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Original Issue

The Best and Worst of Times

Eight years after sharing Olympic glory, Sarajevo and Los Angeles are beset by violence

In an eerie, almost Sinister Coincidence last week, the two host cities of the 1984 Olympic Games, Sarajevo and Los Angeles, again turned up together in the glare of world attention, which this time was far hotter than the global spotlight that shone on them eight years ago. If you recall, Sarajevo put on one of the loveliest Winter Games in memory, a sweet, snowy spectacle that was rich in Yugoslav hospitality and Balkan beauty—from the rounded old mountains above the city to the cobbled streets twisting through its medieval market. Los Angeles, on the other hand, produced a massive, flashy, sun-splashed summer triumph-by-the-freeway that was fairly bursting with Southern California pom-pom pomp and ail-American optimism.

But in their return to the world stage last week, both cities were stripped bare of the pride, pleasure and festivity that had graced them during their glorious Olympic days. Both were now bloody and burning. Military force commanded both communities. Hopes were dim.

Sarajevo, the capital of newly independent Bosnia and Herzegovina, the former Yugoslav republic, had been under siege by Serbs for a month. Last week, however, the fighting took on a fierce new intensity that caused a spokesman for the Serb-led Yugoslav army to declare the city to be in the vortex of an "all-out war." The fighting raged from street to street, through those cobbled alleys and past shops and hotels. Charred automobiles and dead bodies were scattered along thoroughfares that once were festooned with Olympic flags and thronged with enthralled spectators. Artillery and mortar shells poured into the town from the hills where the Olympic bobsled run had been located. The mountain slopes where Bill Johnson won the downhill, the Mahre twins finished first and second in the men's slalom, and Debbie Armstrong got the gold in the women's giant slalom loomed over the destruction. The sports hall in the center of town, where Scott Hamilton and Katarina Witt performed their figure skating triumphs, sat like a ruined island in a sea of broken glass as soldiers from both sides dodged around the building, shooting at one another through smoke.

I remember Sarajevo as a relaxed, sooty old town full of languid cigarette smokers, fiery slivovitz and pallid women in black clothes. The greatest threat of violence when I was there came from a 300-pound weightlifter-turned-restaurateur nicknamed Sultan, who would glower at arriving customers until they became nervous, and then would break into a massive silly grin of welcome. It is hard to believe now, but in 1984 I wrote of this town that has been so savaged: "The scene in Sarajevo was a kind of Balkan Oz—sweet and surreal and dreamlike.... There was chaos in Beirut and Yuri Andropov died in Moscow, but at the XIV Winter Olympics these momentous events seemed as remote as if they were being reported from another galaxy. Indeed, the mood that settled over Sarajevo was one of serene good cheer."

Likewise, the exuberant spirit of the Los Angeles Games was described this way by my SI colleague Kenny Moore: "In these XXIII Summer Games, the athletes didn't even wait for the competition to start. They took a gorgeously produced opening ceremony in the Coliseum and turned it into a powerful display of the binding emotions of international sport. They were so hungry to demonstrate the substance of LAOOC president Peter Ueberroth's words—'the finest group of young men and women ever assembled in the history of sport...the best hope for the future of mankind'—that they broke ranks, embraced and lifted the formality of the ceremony into something containing elements of both pagan rite and sacred affirmation."

Last week the neighborhoods of South Central Los Angeles, which include the Coliseum and a half-dozen other former Olympic venues, were filled with danger and the stink of smoke from burned stores. Sacred affirmations were nowhere to be found. The City of Angels had erupted in violence following an absurd jury verdict in which four white Los Angeles policemen were acquitted of charges in the brutal beating of Rodney King, a black man, despite the fact that a bystander had videotaped the cops' every kick and club blow.

In the midst of the darkest days his city has known, L.A. mayor Tom Bradley wisely called on the man who was most responsible for making the 1984 Summer Games a golden experience. He named Ueberroth to head the group that will lead the effort to rebuild the devastated communities. Perhaps it was more symbol than substance—Ueberroth himself said, "We're starting in the hole here"—but the mere fact that Ueberroth had once masterminded that Olympic miracle set off a spark of hope where there might have been none. Alas, Sarajevo, trapped in the ancient ethnic and political snarls of the now-fractured Yugoslavia, has no Ueberroth to call on, even for some symbolic relief.

Nevertheless, even in these worst of times, the two cities are inextricably bound by the Games of 1984. And they can build on their memories of the best of times, those few Olympic weeks when each city reveled in pride and pomp—and peace. The opening line to George Orwell's sinister masterpiece 1984 is, "It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen." For both Sarajevo and Los Angeles, 1984 was a good year—the year of the Olympics, not an apocalypse. It wasn't until 1992 that these two cities marched together into the cold days of April and heard the clocks strike thirteen.