In 1984, the very first Winter Olympics taking place in a Communist state was held in the unique and remarkable city of Sarajevo – then a thriving metropolis in the now-defunct host nation Yugoslavia, but these days the modern capital city of Bosnia and Herzegovina. In 2014 – thirty years after the Sarajevo Winter Olympics – the seaside Russian city of Sochi also held the attention of television viewers, in that unique way only a former communist nation in a world entranced by western media is capable of doing, as it played host to 22nd Winter Olympiad.
Yugoslavia doesn’t exist anymore, except in the minds of Yugo-stalgic lovers of all things Tito. Bosnia and Herzegovina is a democracy. Russia has given communism the flick, moving on to a decidedly more on-trend corporatocracy. And the cities of Sochi and Sarajevo share something else in common – an abandoned Winter Olympic site. As Sochi begins it’s inevitable decay, perhaps the abandoned Winter Olympic bobsled track, high on Mount Trebević above Sarajevo, will be an eerily accurate bellwether for the future of the area above Sochi’s Imeritinsky Beach.
At the time, a record 49 nations participated in the 1984 Winter Olympics. Tens of thousands of spectators covering Mount Trebević cheered on the brave Sarajevo bobsled and luge competitors, as they raced down the 1.3km long track at speeds of over 100 km/h, in snowy, blustery conditions. For several years after the Olympics, the Sarajevo bobsled track was used for world cup competitions. And then, came the rub. When 1991 rolled around, the ugly and complex Yugoslav wars commenced, and the Olympic bobsled location was utilised by military forces as an artillery position.
By 1992, just eight years after the very peaceful Winter Olympics, the city of Sarajevo became victim of the longest military seige in modern history. Sarajevo was cut off from the world, and relentlessly bombarded by forces who had now overtaken the hills surrounding the city. Residents had little chance of escape, as over 5000 civilians were killed by rockets and mortars from above, and snipers within the downtown streets of Sarajevo. The Olympic fields, became killing fields, and television viewers around the world were again focused on Sarajevo. This time, bobsleds and figure skating had been replaced by the uneasy voyeurism of death and destruction, televised to audiences around the world, remote control in hand.
Understandably, for those in Sarajevo, preservation of the Olympic bobsled track took a back seat to things like water, food, medicine, and not becoming another statistic during an unimaginable period of bloodshed. By September 1993, the Sarajevo Winter Olympiad remained a surreal memory from another time and place, and it was estimated that virtually every building in Sarajevo had now suffered some degree of damage. During the siege, thirty five thousand buildings were completely destroyed, in a city of around a half a million inhabitants. On one single day in July 1993, almost 4000 shells blitzed the city, all part of a nausea inducing average of 329 shell impacts for every day of the 1425 day urbicide.
Today, the Mount Trebević Olympic site is totally abandoned. The vegetation has recovered and is threatening to finally take over the graffiti-strewn and war damaged concrete bobsled course. Seeing the track gracefully snake it’s way through hauntingly scenic forest, is a sight unlike any other. Now, decaying restaurant buildings only serve up perfect views of the picturesque city below, and the last remaining spectators are the occasional intrepid tourists carefully eyed by roaming packs of stray dogs. This was my third visit to the bobsled track, and each time the weather and season has provided a different experience. It’s otherworldly, serene, mysterious and has now become strangely familiar.
Comparisons with Sochi are inevitable. Olympic sites around the world, both summer and winter, have a habit of becoming disused not long after the last IOC member has collected his bribe and moved on to greener pastures. However, Sarajevo could have been different. After the 1984 winter Olympics, the Sarajevo bobsled and luge site remained popular and fully operational. Certainly, if it wasn’t for a war that left Sarajevo living under a storm of heavy artillery fire for many years, the track and Mount Trebević would look very different today. Sadly, the Sarajevo siege well and truly upstaged the 16th Winter Olympics. Sarajevo’s fate was to not be remembered as an Olympic city, but as the owner of an unenviable set of 20th century bookends – starting out as the precise location for the commencement of World War 1, and rounding off suffering through a siege without parallel in modern history.
Still, war or no war, my money is on Sochi looking exactly like Mount Trebević, circa 2024.
Maybe a lot sooner.
PS, I visited Sarajevo last week, leading the second YoGypsy trip as we weaved our way through the Balkans. On September 5th, we’re taking our third untour through another part of the Balkans – the remarkable, and under-touristed nations of Albania and Macedonia. Beaches, cities, villages, lakes, mountains, historical UNESCO sites, and more than a handful of cold-war era concrete bunkers. At the moment, only three seats remain – if you want to be a part of the best very-small-group-untours in the world today, contact me using this page and ask for the PDF. It contains all the info you need. Or check this article out, for a brief insight to the first trip.
PPS, it’s also the last YoGypsy trip planned for 2014.
How to Get to the Sarajevo Bobsled Track
The map above pinpoints the exact location of the Sarajevo bobsled track. However, no public transport is available. If you have your own transport, the location is about a twenty minute drive from the Sarajevo city center. Without your own transport, you should be able to organise an local taxi driver to take you there and back, or you could always rent your own vehicle for the day.
Some local organisations have commenced tours of the Mount Trebević bobsled track, but I’ve been told by some participants the tours are rushed, and can be overpriced. So, buyer beware. They normally run around 20 Euro’s and up – so unless you’re travelling solo, it’s cheaper to take a taxi, or even hire a car for the day. Check the comments below for discussion on the options.
Of course, hitchhiking could be an option, but you may be in for a long wait. Walking or cycling is also a possibility, but keep in mind the climb is substantial, and that land-mines still exist in the area. And Wolves, so I’ve been told.