Duncan Mackay

It has been great following the Winter European Youth Olympic Festival (EYOF) this week in Sarajevo and East Sarajevo, which has seen nearly 1,000 athletes from 46 countries taking part in an event which everyone seems to have agreed has been a great success.

Sarajevo has a special place in my heart having visited there in September 1996 shortly after a 43-month siege of the city by Bosnian Serbs seeking to flush out the Muslims had been lifted. The occasion was an event called "Solidarity in Sarajevo", a bid by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) to stage a major track and field meet in the war-ravaged city which only 12 years earlier had hosted a memorable Winter Olympic Games.

The Solidarity in Sarajevo meet was the first major sports event to be held in the city since war had broken out in former Yugoslavia almost five years previously.

The IAAF President Primo Nebiolo, a man of big ideas, had wanted the world's top stars to throw their weight behind the peace process in the war-torn region. The sight of Olympic and world champions like Michael Johnson, Noureddine Morceli and Jonathan Edwards competing in a city ripped apart by violent conflict would give a boost to the people of Bosnia, Nebiolo hoped.

The Italian was left disappointed and angry, however, by the decision of some of the top stars to stay away. Johnson was at the time the sport's biggest star having won Olympic gold medals in the 200, 400 and 4x400 metres at Atlanta earlier that year and Nebiolo had courted him heavily to make the trip knowing what a huge public relations coup it would be for him and the IAAF.

Johnson, though, was worried that Sarajevo was not as safe as the IAAF and those organising the event were claiming. He sought advice from the United States Embassy in the city, from the Mayor and even from those involved in security for Sarajevo 1984. In the end, he decided against it.

The sight of bombed-out apartments with residents left with no electricity and water left a big impression on all the participants taking part in the
The sight of bombed-out apartments with residents left with no electricity and water left a big impression on all the participants taking part in the "Solidarity in Sarajevo" athletics meeting in Bosnia ©Wikipedia

Edwards, the world triple jump record holder and Olympic silver medallist, had urged athletes who had competed in the IAAF Grand Prix Final in Milan two days earlier to travel to Sarajevo "as a humanitarian gesture". The IAAF assumed this meant the Briton would compete. But he claimed he had made other commitments and that he was never going. 

Morceli, Algeria's recently-crowned Olympic 1500m champion and world record holder in the mile, withdrew because he claimed he was suffering from flu.

Dennis Mitchell, the American who had won the 100m in Milan, also refused to go. "Track and field is my life, but it's not worth my life," he told reporters. "I think other athletes feel the same way. It's a little too early to go to Sarajevo."

In the end, only three American athletes made the trip, including Olympic high jump champion Charles Austin. Waiting in the departures lounge of Malpensa Airport for the charter flight to leave, Mitchell walked by and shouted at Austin: "See you on CNN Charles." 

Nebiolo had hoped 120 of the world's top athletes would make the trip to Sarajevo. In the end, about 70 from 30 countries made it. Besides Austin, the biggest name was Sweden's 100m hurdles gold medallist Ludmila Engquist.

The flight took off two hours late, circled Split five times and was diverted to the Croatian capital because of weather and radar problems at Sarajevo's wrecked airport. The 700-mile flight ended up taking more than 10 hours. 

Nebiolo's anger at the no-shows had barely subsided by the time we landed. "They must also be brave," he told the media as we dis-embarked. "Some of our athletes have shown that they have no courage and that is not nice."

Driving to the hotel, it was a harrowing experience seeing the damage caused during a siege that lasted more 1,100 days, the longest of a capital city in the history of modern warfare. There was no electricity or water in most of the apartments and houses badly damaged by the bombing, although occasionally you could make out someone peering nervously out of a window covered with plastic sheets as you passed.

Athletes, officials and media were all staying at the Holiday Inn, the only functioning hotel in the city, and which had earned iconic status during the war. Built for the 1984 Olympics, it had had a front row seat for the tumultuous events in Sarajevo. Designed by the celebrated Bosnian architect Ivan Štraus, it had become familiar to many around the world for news reports filed from the hotel at the height of the war, when reporters used it as their base and it was regularly shelled. Even as we got off the fleet of coaches, the bullet holes were clear to see. 

