Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 21, 2010

Sarajevo 1984, Part 1

In honor of the Olympics, we’re privileged to feature essays by guest writers recalling their personal experiences from attending previous Olympiads. Today and tomorrow we have a two-part account of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia (now Bosnia). I’m pleased to introduce guest blogger, John DeBello, a veteran writer, producer and director of practically every form of media and communications you can name, from corporate information programs and advertising to feature films. He is the president and creative director of Loma Media. You can read more about John HERE.

Here is Part 1 of John’s account. Part 2 tomorrow.

So It’s Not Belgrade. At Least It’s The Right Country

In February of 1984, the XIV Olympic Winter Games were held in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. In retrospect, I consider this fact to be of some import, and not solely because a Super Bowl-worthy Roman numeral kicks off the portentous title.  This was the last of the “real” Olympics, and I was fortunate to be there. My odyssey began with a plane that landed in the wrong city, and ended with the father of the women’s ice skating silver medalist sitting on my lap.  (You read that right. Not Rosalynn Sumners. Her father.) And, in between, I taught Yugoslavia how to use a MasterCard.

A bit strange, but, as anyone who’s traveled with me can attest, probably true.

The adventure commenced far from the snows of Sarajevo, on a beach in Los Angeles. My younger brother Jim had somehow managed to land a cool gig with the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee soon after its formation in 1982, improbably becoming a senior PR exec by the wizened age of 25.  Now, as The Olympic Year approached, infused with said Spirit, he decided that attendance at those other Games—the ones in Yugoslavia—was mandatory.

“Let’s go to Sarajevo,” he said one afternoon, as we enjoyed the sun-spangled view from his Manhattan Beach apartment. The Winter Olympics and Summer Olympics were held in the same year then (and would be through 1992.) I responded enthusiastically:

“I’d rather visit Paris,” I said.

It was a debate I’d quickly lose. As Bogey said, we’ll always have Paris, but the Winter Games in Yugoslavia?  A once-in-a-lifetime experience, replete with international brotherhood and bonhomie, socialist snow bunnies and evil Commies.  Probably lots of Commies.  Before they became an endangered species, Commies were exotic in a James Bond/John Le Carre way. We’d certainly see some (and could even take pictures of the more interesting ones.)

So off we went. Accompanied by Jim’s patient and long-suffering girlfriend Tracey (later to become his patient and even longer suffering wife), we flew JAT to Belgrade.  Well, we were supposed to fly to Belgrade, but landed in Zagreb. This might seem somewhat unusual, but in retrospect, made some sort of perverse sense…because prior to take-off from New York, I had thumbed through the JAT in-flight magazine, which—I swear—apologized for the airline’s performance and promised to do better. Not an ideal thing to read prior to take-off, but, what the hey, the official airline of Yugoslavia got us to Yugoslavia!

After the circa-1940 luggage conveyor broke down, we hefted our bags on to an ominous 1930s X-ray machine that very likely had brought Frankenstein to life and now quickly put 20 rolls of Kodachrome to death.

Tracey to security officer: “Do you speak English?”


“Does this machine ruin film?”


But now, a bigger problem. We were supposed to meet Jim’s friends, Boris and Alenka, in Belgrade; but we were in Zagreb. Boris, the son of the Yugoslavian ambassador to China, had befriended Jim on the Mongolian Express a few years back. We would stay with Boris and his charming wife when (if) we found them.

So, we took the train. And found them waiting for us at the Belgrade train station, as if this was an everyday occurrence. Which, I imagine, it was. Between the five of us, we had 13 pieces of luggage. And Boris had…

… a Volkswagen.

Somehow squeezing bodies and bags into the Bug, we lurched toward Maribor, a city near the Austrian border (in today’s Slovenia). Upon arrival, we met Ambassador Dad, who expressed disappointment with “fake” America.  “I’ve visited your country,” he told us grimly. “Even the lawns are plastic.”

“Where did you go?” asked Tracey.

“Fairbanks, Alaska.”

After a short stay to soak in the local color (mostly gray), we said goodbye to our new friends and took a 500-mile train trip to Sarajevo. And not just any train… a train chock full of amped-up high schoolers embarking upon an all night Olympic-caliber Blow-Out. The festivities began before departure, and undoubtedly are still in full swing today. There’s nothing quite like partying with a cadre of kids raised on slivovitz, a powerful plum brandy that serves as the de facto mother’s milk of Yugoslavia. After being serenaded by approximately 387 fractured choruses of “Hey Jude,” we waved goodbye to the Young Communists-turned-Future Capitalists and, bleary-eyed, began our Olympic Experience.

Ah, Sarajevo. Host City of both the Olympics and World War I, with residents fervently hoping that the feting of IOC royalty might trump the shooting of Austrian royalty. Our own arrival was somewhat less than royal, as we soon discovered that the “luxury tourist accommodations” we’d booked were actually two rooms in a dingy, Soviet-style high-rise apartment.

With the tenants still in residence.

