They're Off To A Flying Start

Despite a blizzard and a stumbling beginning for the U.S. team, the Sarajevo Games got a jump on being a glorious Olympics
Despite a blizzard and a stumbling beginning for the U.S. team, the Sarajevo Games got a jump on being a glorious Olympics
February 20, 1984

The scene in Sarajevo was a kind of Balkan Oz—sweet and surreal and dreamlike in its detachment from all other places and all other happenings on the rest of the planet. 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. The town kept its smile despite a four-day blizzard with intermittent 80-mph winds that played havoc with much of what was scheduled to happen in the mountains above.

The opening ceremonies in Koševo Stadium appeared to have been plucked from a gentle fantasy. There were 4,500 performers dressed in outfits the colors of gumdrops that looked like they had been originally worn in a French sci-fi movie. A cross-country skier handed off the Olympic flame to Sanda Dubravčić, a 19-year-old figure skater on the Yugoslav team, and she ran lightly through the dancers and up a cascade of steps, followed magically by a drape of many colors. Then she dunked the flame backward into a massive bowl to start the Games.

There is a powerful irony in the fact that Sarajevo, the hotbed of political intrigue that touched off World War I, should be so laid back when it came to the volatile events of 1984. The death of Andropov seemed as distant to the 1,437 spirited athletes from 49 countries as the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand 70 years ago.

When the great Soviet cross-country ski racer Nikolai Zimyatov, who last week added a gold medal in the 30 km to the three golds he had won at Lake Placid in 1980, was asked at a postrace press conference exactly what were his feelings about Andropov's death, he said, "After the victory, the feelings are always favorable." Pressed for something a bit more along the lines of a eulogy for his fallen leader, Zimyatov shrugged and replied, "Well, what to say? It was quite unexpected for all of us, but we will continue to struggle for high performances."

Of course, not everyone in Sarajevo was oblivious to the real trouble that was afflicting the real world. Lebanon sent four Alpine ski racers to the Games, and three of them had taken off from the Beirut International Airport even as attacking Shiite militiamen were in the act of seizing the main road from the city. Said team member Serge Axiotiades, "The pilot took off very quickly, which was strange. The hostess later told us the pilot had taken off without clearance because of shelling on the runway." He added, "We represent Lebanon. We want people to know that with all our troubles, we are not barbarians."

Neil Leifer /Sports Illustrated

The U.S. was thought to be represented by its strongest Winter Olympic team ever, yet it didn't get a medal of any kind until Kitty and Peter Carruthers won the silver in pairs figure skating on Sunday (page 26), and when a gold came along on Monday it was a stunning surprise. That medal went to unheralded Debbie Armstrong in the giant slalom (page 18). What's more, teammates Christin Cooper and Tamara McKinney finished second and fourth, respectively. All of which took much of the sting out of the first week's disappointments, including the U.S. hockey team, which lost to both Canada and Czechoslovakia and could but tie humble Norway (page 22), and cross-country skier Bill Koch, who slogged in tied for 21st in the 30-km race.

The U.S. had something going in the Nordic combined but came out on the short end of a controversial ruling. That event is an arcane (to most Americans) mix of ski jumping and ski touring. The ultimate winner, Tom Sandberg of Norway, wound up first in the jumping and second in the race, and it was the jumping segment that brought howls from the American team. In a move that U.S. Nordic director Jim Page called "pure politics," an international jury restarted two rounds of jumping, both after another U.S. Olympian, Pat Ahern, had put forth superb efforts. Had Sandberg's jumps in those two canceled rounds stood, he would have had difficulty making the top five. Had Ahern's jumps counted, he would have been almost certain to win a medal. As it was, he finished a sad, frustrated 17th.

In the individual 70-meter ski-jumping competition, Jens Weissflog, the victorious 5'6", 114-pound, 19-year-old East German, was likened to "a piece of paper in the wind" by U.S. jumping coach Greg Windsperger, but a piece of paper isn't what comes to mind when watching Weissflog's countrywoman, the 5'9¼", 158-pound Karin Enke. As she glided toward the start of the 1,500 meters on Thursday, Bob Corby, a U.S. coach, shook his head in awe. "Wait till you see this monster go. That's what we call her—Monster Woman. She's just amazing."

Seconds later the starting gun sounded and Enke pulled quickly away from a Swedish opponent, displaying her characteristic long and powerful stride. As the splits flashed on the scoreboard, it became apparent that Enke was on track for a world record. The final 100 meters of the 1,500 may be the toughest in speed skating, but Enke held together, pushing to the final stride. Her time of 2:03.42 shattered the world record by .62 second.

Enke may seem a monster woman on the ice, but in person, she's anything but. "I was very nervous," she said at a circus-like press conference following the 1,500. Enke had to serve as her own translator, and she lit up the room with a dimpled smile made wider by the pivo (beer) she had gulped to produce a urine sample for a drug test.

The storm on Friday, which delayed the 500 meters for 5½ hours, may have adversely affected Enke. She finished in 41.28, second to the 41.02 of teammate Christa Rothenburger, whose faster tempo was an advantage on the snowy oval.

But Enke came right back on Monday in the 1,000 to win her second gold—in an Olympic-record 1:21.61—and thereby become the outstanding individual competitor of the Games to that point.

Had they given a gold for nonchalance last week, the winner might have been Paul Hildgartner. Bearer of the Italian flag in the opening ceremonies, the 31-year-old luger from the Sodtirol kept saying, "Not bad. I slide not bad." True enough. He won the singles handily. Another luger, Frank Masley of Newark, Del., was the U.S. standard-bearer in the opening ceremonies, but otherwise the American lugers took after Hildgartner not at all. Bonny Warner crashed on her third run, yet hung onto the sled to finish (page 20). By hanging on, she stayed alive in the competition, and although she fell to 15th, she did herself proud.

The Sarajevans exhibited just that sort of spirit last week. Expectations weren't high among many who had visited Sarajevo last year for pre-Olympic events. But much was done in the last few months, and almost all of the major facilities drew rave reviews. Among those most profoundly surprised at the sleek and efficient Yugoslav Olympic machine was Monique Berlioux, director of the International Olympic Committee. "I was very skeptical that they would manage the organization here, but I am now impressed," she said. "They are very proud of themselves, all the people of Sarajevo." Indeed, one of the reasons for the eerily euphoric atmosphere that seemed to permeate the Olympics during the worst of the weather and repeated postponements was just that—the almost childlike pleasure that the Yugoslavs seemed to get from hosting the Olympic Games.

The weather might well have turned the XIV Games into a fiasco. But that wasn't the case. Typical of the attitude of the proud and joyful citizenry of Sarajevo were the antics of some of the yellow-jacketed workers at the speed skating rink. On Friday, when the snow was falling too thickly to keep the ice clear, the workers didn't mope or complain. Some played tag. Several others lay on their backs in the infield, like kids, making angels in the ever-deepening snow.

Because of such scenes, it was difficult to shake off the feeling that all this was going on somewhere over some winter rainbow.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)