A British colonel who was part of the United Nations Peacekeeping Force gave everyone a briefing and warned the athletes they must not run on the grass because they were still littered with landmines and thousands of people in the city had suffered serious injury, or even death, by mistakenly stepping on them. 

A cemetery for 12,000 killed during the Bosnian War was visible from the Koševo City Stadium ©Wikipedia
A cemetery for 12,000 killed during the Bosnian War was visible from the Koševo City Stadium ©Wikipedia

The IAAF had funded the repairs to the Koševo City Stadium, which had hosted the Opening and Closing Ceremonies of the 1984 Winter Olympics but which had since been heavily damaged by artillery and mortar shells. Alongside the athletics track stood the Zetra Arena, where British ice dancers Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean had won the Olympic gold medal when they received artistic impression scores of 6.0 from every judge after skating to Maurice Ravel's Boléro. Now it was a ruin of twisted concrete and metal beams. To the other side was a hospital which, at the peak of hand-to-hand fighting in 1993, became so busy that the injured and dying were transferred to the track's changing rooms. 

An emotional Engquist broke down in tears when she arrived at the Stadium and saw the neighbouring cemetery containing many of the 12,000 people killed during the war. "I've seen something like 400,000 people from this country now living in Sweden," she said. "At the time, I tried to understand why. It was difficult to talk to them, but my husband said, 'You must try and understand that these people have had a very difficult life'.

"Now I know. Now I want to help. I can't help alone, but I will try to do what I can. These people must believe they have not been forgotten."

Free tickets were distributed and more than 50,000 Sarajevans packed into the Stadium. The reasons for some people being there were heartbreaking. "Yes, it's nice," teenager Emba Bulutovic told me when I asked her if she was looking forward to the event. "But I always seek out crowds, crowds of any kind. My mother was killed in front of our home last year by a sniper. I do not like to be alone."

One of the biggest reactions from the crowd came when the huge television screen over the green seats showed the face of Carl Bildt seated with the dignitaries who included International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch. As the highest-ranking international official in Bosnia, Bildt symbolised to many the flaws of Western peace efforts. When he appeared on the screen there was a prolonged chorus of boos and catcalls. 

About half the crowd, many rubbing their hands to ward off the unreasonable chill, filed away before the event was over because of the difficulties of getting home on a public transport system that was sporadic and unreliable. 

Earlier this week, the Koševo City Stadium was the scene for Bosnia's European Championship judoka Larisa Cerić to light the "flame of peace" to mark the start of the EYOF. Once again, the Olympic spirit was soaring among Sarajevans.

But this time, unlike in 1984, the Olympic spirit was surging in two Sarajevos.

After the war ended, the peace settlement resulted in the creation of two separate cities in Sarajevo. One lies in Bosnia’s mainly Bosniak and Bosnian Croat entity, the Federation of Bosnia and Herzegovina, and serves also as the state capital. The other, much smaller, East Sarajevo, serves as capital of the country’s mainly Serbian entity, Republika Srpska and is where the Closing Ceremony took place last night. 

While no visible boundary separates the two cities of Sarajevo, there is little cooperation between them, and the divisions created in the war remain in place, 24 years after the fighting ended.

That is one reason why the Games were seen as so important, at a time of deep political crisis in Bosnia.

Nina Petrovic, a member of Bosnia's Alpine ski team at the EYOF, urged everyone to open their minds and see the two communities are not really that different. "Now we can easily show our sporting colleagues what life here is about, and show them that even with two towns of similar names, we work, practice and compete together and share the same values," she said. 

I was reminded of the words of Austin, the Olympic high jump gold medallist who was one of only three Americans to make that trip nearly a quarter-of-a-century ago. "I could not pretend that I did not see events from this country on television, but I was sure that I was safe there," he told us as we jetted out of Sarajevo.