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Rising From The Ashes : The Guns Are Silent Now as Saravejo Seeks to Reclaim Lost Olympic Spirit

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Hoping to rekindle its battered Olympic spirit, this capital celebrated postwar recovery Monday with an international track meet in the newly repaired stadium that was the site of the opening ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

Workers installed shiny Kelly green bleacher seats, filled bullet holes and removed shattered glass to refurbish Kosevo Stadium, a sports venue that symbolizes both the hope and pain of the war’s aftermath.

The stadium officially reopened before 50,000 when more than 80 athletes from 30 countries competed in the meet. No admission was charged and about half the crowd left well before the meet was over but the athletes brought cheers and smiles all around and the spectators went wild when American pole vaulter Pat Manson threw T-shirts into the crowd. He wound up emptying his bag, then threw that into the crowd too.

The event, organized by the world governing body for track and field, the International Amateur Athletic Federation, and called Solidarity Sarajevo ’96, was meant to boost Bosnia-Herzegovina’s fledgling peace process and “reestablish inter-ethnic trust,” officials said.

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But solidarity apparently only goes so far. Many American athletes, among them gold-medal sprinter Michael Johnson, refused to travel to Sarajevo because they considered it too dangerous, IAAF officials said.

“Some of our athletes have shown they are not brave, and this for me is not so nice,” IAAF President Primo Nebiolo lamented at a Sarajevo news conference.

Helmut Digel, president of the German Athletic Federation and a member of the IAAF leadership, said the missing athletes “misunderstood” the security situation in Sarajevo. He also blamed “organizational mistakes” that delayed information and invitations to the athletes.

Consequently, turnout by world athletes was about a third less than anticipated. Bad weather--cold rain and fog--also delayed athletes’ arrivals and threatened the track meet itself.

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Still, it was an emotional occasion for those who did participate.

“We’re here to tell the people in Sarajevo they’ve not been forgotten,” said American high jumper Charles Austin, the Atlanta Olympic champion who won his event here with a modest leap of 7 feet 5 1/4 inches.

And for many Bosnians, the repair and reopening of Kosevo Stadium was a significant, and bittersweet, symbol. It reflected Sarajevo’s steady physical recovery after 43 months of shelling, bombing and strangulation by Bosnian Serb forces, but it also served as a painful reminder of the spiritual wounds that will not be healed soon.

Sarajevans speak nostalgically of their city’s “Olympic spirit.” It was a time, 12 years ago, of tolerance, unity, relative happiness and prosperity.

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“Sarajevo was the Olympic city,” said Ismet Grbo, an official with the ruling Muslim party. “It was a time of joy. We were a society, fairly well developed, with people with jobs and enjoying life. We ranked high in the world. As a people we were happy.”

Said Tomislav Cica, a retired sportswriter who covered the ’84 Olympics, “It was a gorgeous city. There was no snow until the day before the Olympics were to start. And then it snowed. It showed nature was also on our side.”

Today the city and its people are changed. Olympic venues such as Jahorina Mountain, site of women’s Alpine ski racing, are in the hands of the Bosnian Serbs. Zetra complex, site of the speedskating championships, remains a burned-out shell flanked by a cemetery containing thousands of war dead.

And even Kosevo Stadium is still surrounded by sand-bagged NATO troops and barbed-wire compounds.

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Reconstruction, nevertheless, proceeds apace in Sarajevo. In a city devastated by shelling, glass window panes are being restored in homes and buildings; where food shortages once plagued families, markets now burst with produce, meat and other products. Schools opened this month, restaurants and sidewalk cafes abound, and all homes have electricity and running water at least once a day.

The work that transformed Kosevo Stadium was financed by the International Olympic Committee, private sponsors and the German and Italian governments. Nebiolo said the track is Atlanta quality.

But the “Olympic spirit” also meant tolerance, which meant Sarajevans either didn’t know, or didn’t care, about one another’s ethnic background. After a war based on ethnic differences, in which each side drove entire populations from their homes because of their heritage, that inclusive diversity is dead.

“The spirit of the games in 1984 gathered everyone together,” recalled Zdravko Kalanovic, a technician with the government’s television network who installed banks of lighting at Kosevo Stadium in 1984 and again this month. “Politics were put aside. We were all one.”

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Now? Seated under a plastic tarp against the chilled rain outside Kosevo Stadium, the 57-year-old Kalanovic looked at his helpers, all young men who a short time ago were armed soldiers engaged in combat.

“We as a people are ready to forgive,” he said. “But the big question is, when can we forget? I do not think it is possible to, once again, put it all aside for the sake of unity. It is only a few months since we had the last shelling of the city.”

The IAAF’s Digel said the track meet should be seen as a symbolic first step toward “international understanding and cultural bridges.”

The athletes “are black athletes. They are white. They are Muslim, they are Christian, they are atheists, they come from different religions and cultures,” Digel said.

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“We will see how sports can contribute to the development of peace.”

Bosnia also fielded a national team for the meet. It was predominantly Muslim, with a handful of Bosnian Croats and one Bosnian Serb. Other Serbs who were invited to participate refused, according to Nusret Smajlovic, coach of the national team.

Smajlovic took umbrage at being asked the ethnic makeup of his team.

“I am very angry,” he confided to an IAAF official. “That is what caused our war.”

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Associated Press contributed to this story.


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