NEW YORK — LAST October, Olympic skier Christin Cooper and television sports commentator Greg Lewis met in Aspen, Colo., and discussed the situation in former Yugoslavia.
They had both spent time in Sarajevo at the 1984 Winter Olympics, a very different Sarajevo than the besieged one of today. Cooper won the silver medal for the United States in the giant slalom. Lewis was writer and field producer for the official film of the winter Games.
Now, they wondered, how could they help the city and country that had given them so much: winning moments, new friends, happy times? Their ties to Sarajevo led them to contact other 1984 Olympians, then Olympians from other years.
Last week, Cooper and Lewis announced the formation of "Spirit of HOPE - Humanitarian Olympians for Peace." The current and former Olympians are using their stature to increase global awareness and to raise funds for the people of Sarajevo and the rest of former Yugoslavia.
"Many of our members owe a great deal to the people of Sarajevo," says Lewis. "They not only hosted the '84 Olympic Games, they went the extra mile to make the Games meaningful to each participant. This makes the tragedy of the current situation that much more devastating to those of us who knew Sarajevo and its people in better times."
Spirit of HOPE members include ice dancer Judy Blumberg; gymnasts Nadia Comaneci, Bart Conner, and Peter Vidmar; pair skaters Kitty and Peter Carruthers; swimmers Donna DeVarona and Nancy Hogshead; hockey player Mike Eruzione; former Yugoslavian skier Jure Franko; skier Bill Johnson; skaters Scott Hamilton, Brian Orser, Rosalyn Sumners, and others.
During an inaugural dinner in New York, many of athletes spoke of spreading the ideals of "a global Olympic Village," where people of diverse cultures come together and live harmoniously.
Jure Franko, who won the silver medal for Yugoslavia in 1984 in the giant slalom, spoke of the higher ideals of brotherhood, friendship, and Olympic peace. "The Olympic message is really a message of peace," he said.
"So often we as Olympians are seen nowadays as athletic billboards," said co-founder Cooper. "We can affect change through love and believing in ourselves and believing in the good in humankind."
"Olympic athletes have so much more to give than performances," said gymnast Bart Conner. With Conner was 1976's Olympic sensation, former Romanian gymnast Nadia Comaneci, who said she was happy and proud to be part of Spirit of HOPE.
"For the first time," she said, "Olympians are getting together to help people caught in a situation. I remember when I defected - two weeks after I left, the revolution started - [thinking] I may never see my friends and family. It's very hard [for the people of former Yugoslavia] because they don't know what to do. They just don't want to die."
ALTHOUGH fund-raising events and activities are still in the works, plans include sponsoring dinners and concerts, signature clothing and merchandise sales, advertising appeals, and TV specials. (Corporate underwriters are John Paul Mitchell Systems and VISA.)
All funds will be distributed through the International Rescue Committee (IRC), a nonsectarian volunteer agency that aids refugees worldwide. IRC has been in former Yugoslavia providing relief since January 1992.
"These ambassadors of hope want to alert free people everywhere to the terrible consequences of intolerance," said IRC president Robert DeVecchi of the athletes' group, "and to rekindle a spirit of peace and international cooperation."
IRC will help Spirit of HOPE send a delegation of athletes to Sarajevo this spring as a symbolic gesture of the Olympians' solidarity with the its citizens.
"We are uniquely qualified to speak to hatred in the world," said Cooper, who noted that such a group can serve as a good transition for athletes who don't compete anymore, but want to stay involved. "As Olympians, we have all felt the ideals of brotherhood," she said. "We have experienced people laying aside their differences."
* Spirit of HOPE/IRC, 386 Park Ave, South, New York, NY 10016.