SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina — With the pumped-up beat of Balkan "turbo-folk" blaring from loudspeakers on Jahorina Mountain, skiiers plunged down poorly groomed trails past the ruins of an Olympic-era hotel.
The lifts were creaky — and started an hour-and-a-half late — but there was fresh powder. A day after bad weather had kept visitors trapped inside, the crowd was anxious to hit the slopes.
Back in 1984, when Sarajevo hosted the winter games, and these slopes hosted the women’s alpine events, the mountain was the pride of Yugoslavia. Last Sunday, the run-down facilities, the spotty conditions of the slopes and the often-indifferent service at this ski resort in the Jahorina mountain range, just southeast of Sarajevo, didn't exactly bring to mind Olympic-quality athletics and grandeur.
Still, a lot of the visible signs of war are slowly fading. And today, fancy hotels and trendy cafes are starting to sprout in the wooded village here. The resort is again becoming popular with skiers from across the former Yugoslavia.
There's potential here for sure. But 26 years after the Sarajevo Olympics, the ghost of this country’s brutal war still casts a heavy shadow over recently rekindled dreams of turning the region into a premier, international winter sports destination.
To bring this resort back will be a steep climb.
“It’s like the Olympic games never happened here,” says Sinisa Todorovic, a Serbian medical student who watched the Sarajevo Olympics as a 6-year-old boy and comes most years to ski at Jahorina. “It’s getting better, but it’s slow progress.”
The 1984 games gave Yugoslavia its first winter medalist and put the picturesque city of Sarajevo on the international map. But just eight years later, the Bosnian war began and across the world, memories of triumphant athletes were erased by the searing images of Sarajevo’s besieged and hungry citizens.
Today, the rebuilt city of Sarajevo is still peppered with the orange snowflake and the cartoon wolf, Vucko, which served as the symbols of the Olympics. The walls of the Olympic village, which stood near a hill used by Serb forces to shell the city, are still scarred and pitted, but inside, they once again buzz with life.
On the slopes, though, recovery has been slower, in large part because the political and ethnic fault lines that still run through this fragile country passes through its former Olympic venues.
Bjelasnica Mountain, which hosted the men’s events, sits in what is today the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, the Croat and Bosniak Muslim part of Bosnia’s post-war state.
Jahorina, where most of the women’s events were held, is in the Republika Srpska, Bosnia’s Serb-dominated entity. The two ski resorts are now operated separately — each subject to the political realities of Bosnia’s fractured politics.
Predrag “Peggy” Obucina was nearly an Olympian. Back in 1984, when his hometown Jahorina played host to the women’s alpine events, he was slated to ski and pilot a luge for Yugoslavia, but a terrible accident 10 days before the competition left him watching the events from his bed.
Today he’s a businessman working to reinvigorate Jahorina and skiing in Bosnia. His ski club sent three local youths to Vancouver and he opened the most recent addition to his little empire of cafes, bars and apartments — a cozy, slope-side bar, named Peggy like his other operations — just last week.
But Obucina, an ethnic Serb whose family has roots in Jahorina that stretch back more than 100 years, is as disappointed by the failure of Bosnia to capitalize on its winter sports potential as he is by his own near-miss at Olympics glory. Although Jahorina stayed open throughout the war — then catering primarily to soldiers and international peacekeepers — most of its facilities were destroyed in the fighting.
“What God gave to us here, at Bjelasnica and Jahorina, is very good,” he says. “But what we’ve done with it …”
His voice trails off and he shakes his head.
Obucina wants to see the two resorts reunited and again run as a single company that could market Sarajevo’s skiing to the world. As it stands now, Obucina says, the resorts are run by politicians rather than tourism or sporting experts and many Bosniak Muslims from Sarajevo feel uncomfortable coming to Jahorina because it’s Serb-run and located in the Republika Srpska.
He gives as an example the new, modern six-seat lift that Bosnian Serb leader Milorad Dodik came to inaugurate earlier this month. The government of the Republika Srpska invested $12.7 million in the new lift, intended to replace a shaky two-seater built for the Olympics, but Obucina says its too big for the slope it serves. It was political, he said. Instead, the funds would have been better invested in a snowmaking machine or by opening new trails.
“We have smart people here — Croats, Bosniaks, Serbs — who know what needs to be done here, but no one asks them,” he says. “That’s democracy in Bosnia.”
On the other side of Sarajevo, at the city’s other Olympic ski resort, Bjelasnica, Ramiz Mulaomerovic too is frustrated at the slow pace of development. Built specifically for the Olympics, Bjelasnica was almost completely destroyed during the war, its trails land-mined and facilities intentionally burned and razed by Serb forces. The ski jumping facilities at Igman Mountain, near Bjelasnica, are still closed.
About 20 percent of Bjelasnica has reopened since 1997 when the resort resumed operation and here too, apartments and hotels are proliferating. Mulaomerovic and two partners, all parents of young skiers, invested $3.1 million in a stylish new hotel and restaurant complex that opened earlier this season. There’s a plan to expand and improve the trails. But so far, there’s no legal framework to allow private investment and the Sarajevo government, which owns the resort, doesn’t have enough funds to implement the plan itself. Right now, a new snowmaking machine is sitting in customs awaiting payment.
“We’re still not back at the level we were at before the war,” admits Mulaomerovic. But he insists there’s potential and customers who want to come to Bjelasnica and ski. It’s raining and the lifts are closed, but his restaurant is still buzzing.
“Maybe one day, because of sentimental reasons, the world will have another Sarajevo Olympics,” says Mulaomerovic. “But we’re a long way from that and we have to work really hard to rebuild.”