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Here's A Hero For The Home Folks

Feb. 06, 1984
Feb. 06, 1984

Table of Contents
Feb. 6, 1984

Record Jump
DePaul
Slam Dunk
Winter Olympics
TV/Radio
Scott Hamilton
19th Hole: The Readers Take Over

Here's A Hero For The Home Folks

By William Oscar Johnson

His name is Bojan Križaj (pronounced boy-an kree-shy), and when the Winter Olympics begin in Sarajevo, no other athlete in all of the Balkans will be under more pressure than this stocky young man with the corn-silk hair. For Križaj, 27, is the best Alpine skier that Yugoslavia has ever had, and thus is the competitor from whom his 22 million countrymen will expect the most. Indeed, nothing less than the miracle of a gold medal is what they would like most from Križaj when he races in the giant slalom and the slalom.

This is an article from the Feb. 6, 1984 issue Original Layout

Obviously, it's unfair to load one man with so much pressure. Ski races are sometimes so close that a couple of eye-blinks separate No. 1 from No. 10. Križaj himself missed a bronze medal in the giant slalom at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid by finishing .02 of a second behind Hans Enn of Austria. On the other hand, victory for Križaj could mean a place in Olympic history and, for sure, a hallowed spot in the hearts of his countrymen for as long as he lives.

Kri≈æaj is trying to keep all this in perspective, and it isn't easy. "The World Cup is more important than the Olympics because it represents an entire season of skiing," he says. "The Olympics is only one event." However, when asked how he thinks it would feel to perform heroicaily at Yugoslavia's own Olympic Games, he speaks with resignation: "Yes, Sarajevo is special for me. I do not like to say it, but this will be the most important event I will ever have in my life." He sighs as if this knowledge were a great weight—which, of course, it is.

Križaj's father, Petar, a ruddy-faced man with a slivovitz bass voice, was once the slalom champion of Yugoslavia and served for a time as a member of Marshal Tito's guard. He says of the Olympic pressures on his son: "We never talk of it, never. Even our asking about the pressure would make for more pressure." And Bojan's wife, Barbara, mother of his two children, Andrea, 5, and Boštjan, 3, feels the tension. "He has been the best skier in the country for quite a while," she says. "And what has that meant? Not too much until now, when the Olympics are being held in Yugoslavia. Now the weight is enormous."

Kri≈æaj's home is in Slovenia, the northernmost republic of Yugoslavia. Cool-eyed Teutons predominate there. Sarajevo is in Bosnia, 250 miles to the south. The population of Bosnia is 40% Moslem, and both the culture and the temperament of the region have roots tracing to the Turks who occupied the area for 500 years. Evgen Bergant, the sports editor of the daily newspaper Delo, which is published in the Slovenian capital of Ljubljana, says, "Yugoslav people are emotional. It is our nature. But it is more true south than north. Of people entering great sports events, they expect great results. So if Kri≈æaj or another Yugoslavian races and yet does not win a medal in Sarajevo, there will be a bad reaction. But, remember, that is our passion—not our politics."

This, Bergant explains, means that the socialist government of Yugoslavia bears no resemblance to the other socialist governments of Eastern Europe when it comes to exploitation of athletes. "Unlike Russia and East Germany," he says, "we know that the value of a political system is not proved by athletes. We merely like to make it possible that people with talent can rise to their highest level. This is for ski racers, but also for painters and pianists. We think it is the right human thing to support talent. Politics has nothing to do with it."

In any case, the Yugoslavs would like very much to have an Olympic hero of their own, and, like it or not, Križaj's an excellent candidate. He was practically born to ski. His father recalls the toddler standing in skis when he was three and chasing his dad down slalom courses when he was four. "He even slept with my trophies," Petar Križaj recalls with a laugh. "Yes, he would not go to bed unless they were under the covers with him." At 18, Bojan was competing on the World Cup circuit. In 1976 at Innsbruck, his first Olympics, he fell in the slalom and finished 18th in the GS. But even that set them buzzing at home; it was the best result ever achieved by a Yugoslav in a Winter Olympics. Since then he has won four World Cup slaloms, and he sent a shock of excitement through Yugoslavia in 1982 when he rushed down the course at Schladming, Austria, to win the silver medal in the FIS world championship. Following his Schladming performance, a celebration was held in Zvirce, the tiny village 30 miles north of Ljubljana where Križaj now lives. Memories of that unruly occasion still bring an unhappy wrinkle to Barbara Križaj's nose. "Hundreds of people came here," she recalls. "They ruined the flowers. The road was blocked. People walked on the roof trying to get to Bojan's balcony. They broke things. At first we liked the attention, but later it was not so nice."

There are a couple of other Yugoslav ski racers who could become stars in Sarajevo. Boris Strel, 24, has been on the World Cup circuit for five years, and Jure Franko, 23, for three. A fourth Yugoslav athlete who could catch fire in Sarajevo is Primoz Ulaga, 21, a ski jumper from Ljubljana. Ulaga has won six major international meets in the past three years, including last winter's 70-meter and 90-meter competitions at Sarajevo. "I like big crowds," says Ulaga. "I like to look down from the jump and see it very dark with people standing below. When you know that all those people are your people, it helps you to be much stronger than normal."

Sarajevo will indeed be "dark with people"—Yugoslav people—at any competition in which one of these young countrymen takes part. The burden will grow heavier every day for all of them, but especially for Bojan Kri≈æaj.

Yes, it's unfair. Yet it's also one of life's golden opportunities. For few mortals are given the chance even to try to perform a miracle. And, as the record shows (see box, facing page), miracles can happen at the Winter Olympics.

PHOTOAll Yugoslavia will follow Križaj down the Olympic slalom course, hoping for gold at the bottom.PHOTOAccording to Barbara Križaj, family life wasn't so idyllic after Bojan won the silver at the worlds.