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.
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.''
Yet this was before an ambitious building boom reached fruition. Now that the cranes, bulldozers, and cement mixers have been silenced, the city boasts an enviable assortment of sports venues.
Most of these have undergone shakedowns during the last two years, when a number of international competitions and tune-up events have been held.
A focal point for civic pride in the heart of Sarajevo is the Zetra (green transverse) sports complex, which boasts the largest arena in Yugoslavia. This 8,000-seat hockey and figure skating facility is centered between a new speed skating oval and 50,000-seat Kosevar Stadium, which has been refurbished for next Wednesday's opening ceremonies.
Another apple of local eyes is the hair-raising combination luge/bobsled run built by a Yugoslav civil engineer, who reportedly was making his first stab at such a project. This serpentine chute of ice sits a 12-minute cable ride up Mount Trebevic, right in the heart of a favorite picnic ground overlooking the city's old Turkish quarter.
Jahorina, a ski area developed in the 1930s, has been called the cradle of these Games because it helped Sarajevo secure the bid as host city. The women's Alpine races will be held there, while the men's Alpine and the Nordic events will take place at newer venues across the valley.
Seventy- and ninety-meter ski jumps have risen near the Igman Plateau, where cross-country trails have been carved out for Nordic competitors. It was here, during World War II, that 1,200 Yugoslav partisans made a daring escape march from the Nazis, a revered chapter in national history. Completing what one brochure calls this ''sports entirety'' is Mount Bjelasnica, an Alpine venue that was inaccessible by car a few years ago. Translated from Serbo-Croation, Bjelasnica means ''White Face,'' which is the same name given to Lake Placid's Olympic ski slope. The Yugoslav version is sometimes enveloped by howling storms that could cause postponements, or even the rescheduling of men's events to Jahorina in a pinch.
The treeless top of this imposing 6,780-foot mountain wasn't quite high enough to allow for a minimum-length downhill run. As a result, a steep ramp, shielded by a restaurant/lookout deck, was built to provide the required nine extra meters.
However ingenious this solution, designers made the mistake of bulldozing hazardous bumps along the downhill run. These practically sent skiers into orbit during last year's World Cup event here. Mercifully some bumps have been eliminated, others softened.
On the whole, the competition sites look to be as good as those at any other Winter Olympics. And besides being in place with time to spare, they've been finished without the usual cost overruns.
Indeed, the Sarajevo Olympic Organizing Committee projects a debt-free operation that will come in under the original projected $163 million price tag.
That's cheering news in a country experiencing soaring inflation and a $20 billion national debt that's made for tough economic sledding.
Even so, citizens have demonstrated their monetary support to the tune of $10 million. The sum, earmarked for general pre-Olympic improvements, has come from a 2.5 percent salary tax approved in a referendum. (Other income has been generated through marketing and sponsorship deals, broadcast rights, and ticket sales.)
As Pavle Lukac, director of press and public relations for the Games, explained: ''The Olympics have become a movement, a matter of national prestige and honor.''
They also are a means to an end, that being the stimulation of tourism. For years, Sarajevo has been pretty much a forgotten destination in the interior of Yugoslavia, overshadowed by the sun-drenched Adriatic resorts dotting the Dalmatian coast.
Hosting the Olympics could change all that, as Sarajevo tries to establish itself as an attractive and intriguing place to visit. Travel packages are generally a bargain, a new airport runway has just been built to accommodate larger planes, and there are even plans to build a Jack Nicklaus-designed golf course on the Igman Plateau as a lure for summer sportsmen. The currency exchange rate also favors foreign visitors, and several new hotels and ''accommodation centers'' have flung their doors open to the hoped-for tourist and business trade.
The foreigners currently arriving are here for an Olympics that should have a different feel from the one at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
Those were in large measure a celebration of American nationalism, spurred by triumphs of speedskater Eric Heiden and the US hockey team.
The Sarajevo Games will be largely a neutral-site Olympics. Yugoslavia is neither politically aligned (an independence that is part of Tito's legacy) nor athletically prominent in winter sports - except basketball, which is a summer Olympic sport. But despite never having won a winter medal, Yugoslavia stands a chance of breaking the ice this time with slalom contender Bojan Krizaj.
Both the men's and women's slalom and giant slalom races could be wide-open - especially with 1980 men's double gold medalist Ingemar Stenmark ineligible because of his commercial contracts and Hanni Wenzel, who won both women's events at Lake Placid, also apparently out for the same reason.
The United States, led by defending World Cup champions Phil Mahre and Tamara McKinney, looks to be as strong on the slopes as it's ever been. As for sentimental favorites, however, Austria's Franz Klammer should receive the loudest cheers - not that he'll hear them skiing at 70 m.p.h. A seasoned veteran of the world Alpine circuit, Klammer produced the most memorable downhill run ever at Innsbruck in 1976, when he won the gold. Left off the '80 Austrian squad, he has staged a dramatic comeback and was the top downhill racer in the world last year.
The downhill event epitomizes the speed and daring that are sources of fascination at the Winter Olympics. Bobsled, luge, and ski jumping are other sports where the competition may seem secondary to the sheer excitement of the action.
Even a graceful sport like figure skating, of course, incorporates a fair amount of daring, especially in the pairs competition. The most spectacular move contemplated here is a quadruple throw, which Americans Kitty and Peter Carruthers are thinking of using. If they decide to go with it, they'll be the first skaters to try this four-revolution throw in competition.
To grab the figure skating spotlight may well demand such a feat, because heading into the games American Scott Hamilton and the British dance team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean is expected to wow audiences.
Hamilton, the American flagbearer at the '80 Olympics, when he finished fifth , has won all three world championships since then. He is a lock to win the gold here, barring the unforseen.
Torvill and Dean are considered just as untouchable. Their brilliant and inventive performances have set a new standard for ice dancers. This was strikingly clear when they received a perfect score for artistic presentation from every judge at last year's world championships, an unprecedented feat.
In hockey, the Soviet Union is picked to dominate. The Russians are especially determined to win the upcoming ''cold war'' in order to make amends for an embarrassing upset to the miraculous American squad four years ago.
A rematch is in the offing only if the US can make it through a round-robin to the medal round. Getting by Canada in the opener, which will be played Feb. 7 before the Olympics officially open, may be the key to whether the defending Olympic champions advance.
Ironically, US and Canadian hockey officials, who usually would be friendly, have engaged in a heated debate over the eligibility of certain Canadian players. These are the Olympics after all, and people tend to take them very seriously.
The mascot for these Games, though, is a friendly looking wolf named Vucko who has an engaging smile. And if a wolf can smile, maybe others will catch some of his fun-loving spirit. Sarajevans hope so.