Posted by: Brad Nixon | February 22, 2010

“You Will Shut Up Now”

This is the second part of guest writer John DeBello‘s recollections of the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. See Part 1 HERE.

“You Will Shut Up Now”

A few days later, I find Commercialization. And all because of Azra.

She’s working retail at a local department store. I discover this when shopping one day; to make conversation, I ask her if she has any official Olympic anythings for sale. Boy, does she! Just look!

Sure enough…white T-shirts with a tiny black ‘Sarajevo’ over the pocket … coasters … a headband featuring ‘Vuchko’ the obligatory cute mascot … a pair of Vuchko skiing gloves … that’s about it. (And this is the BIG store.)

“That’s great,” I say. “Do you take MasterCard?”  She lights up. I know they do, because I saw the decal on the door, but what happens next seems weird. “You come!” she commands, and leads me up a secluded flight of stairs into a bare corridor. Opening a nondescript door, she beams, gestures inside. I look.

It appears that three audio-animatronic figures have just come to life, a man and two women.  Apparently, they’ve sat in this empty room around an empty desk for centuries, waiting for humans to discover them. Azra rattles off something in Bosnian. They brighten.  She introduces me to the man at the head of the table, who obviously doesn’t speak English.

“This is my boss,” says Azra. “I do not like him, but you will shut up now.”

I smile. He smiles. We all smile. And then…slowly, carefully, one woman opens a desk drawer … and gingerly withdraws The Holy Grail.

A MasterCard machine.

I hand over my card, fully expecting it to be mangled beyond repair. But she’s focused, effective, and … whump!  The imprint is taken, card intact.  Step Two: “What means this?” says Azra, holding the sales slip. All look at me expectantly.

“This says ‘Merchant copy,’” I explain. “You keep it. This says ‘Customer copy .…’” Take that, Soviet hockey flag waver! Score one for the Capitalist Dogs, courtesy of Yours Truly.

I find socialism on the slopes … but the primal, dog-eat-dog kind, bane of progressives everywhere.  Today is ski jumping, and the charismatic Matti Nykanen has drawn half of Yugoslavia to the mountain. Few have a ticket, and even fewer have a full set of teeth. This is the People’s event, and those who can‘t afford a $20 ticket to see Scott Hamilton skate can storm the barricades to watch Matti Nukes go supersonic for free.

As Americans travelers can affirm, the concept of “standing in line” is foreign to much of Europe and even unsporting in Yugoslavia. Jim and I push as hard as any local to get within hailing distance of a concession stand. Heck, we shove harder. When in Bosnia …. Seeing what we’re doing, everyone joins the scrum, and soon there is a laughing, pulsating mob engaged in Yugoslavia’s version of a food fight.

We won’t see Bill Johnson win the downhill, since our cabbie can’t find the mountain. I’m guessing he wasn’t a local, but it might have been that darned slivovitz again. We eventually arrive late and slog through a confusing miasma of smoke belching buses, whereupon my exhausted brother announces:

“I don’t want to be leader any more!” At which point my future sister-in-law informs him that he was never the leader, a point underscored by Yugoslav bus drivers cursing each other in a welter of gridlocked confusion.

The next day, we fly home. This time, they put us on the wrong plane, but we arrive in the right city. And the next morning, in a hotel transpo van overloaded to the point of absurdity, I circle Kennedy airport with the proud father of silver medalist Rosalyn Summers seated on my lap.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I missed her performance. But I did see Torvil & Dean win gold, and Scott Hamilton, and Phil Mahre, and five months later I would almost attend the Opening Ceremonies of the first ‘New’ Olympics in Los Angeles, where a pickpocket would see to it that a nice person from Brazil with $300 in cash got to use my ticket instead of me.

But not to worry. In the end, I saw those Opening Ceremonies a thousand times (on tape), in my role as writer/director of “The Story Behind the Spectacle,” the official broadcast history of the most successful Olympiad ever staged … the very model of a modern major media event.

Today, it’s darned easy to find real Olympic T-shirts but a tad more difficult to find real Olympics. Your MasterCard works everywhere, and a sky high credit limit can even buy you (marginal) tickets to the Vancouver Games … providing, of course, that you purchase a full travel package from the Official Partner.

No more Soviets, but legions of Capitalists, and slick corporate press releases written in clear, concise, adjective-laden English.

Here’s hoping Azra survived the Bosnian War that destroyed her city and its Olympic venues just eight years after those ’84 Games.  And here’s wishing that visitors to Vancouver find these Games to be even half as interesting as those I saw in Sarajevo.

You can’t buy the Olympic Spirit … but that sure doesn’t stop ‘em from trying to sell it, does it?

We thank John DeBello for contributing his recollections of Sarajevo. Tomorrow, our Olympic series continues with guest writer, Joe Henderson, who covered the 2004 Athens Olympics as a member of the international press corps.


  1. John, thanks for your efforts in putting that together. That was very entertaining, and got my last two mornings kicked off with a smile.


  2. Fun stuff John, and smart move staying away from that raw egg pizza.


  3. Just to set the record straight: the majority of (mainland) Europeans display a far better health and number of (real) teeth than those of their American counterparts. I invite John to elaborate on this subject in another essay. (At least, now I know what he’s been doing until 3am every morning!).


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