COMMENTARY : Remembering a Peaceful Sarajevo
This is to get you into the Olympic spirit, 71 days from Lillehammer. This is to remind you that Olympic idealism, as imaginary as its perfection may be, at least is a start, in the face of war. The Olympic experience doesn’t go up in smoke, even when Sarajevo, an Olympic city, does.
“I would take a taxi into town,” said Christin Cooper, giant slalom silver medalist at the 1984 Sarajevo Olympics. “The taxi drivers would never take you directly where you wanted to go, because they were so proud of their city. They wanted to show you where they lived, where their brother lived, where their special places were. They wanted to show you the bridge where the archduke was shot to start the first World War, and their favorite restaurant. And then they wouldn’t let you pay them when you finally got where you were going. You’d be in the cab about 20 minutes and it would cost about 15 cents.
“Our team had a local family that worked as a liaison with our alpine coach, John McMurtry,” she said. “And they found us a small A-frame house to rent at the start of the giant slalom course. Between runs, we went back to the house; I was leading after the first run and Debbie Armstrong (who would win the gold ahead of Cooper) was in fourth or fifth, and we were so nervous and excited and all those things that we wouldn’t have thought about eating anything. But the family had brought out these old trays full of baked stuff, things they thought we’d need, healthy things. Baked apples filled with yogurt and raisings and nuts, plus all these pastries and stuff. So we kind of forced ourselves to take a few bites.”
“Alma was the woman’s name,” said McMurtry. “She was part of a very prominent family in Sarajevo. She was studying to be a doctor. She was Muslim.” McMurtry’s mother, Virginia, still has Alma’s name and address; the last name was Sarajlic and the little house the ski team rented was in Pale, just outside Sarajevo.
But Pale and Mount Jahorina, which Cooper giddily skied for her medal, are Serbian gun positions now. And Virginia McMurtry’s attempts to find Alma or her family, through a source in Washington, D.C., and through the Red Cross, have failed.
All of this is to make the point that the Olympic thing -- global, cultural, eternal, whatever -- has a human face. And that’s why Cooper and TV sports commentator Greg Lewis last year co-founded The Spirit of HOPE -- Humanitarian Olympians for PEace -- in an effort to help Sarajevo war victims. That’s why they are working with Ski Industries America, which has sent more than 10 tons of new winter clothing to Sarajevo; and are working with the Aspen (Colo.) Institute in organizing conferences to identify aid strategy; and are working with Lillehammer Olympic Aid, which has enlisted five humanitarian organizations in Norway to provide Sarajevo relief.
Lewis, who had been a writer and field producer of the International Olympic Committee’s official film of the Sarajevo Games, has proposed displaying “a plain white piece of paper in Lillehammer, to have all the Olympians just sign it. It could say, ‘United in the Name of Peace,’ in several languages, or something like that, and be nothing but autographs, that we could make into a poster and sell as a fundraiser.”
HOPE is discussing, with Lillehammer Aid, some presence in the Closing Ceremonies so that their Olympic humanitarian work will be passed on to Atlanta for the 1996 Summer Games, and Nagano, Japan, for the 1998 Winter Games.
Beyond that, Cooper isn’t sure exactly what can be done except to say that “this place at least deserves our attention. Last fall, I was just appalled by the war in Sarajevo, and about how nobody seemed to notice. It was as if no one got it; no one got the tragedy ... and the irony.”
HOPE originally had planned to take several Olympians to Sarajevo last spring but was advised against it by the International Rescue Committee. Besides, Cooper realized, “we didn’t want to go waving flags and looking idealistic or stupid to people who were just trying to get through the day.”
“We didn’t want to just go in and say, ‘We support you,’ then get on a plane and come back to Aspen, Colorado,” Lewis said. “If the situation stabilizes, maybe we could get Reebok or Nike to send their Olympic athletes in with several hundred pairs of shoes. Yugoslavia had a great basketball tradition, but to go marching in now with basketballs would be really absurd.”
In Cooper’s words, Olympians “owe” the people of Sarajevo, “for letting us into their lives and taking care of us” during the 1984 Games. “We really need to expand beyond Sarajevo, to get Olympians working with schools and kids everywhere. But we want to target the Lillehammer Games, as the 10th anniversary of Sarajevo, to show that Olympians are against violence, which is in the charter, after all. I mean, do we really believe in the Olympic creed?”
The creed, the ideal, is what McMurtry describes as “encouraging understanding among different cultures of the world. You know, what if Sarajevo hadn’t had the Olympics? It would be just another hot spot in the world to us now; we’d pick up the newspaper and be numb about it. But the Olympics brought so many people to Sarajevo from all over the world, and now it has a meaning to us. It really brings that war home.
“We got to know gatekeepers, interpreters, guides, taxi drivers, restaurant owners,” McMurtry said. “All these people. You start wondering: Where are they? What happened to them?
“What happened to Alma?”