What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

The second life of Olympic structures is a challenge to manage for any host city. But none, perhaps, offer as stark an image as Sarajevo's battle-scarred Olympic buildings. Eight years after the 1984 winter games, the Bosnian War left the city with buildings full of bullet holes, ski slopes dotted with land mines, and a graveyard just outside the very stadium that once held the opening ceremonies.


The bitter war lasted two and a half years following the breakup of Yugoslavia. As Natasha Gelling points out at the Smithsonian, Sarajevo became the site of the longest siege of a capital city in the history of modern warfare.

In what may be the grimmest repurposing of Olympic infrastructure, sites of former athletic glory became battlegrounds. Aluminum was stripped from race tracks to build bunkers, and Bosnian Serbs took advantage of the bobsled track's concrete structures, turning it into an artillery stronghold. Holes—and, now, graffiti—dot the tracks. Right outside of Kosevo Stadium, a soccer field became a graveyard to bury some of the 10,000 people who died in the siege.

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

Bobsled track at Sarajevo. Credit: Luigi Torreggiani/Flickr

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

Gravedigger at the cemetery outside of Kosevo Stadium. Credit: AP Photo/Rickard Larma

In 1994, the New York Times described the contrast between the ruined city and the triumphant one that hosted the Olympics a decade ago.

The 1,591 athletes from 49 nations lived in the Olympic Village at Mojmilo, where soldiers with Kalashnikov submachine guns slung over their shoulders quietly patrolled the electrified fences.

The apartments at Mojmilo, which had been rented for future occupancy before the Olympics began, have been battered by artillery and mortars, but the Muslims hold the ground.

Scott Hamilton soared to a figure skating gold medal under the snowflake-shaped roof of Zetra, a new $20 million indoor arena where Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary Soviet goaltender, earned his fourth gold medal in his Olympic finale.

As a major target of Serbian artillery, Zetra is a burned-out shell. It is surrounded by graves.

Debbie Armstrong slashed to a gold medal in the women's giant slalom at Jahorina, which a Yugoslav translated as having "no meaning in Serbo-Croatian. It is just a beautiful mountain, like a beautiful woman. But like a beautiful woman—watch out!"

Jahorina has always been under Serb control. Its ski-chalet hotels are standing, but they have no heat, no lights.

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

A French UN peacekeeper looks at the destroyed Olympic indoor stadium where the United Nations have set-up one of their bases in Sarajevo in 1995. AP Photo/David Brauchli


For a more optimistic take on present day Sarajevo, Gelling points to an interview with Jon Pack, one half of the duo behind The Olympic City, a photography project documenting what happens to host cities after the games.

In contrast to, say, Athens where guards stand watch over empty stadiums, Sarajevo's Olympic sites were disintegrating, yes, but they weren't walled off. As Pack told the Atlantic Cities:

[T]he day I arrived, campers were having the time of their lives at the bottom of the hill. They were playing football and competing in a series of challenges they called, "Games Without Borders." I saw this again at our other stops in Sarajevo–Olympic sites, ravaged by war, being reclaimed and used by regular folks.

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

Boys from a local athletics team exercise along the periphery of the former soccer field of the Kosevo Olympic complex in1997. AP Photo/Jacqueline Arzt


In the years since the war, Bosnia and Herzegovina has also tried to recapture some of the Olympic glory of its capital city. Skiers can take to the former Olympic slopes again, although land mines make going off-piste still a danger. The International Olympic Committee gave $11.5 million in 1999 to rebuild the destroyed Zetra Hall, the site of the figure skating competition. Sarajevo also made a bid for the 2010 winter games, but the sentimental overture was easily rejected for practical reasons. The city's infrastructure had not recovered enough to host an international event again.

Illustration for article titled What Happens When Your Olympic Site Turns Into a War Zone

Mt. Igman's ski venues reopening in 1997. AP Photo/Rikard Larma

The Olympic Games have always been inextricable from politics, and it was a big deal in 1984 for Yugoslavia to the first Communist country to host the winter Olympics. But the Games are also, perhaps, the healthiest outlet for nationalism. Every two years, our athletes wear our flags as they duke it out against foreign competitors. Emotions can run high, but it's ultimately just for sport. [Smithsonian]


Top image: Hedwig Klawuttke/Wikimedia Commons



The Bosnian war had 3 factions fighting for a land which can only be described as the tinderbox of Europe; Ethnic Serbs (people of Eastern-Orthodox Christian faith), Ethnic Croatians (people of Catholic faith) and what are now referred to as Bosniaks (people Islamic in faith). To perpetuate this mythos that the war was the singular Serbian aggressor to the meek and defenseless slaughter of the Bosnian Muslim population dishonors all those that died in the horrors of the the Balkan wars of the 90’s.

Words like ethnic cleansing, rape camps and mass extermination are synonymous with the brutal disintegration of the Former Yugoslavia. But let’s start reporting the truth behind this war; that nobody was without blame and all side committed atrocities. All sides willfully participated in what can only be described as a pogrom of religious intolerance and nationalistic pride; wounds left over for centuries in a land that has been a melting pot of the Balkans.

In fact genetically the Bosniaks are primarily Croatian and Serbian (or mixed) people who converted to Islam under the Ottoman Empire’s 500 year oppressive yoke. This conversion was both voluntary and forced. A tax in blood, the Janissaries was enforced in this region like most areas of the Ottoman empire and many of today’s Bosniaks can claim lineage back to those young taken form their families and raised as Turks then sent back to oppress their own people none the wiser.

This war has a history longer than anything most Americans can truly fathom; how can we when we have only existed as a nation for 238 years. Our isolation form the world’s conflicts insulated and creates a sense of ignorance as to what these type of historic hatreds breed. Before we were American we were British – and we all know the extent to the imperialism of the old British Empire. America’s ancestors were in fact normally those people pushing their way into the lands of other people. So here I am trying to get my fellow Americans to understand something that they have no basis of comparison to.

Serbs (of which I am descended) most definitely killed, raped, exterminated multiple generations in one fell swoop. But so did the Croatian populations as did the Bosniaks. Croatia reinstituted it’s Nazi state self in reforming the Ustashi in the new Balkan wars (a group so reviled that even the SS were disgusted by their tactics in WWII). The Bosniaks aligned with the Nazi’s as well into the Handschar.

None of this alleviates or justifies the burden of guilt on any one ethnic group. I only put this down so my fellow Americans can look past our media headlines cookie cutter ways of posing one side as good and one side as bad. World events like these are not akin to some 1950’s TV western with clearly defined guys to root for in white and those to boo and hiss at in black. Let’s be educated enlightened individuals. In doing so HOPEFULLY these types of atrocities can be avoided in the future.