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The 1984 Winter Olympics

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 3, 1984



Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

Considering the international flavor of the Olympics, the Games possibly should have come to Sarajevo long ago. For if ever a city straddled East and West, it's the capital city of Bosnia-Herzegovina, one of the six geographic and political entities that make up the Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia.

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There are mosques, minarets, and an ancient Turkish marketplace in one part of the city, a new Holiday Inn with a garish yellow facade in another. Taken as a whole, Sarajevo (pronounced Sara-YAE-vo) is a veritable spice rack of nationalities, religions, and languages.

Starting Feb. 7, and for the next 12 days, this cosmopolitan community of 450 ,000 residents will enlarge its ''tent'' even more as host to the 14th Winter Olympics and some 2,000 world-caliber athletes. The Games are also expected to attract 30,000 foreign visitors plus a global viewing audience in the hundreds of millions.

The Olympics, therefore, will generate more Sarajevo datelines than any event since Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne, was assassinated here in 1914. That incident precipitated World War I. The Olympics, however, will provide the first Balkan host of the Winter Games with a new historical peg. Juan Antonio Samarach, president of the International Olympic Committee, says that from now on, ''The history of Sarajevo will be spoken of as before or after the XIV Winter Olympics.''

Figuratively, of course, the Olympics will put the city back on the world map.

Those needing a quick geography lesson, though, can find it by drawing lines between Paris and Istanbul and between Berlin and Athens and then checking the spot where they cross.

This point, which is just 20 kilometers east of the center of Yugoslavia, also happens to be where two major air masses - the continental and Mediterranean - converge. As a result of this union, a mantle of white normally cloaks the surrounding mountains, which enjoy the longest ski season in Europe. Less snow has fallen than usual, but there is more than adequate cover at the higher elevations and hundreds of troops have maintained the runs around the clock.

Actually, too much snow could present difficulties in transporting spectators along curving mountain roads that occasionally caution motorists with signs carrying the terse message: ''!'' There's sufficient reason to wonder whether the many buses brought in for the Olympics can handle these highland routes under less than ideal conditions.

Though traffic congestion could be a problem, energy shortages may be a graver concern. Last summer's drought put a crimp in the nation's hydroelectric output and blackouts have not been uncommon. Downtown streets generally seem underlit at night, and even gasoline has to be rationed, causing long lines of subcompacts to queue up at the pumps.

These energy crises will not disrupt the Olympics, though, organizers virtually promise. Their statements haven't really convinced doubting Thomases, who question Sarajevo's ability to pull off this frosty quadrennial spectacle.

The local organizing committee, however, has repeatedly underscored the region's readiness and commitment to a smoothly run Olympics.

In a sense, being ready at all is an achievement. For unlike Innsbruck, Austria or Grenoble, France, or even Lake Placid in 1980, this centuries-old city has not been known for its winter sports facilities.Truth be known, there weren't any to speak of when the International Olympic Committee awarded the Games to Sarajevo in 1978.

What did exist was a modest 20-meter ski jump, an aging soccer stadium, a small basketball arena, and an undeveloped ski resort.

Bjelasnica (Byel-ASH-nee-tza), site of the men's Alpine events, was basically only a clearing in the woods. ''When I was here three years ago,'' says Bob Beattie, ABC's expert ski commentator, ''there were no lifts, no trails, no road , and it was doubtful there would ever be any events.''