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Olympics had moments of brilliance plus a good host in Sarajevo

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 21, 1984



Sarajevo, Yugoslavia

From the beginning the XIV Winter Olympics were Sarajevo's show, and it appears history will remember them that way. Most of what happened on snow and ice took a back seat to one overriding fact: Sarajevo did it. With almost no previous background in hosting winter sports - nor even the facilities needed to do so until recently - Sarajevo brought the world to its mountainous doorstep and managed to stage a successful Olympics - and the largest of its kind with 1,590 athletes representing a record 49 nations.

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This isn't to say there weren't moments of athletic brilliance, because there were. The most memorable of these came in, of all things, ice dancing, where British virtuosos Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean pushed out the barriers of their event with a flock of perfect scores. And with their scintillating interpretation of Ravel's ''Bolero,'' they placed their names alongside those of Jean-Claude Killy, Eric Heiden, and Sonja Henie in the pantheon of all-time Olympic greats.

The most highly decorated individual athletes were Finnish cross-country skier Marja-Liisa Hamalainen, who collected three individual gold medals plus a relay bronze, and East German speed skater Karin Enke, who took home two golds and two silvers.

In Alpine skiing, a sport heretofore dominated by Europeans, the United States came out well on top with three gold medals and two silvers. Debbie Armstrong and Christin Cooper finished 1-2 in the women's giant slalom, Bill Johnson won the men's downhill, then on the final day twin brothers Phil and Steve Mahre captured the gold and silver respectively in the men's slalom to complete by far the best-ever American showing in this traditional glamour sport of the Games.

The Zetra Arena also was a scene of high drama, topped by the tense duels in which East Germany's Katarina Witt edged US and world champion Rosalynn Sumners for the women's figure skating crown and America's Scott Hamilton just held off Canada's Brian Orser for the men's gold. It was in this rink too, of course, that the Soviet hockey juggernaut rolled through all opposition to regain the gold medal it had lost at Lake Placid.

These efforts gave the Games some of their texture, yet Sarajevo's hospitality, unstinting efforts, and warm, engaging inhabitants are what those who were here will talk about in the years to come.

The Yugoslavs took pride in their role as Olympic innkeeper, and never seemed burdened by the task. Many Westerners undoubtedly went away surprised that things worked as well as they did in only the second Olympic competitions held in Eastern Europe, the others, of course, having been the Moscow Games in the summer of 1980.

With full government cooperation, things got done. One priority was to provide a workable transportation system. This was accomplished by assembling a fleet of touring buses and restricting traffic within this city of 450,000.

The organizers had many hands on deck at the sports venues. They were particularly needed at the Alpine skiing runs, where slopes had to be groomed repeatedly due to weather postponements. But like the mail, the Olympics were eventually delivered within the framework of their Feb. 7-19 timetable despite various problems with heavy snow, raging winds, and dense fog.

All this isn't to say there weren't any glitches, but the overall report card was good. And though Sarajevo may not become the ''unavoidable tourist destination'' organizers hope, the city, by daring to host the Games, has definitely leaped years ahead with new roads, buildings, and sports facilities, and a fesh new identity.

As for the competition, East Germany and the USSR always seem to divide up the lion's share of medals, and they did so again here. The East Germans won the battle for gold, 9-6, but the Soviets edged them overall, 25-24. Finland was a distant third with 13, followed by Norway, 9, and Sweden and the United States, 8 each - the Scandinavian countries doing well in the Nordic disciplines as always, while the Americans collected their entire total in Alpine skiing and figure skating.

The most prolific haul by any country in a single sport occurred in women's speed skating, where Enke led her East German teammates to a virtual sweep. The GDR's strapping frauleins let only three bronze medals slip through their skate blades, finishing 1-2 in three of the four distances and 1-2-3 in the other.

East Germany has developed into a high-yield athletic factory that plays only to its strengths, refusing, for instance, to develop Alpine skiers, who would have to train elsewhere because of the country's lack of mountains, and reportedly keeping its Olympic-caliber hockey team home because it wasn't a medal threat.