And that’s how I met Azra and her mother, who slept on the couch while we took their bedroom. Azra was just out of high school, having completed her “hippie era,” as she shyly informed me in her Yugo-Garbo accent. The next morning she went to work, and we went to the Games.

The Games!  First up—the women’s slalom. This would be exciting, as three Americans vied for Gold. I wore my hi-tech, state-of-the-art winter clothing, which had easily gotten me through a minus-20 degree Liberty Bowl two months prior.  Within 10 minutes, I was frozen solid. Standing near me, legions of comfortably crazy Europeans clanged cowbells and smoked. And smoked some more. And now, here we go…

By luck of the draw, all three Ameri-chicks came out of the gate early. By lack of talent, all three wiped out. Done, finished, out of competition in five minutes flat.  I’m stuck on this stupid mountain, all rooting interest gone, turning bluer by the minute. And worse, I’m really thirsty, and no concession stand in sight. But wait—could it be?  Here comes a Yugoslavian corporal with a case of…Coca Cola! Tracey sweet talks him out of three cans, I pop the tab, and …

Nothing. Frozen solid. Just like me. Somebody eventually wins today, just not an American. But brothers Phil and Steve Mahre will soon go one-two in the men’s slalom, so redemption for USA! USA!  We’re in the stands when British ice dancers Torvil & Dean nail their perfect score. I’m pigging out on chibachichi (Ćevapčići)(Yugo burgers) and pivo (beer) and avoiding the raw egg pizza. I read in a corporate sponsor press release, referring to the now-famous bungle during the Olympic oath:

“Noticing Bojan’s stumbling during Olympic oath, Ingemar said: I am sure this is the expected moment of surpassing the nervousness. I hope this is the last mistake.”

But other news soon eclipses Bojan’s stumble. I’m in a taxi, radio blaring, when the driver gives me a thumbs down, translating with evident satisfaction: “Andropov. Kaput.”  The new Soviet premier is dead, soon to be followed into the Void by fellow fossil Chernenko, setting the table for a younger, ‘less-likely-to-drop-dead-next-week’ leader—somebody named Gorbachev.

In early 1984, there is zero indication that the Soviet Union is 1.5 Olympics away from extinction. Soviets are here in force, and organized. Organized in buses, organized in cheering sections, organized in lockstep. As one particularly dour group passes, I call out to them. “Chibabchichi, 5 dinar! Pivo, 10 dinar! Guidance system plans for the Pershing II missile, 2 million dinar!”  No takers.

At the bobsled run … an American tourist stands poised, camera in hand. Here comes a sled … click! Timing it perfectly, my brother has jumped in front of his lens with a goofy smile, and the guy is furious. “You ruined my last picture!” he sputters. (‘Last picture.’ In today’s digital world, alas, a phrase never to be heard again.)

Hockey: USA vs Finland. A listless tie, no Medal Round for us. The Miracle on Ice happened just 4 years earlier, but might as well have been The Miracle of the Ice Age.  I catch the USSR crushing Canada en route to the gold. Between periods, I meander over to the Soviet rooting section and, through sign language, ask a gentleman to borrow his huge hammer & sickle flag for a photo-op. He scowls, grabs it tighter. A friend of his indicates that we should hold it together. So we do, and I become (for 1/500th of a second) a Hero of the Soviet Union, California Branch. I reflect later that his reaction was no different from a Steelers fan being asked to hand over Old Glory to a Russkie.

My Other Russian is a cute speed skater from Minsk. Imagine an Olympics where you simply stroll into the practice area and strike up a conversation with an athlete. No security agents, or — even worse — talent agents in sight. When a Yugoslavian collegian amiably tells me, “We all hate the Russians,” he couldn’t have been thinking about her.

Strolling through the Old Town I see athletes, fans and locals mingling, no poseurs in sight. In fact, the whole event has the feel of a high school track meet…genial interaction, no obvious media presence and zip commercial feel. Atlanta’s smarmy ‘Coca Cola Olympics’ are 12 years into the future, and their harbinger is still 5 months away in LA.

Tomorrow: Yugoslavia discovers MasterCard, plus more ’84 Olympics competition.

Under Western Skies thanks the multilingual Carmen for the correct term, “Ćevapčići,” above.

© 2012 John DeBello


  1. This is exactly why we chose to work with you John – and even more dangerous, travel the world with you mate!

    Just no one can find the world’s best biryani the way John Debello can find the world’s best biryani !


  2. “chibachichi”? My European heart bleeds! When will Americans learn to spell foreign words correctly (especially, when they are as delicious)?


    • Carmen, I find many references online to this spelling of chibachichi. The articles are in languages I don’t read. Please correct us. Thank you.


      • I believe what you are seeing is the “Lautschrift,” ie, the language of pronunciation, not spelling. Here you go: Ćevapčići. And, I can even make them! 🙂


      • Thank you. Me, I barely know the difference between a Hubschrauber and a hübsch Räuber.


      • That would be hübscher Räuber, and I’d love to meet him! 😉


  3. The piece John put up here was very entertaining and fun – it was a hoot. Any attempts to break this down into a spelling clinic are only adding to the merriment. Oh wait, I get it. Ha-Ha!


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