1984 Sarajevo Games: a lesson in Olympic Spirit
It is 40 years on 8 February since the start of the Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, an event which to this day continues to evoke many emotions and memories. The Ljubljana Museum of Contemporary History decided to mark the anniversary with an exhibition focusing on the role Slovenia played in the 1984 Olympic Games.
Running from 18 January to 5 May, The Silver Games 1984 is an exhibition dedicated not only to the achievements of Slovenian athletes but also the efforts Slovenian experts put in the organisation and staging of the Games.
It moreover showcases the former Yugoslavia's collective pride in response to the sporting spectacle in Sarajevo, the first Winter Olympics in a socialist country that impressed the whole world.
The exhibition is largely based on a collection by Tomaž Alauf, who was just a kid when the Games began. He collects everything related to the Sarajevo Olympics, and one of his favourites is Vučko, a famous wolf-like figure that was the official mascot of the 1984 Games.
A replica of a typical 1980s living room in the former Yugoslavia is the centrepiece of the exhibition, a time capsule transporting visitors to a time when most Yugoslavs were glued to their television screens to cheer on their athletes.
The replica is full of objects that were used to promote the Sarajevo Games, including cups, pens, pencil sharpeners, toys, board games and T-shirts. But above all, there are countless Vučkos, whose appearance was designed by Slovenian painter Jože Trobec. Visitors are invited to rummage through drawers and cupboards to get a closer look.
The television in the room is playing the legendary second run of Slovenian skier Jure Franko in the 1984 Olympics Giant Slalom race. Franko ended winning silver in that discipline, and even nowadays many Slovenians born before the 1980s know exactly where they were when he was swooshing down the piste.
One of the visitors told the Slovenian Press Agency that she was in high school at the time. Her dreaded biology professor surprised everyone when entering the classroom she announced the exam they were supposed to take that day was cancelled because of the medal and the overwhelming happiness that followed.
Franko's medal was the only Yugoslavia, the host, won at the Sarajevo Games and the first Winter Olympic medal it won in general. Expectations were of course higher, but several established athletes underperformed, and the Slovenian skier's feat was a moment when Yugoslavs breathed a sigh of relief and indulged in celebration.
Many other anecdotes depict people's pride and joy in the wake of Franko's achievement. A day after he bagged the silver medal a Radio Sarajevo announcer put it on a par with the gold one in a special announcement: "Dear listeners, I kindly ask you to be quiet this morning, turn down the volume of your radios, as, you know, our golden Jure is still sleeping."
The exhibition goes beyond what the Sarajevo Olympics meant for athletes and spectators and allows a peak into the backstage where Slovenian experts played a major role in the organisation and staging of the Games.
Set designer Meta Hočevar was actively involved, having designed the sets for the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics, and a number of sports workers were crucial in preparing the competition venues, including the Gorišek brothers, who excelled in constructing ski jumping and ski flying hills worldwide.
Slovenian sports experts served as head coaches of the then Yugoslav national team, the core of which was made up of Slovenian athletes. Many also remember the fear there would be no snow which spread across Yugoslavia and turned into relief when it started snowing heavily just before the opening.
Anecdotes also involve disciplines, such as bobsleigh and speed skating, where Yugoslavia did not have representatives before the Games, which prompted the organisers to get creative. They published a call for applications in newspapers to recruit bobsleigh competitors. One of the criteria was a driver's licence.
Moreover, Bosnian athlete Bibija Kerla, who used to be a discus thrower, started training speed skating to be able to fill in the gap and represent Yugoslavia in this sport. In the Olympic speed skating competitions she crashed at almost every turn, shed a tear and pushed on, a persistence that made her a crowd favourite. Later she revealed some of the falls towards the end of the racing had been deliberate to make the crowd go even wilder.
The glory of the 1984 Games, where Yugoslavia did its hosting duties brilliantly, evokes nostalgia for the pride and the sense of community people felt at the time among many, but also a bitter aftertaste, since the venue turned into a war zone in less than a decade.
Most of the sports infrastructure that was built specifically for the Games was destroyed or severely damaged, some sports grounds were turned into cemeteries, and the famous bobsleigh track Trebević was used by snipers during the siege of Sarajevo. Nevertheless, the exhibition and its stories are proof that the Olympic Spirit is like Bibija Kerla - it picks itself up and carries on.