And there is always 2014.

Condon, based in Budapest, frequently reports from the Balkans.

Edited by Harry Maurer

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