'Sarajevo Is Ready,' Boast the Olympic Hosts, but So Far the Snow's a No-Show

updated 01/16/1984 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 01/16/1984 01:00AM

The shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Bosnian revolutionary opposed to Austro-Hungarian rule put Sarajevo on the map as the flashpoint for World War I. Now the capital of Yugoslavia's Republic of Bosnia-Hercegovina is preparing to host the Winter Olympics at a time when many of the nations who will send athletes there lie under the shadow of terrorism. The Yugoslavs, however, are betting that a successful staging of the Games will both recast Sarajevo's historical reputation and turn their newly constructed sports playground into a hard currency draw for the economically stagnant Communist nation.

So far, the only plot to subvert Sarajevo's hopes seems concocted by the weather. In recent weeks a perverse "jugo" (southern) wind blowing off the Adriatic has been melting the autumn snows from all the principal ski runs and jumps. A fleet of idle snowplows lies basking in 50-to-60-degree weather, while some 30 snowmaking machines stand by, ready to powder the naked slopes should winter fail to return. "I have no fear," declares Mayor Uglješe Uzelac, 45, noting that the dates for the competition—Feb. 7 through Feb. 19—have been snow-filled for a hundred years. Latest forecasts indicate snow in mid-January. Still, admits a housewife, "we pray."

Apart from the weather, the city of 450,000 has prepped admirably for its role as an international sports area. Uzelac, a former guard on a Sarajevo basketball squad and the city's leading banker before being elected mayor last April, was in Athens six years ago when Sarajevo outbid Garmisch-Partenkirchen, West Germany and Folun, Sweden for the Games. "We always realized we had the right conditions," he says, "but getting the Games seemed like a distant and impossible dream." Starting almost from scratch, the organizing committee budgeted $133 million to build new roads, Alpine sports facilities, athletes' housing and press buildings. ABC Sports paid $91 million for broadcast rights, Coca-Cola sweetened the pot with $3 million, and Kellogg, Rank Xerox and Nikon kicked in as well. The Sarajevans themselves voted to contribute one half of one percent of their salaries.

Today a new road climbs the mile-high Trebevi? Mountain where only a logging trail spiraled before, while a wickedly curving bobsled and luge run plunges down the same peak. The Mojmilo Olympic Village awaits 1,400 contestants along with 1,100 coaches and staffs from 42 countries. A 3,200-bedroom dorm complex and a radio-TV and press center stand ready for about 6,000 journalists (ABC has set up its own quarters for 800-odd personnel). The 25,000 expected tourists will find 50 new restaurants where they can quaff shots of slivovitz, the fiery plum brandy and national beverage of Yugoslavia. Hoping to beat the transportation snafus that plagued the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the city has banned most cars and brought in 1,000 extra buses.

The Games may even attract unaccustomed (for Eastern Europe) international flash. For example, New York society matron Mrs. Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney, who raised money to sponsor U.S. athletes to the Games, is planning a gala reception in Sarajevo's House of Parliament. Guests such as International Olympic Committee President Juan Samaranch, King Carl Gustav XVI and Queen Silvia of Sweden, Prince and Princess Tsuneyoshi Takedo of Japan and a phalanx of other dignitaries will feast on wild boar, Beluga caviar and filet mignon.

All this in a country that still touts Communism. "We are not dogmatic or slaves to a program," says Mayor Uzelac of Sarajevo's entrepreneurial flair. "We are open to all types of cooperation, which will contribute to the development of our city." In fact, the eclectic city, whose industries include car manufacturing and a sugar beet refinery, shows little taste for totalitarian uniformity. Under Turkish rule for more than four centuries beginning in 1429, Sarajevo boasts 73 mosques and a population that is about 50 percent Muslim. Its crowded and colorful Turkish quarter preserves a mix of Oriental bazaar and Tyrolean village.

With the breakup of the Austro-Hungarian Empire after World War I, Bosnia-Hercegovina joined four other territories to form today's Yugoslavia. During World War II Marshal Tito's resistance fighters battled the Nazi occupation from the mountains surrounding the city. Tito's portraits still deck shops and public places, side by side with Vu?ko (pronounced Voochko), the wolf cub mascot of the Games. If anything, the Yugoslav authorities are more embarrassed over the citizenry's pervasive anti-Soviet feeling than they are over anti-Americanism. "Liberty here is sacred," explains one Sarajevan. "There's always the feeling of the Russians standing over us and trying to impose. We resist."

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