A tale of two Olympic cities
Friday, Nov 22, 2013
By Marc Ira Hooks
INNSBRUCK, Austria (BP)--Olympic host cities share a common bond of brotherhood. They are forever linked to the ideals associated with modern Olympic Games — peace, prosperity and harmony among peoples and nations. However, each city portrays the Olympic spirit through its own character.
Like a stately grandfather, Innsbruck, Austria, serves as an aging mentor to the Olympic cities. It grandly sits nestled in Austria’s Tyrollean Alps and is one of only three cities to have hosted the Winter Olympic Games more than once.
The 1964 games in Innsbruck were the first to be fully televised. Only 12 years later, when Innsbruck played host to the 1976 Winter Olympics, the world watched “America’s Sweetheart,” figure skater Dorothy Hamill, capture gold after performing her signature spin, the “Hamill Camel.”
Today, tourists from around the world come to Innsbruck not only for the world-class skiing and year-round beauty of the Alps, but also to capture some of the Olympic spirit that still pervades the city.
One of the first things visitors see as they enter Innsbrook is the majestic Bergisel ski jump stadium that overlooks the city. With a space-age looking observation tower at its head and three monolithic Olympic torch caldrons and a sculpture of the Olympic rings at its feet, the site inspires visions of Olympic glory.
Most of the sporting events for the ’64 and ’76 games took place outside of Innsbruck’s city proper, however. And in these small villages and hamlets, the pride of being an Olympic city burns brightest.
In the mountain village of Seefeld in Tirol, a resourceful tourist can find a nearly buried Olympic treasure. Squeezed between retail shops on a small pedestrian passageway off the central city square is a small, crowded museum dedicated to Innsbruck’s Olympic history and the history of sport in Austria.
“Here in Seefeld we are very proud of the Olympics,” said Heinz Strasser, one-time member of the Innsbruck Olympic Organizing Committee and curator of the vast collection.
A look beyond the glass store-front windows reveals shelf after shelf of Olympic treasure ranging from the Olympic rings and flagpole toppers used to adorn the Olympic Stadium to the Olympic torch used in the 1964 Opening Ceremonies.
“Seefeld hosted many of the Nordic and Alpine events,” Strasser said. “So we say, Seefeld really hosted the Olympics, not Innsbruck. We have the Olympic spirit here. It is very good.”
While not slated to host the games in the immediate future, Innsbruck and the surrounding areas continue to host numerous world sporting events as well as one of Austria’s training facilities for future Winter Olympic athletes.
If Innsbruck is the grandfather of winter Olympic cities, Sarajevo is the rebellious little brother. Tattooed with graffiti and pierced by mortar shells, the city is a reminder that the Olympic ideal of world peace can be broken.
Less than a decade after the torch brightly burned across the valley in the Balkan Mountains, Sarajevo was lit with the fires of a city under siege. A violent civil and ethnic war disfigured the proud capital of the former Yugoslavia until it became the seat of power for the new country of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
“It is sad, really,” said Edin Numankadic, curator for the city’s Olympic museum, which is located in an obscure corner of the rebuilt Zentra Olympic Center. “Sarajevo is known for only three things … the assassination of Franz Ferdinand and the start of World War I, the siege of Sarajevo and ethnic war, and the 1984 Olympics. Only one of those things was something positive.”
At the time, the Sarajevo games were heralded as the most successful and most organized games to date, according to Zlatko Hrnjic, recently retired general secretary of the Bosnian Ski Federation.
“The 1984 Olympics were something special,” he said. “It is the single greatest thing that I have been involved with [in] my entire life.”
Skiing twins Phil and Steve Mahre took first and second place for the Americans in the slalom in Sarajevo. But figure skating legend Scott Hamilton was the U.S. star of 1984. He took home a gold medal, while East German figure skater Katarina Witt captured the first of her two Olympic gold medals.
In addition, it was in Sarajevo where the United Kingdom’s ice dancing team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean scored perfect marks and won gold with their “Bolero” routine.
But the glitter of Sarajevo’s Olympic gold faded quickly. Only eight years later, it was home to the longest siege of a capital city in modern warfare.
Once heralded as a city representing world peace, Sarajevo was again known around the world as a city of war. As bombs ripped through arenas and other sporting venues, the area outside the Zentra Olympic center was turned into a makeshift gravesite for the thousands of victims.
The Sarajevo landscape is still marred with grave markers too numerous to count. Many lie in the tall shadow cast by a still-standing Olympic torch, the world’s universal sign of peace.
In February of 1994, International Olympic Committee President Juan Antonio Samaranch and other Olympic officials visited the city in the midst of the siege. Numankadic smiles and wipes his eyes as he remembers.
“Can you imagine?” he asked. “We were being bombarded. We didn’t have electricity, we didn’t have water, people were dying. But that was very important to us because being an Olympic city is part of our history.”
“He wanted to be there,” Numankadic said of Samaranch. “He knew it was dangerous. But he knew that Sarajevo was an Olympic city and a place of peace. He wanted to bring a message of peace from the world to us during that time.”
While much of Sarajevo is still scarred by the war, the Zentra Olympic Center has been rebuilt and bears a plaque dedicating the building to the former IOC leader, Samaranch.
Now Sarajevo is a city of hope, a place where the Olympic spirit is strengthened by its past.
Every year on Feb. 8, the anniversary of the 1984 Opening Ceremonies, the city has a celebration to remember and to celebrate the Winter Olympic Games and its moment in history as the seat of world peace.
“I believe that the young generation will build a normal, stable society (in Bosnia),” Numankadic said. “Will we host another Olympic Games? Why not?”
Marc Ira Hooks is an IMB writer based in Europe. He also serves as co-director and Olympic event coordinator for Engage Sochi.
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