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Sarajevo hopes to rekindle Olympic flame with Youth Games

Austria's Tamara Tippler in action.

SARAJEVO: When Sarajevo welcomed the globe's top athletes to its mountains for the 1984 Winter Olympics, it was a moment of pride for all of Yugoslavia. Three decades later, the post-war capital of Bosnia hopes to rekindle the flame as it hosts the European Youth Olympics next week.

Tomislav Lopatic, who represented Yugoslavia in the Biathlon in 1984 games, remembers those days as the "last moment" of unity and pride in the former communist state, which collapsed through a series of brutal wars only seven years later.

"Everyone still loved the flag, our coat of arms," recalls the 55-year old, who now coaches the national Biathlon team in Bosnia, one of several states to emerge from the federation's bloody break-up.

He was a four-time Yugoslav champion of the sport during his heydey, although he did not take home a medal in the 1984 games.

Bibija Kerla, a Bosnian speed skater for former Yugoslavia, also finished empty-handed.

But the 59-year-old still hums Yugoslavia's national anthem ("Hej Sloveni!") and remembers the collective pride she felt when Slovenian Jure Franko became the only one from their country to make the podium when he took a silver for the giant slalom.

Back then, they were all Yugoslavs. But in post-war Bosnia, they are frequently identified by their differences: Tomislav is a Bosnian Serb and Kerla is a Bosnian Muslim, commonly known as a Bosniak.

Bosnia remains carved up along ethnic lines more than two decades after the 1992-95 conflict that left 100,000 dead as Bosnian Muslims, Serbs and Croats clashed.

The same is true for Sarajevo, whose centre is populated mainly by Muslims while an eastern enclave is dominated by Serbs.

Yet the European Youth Olympics Festival (EYOF), which runs from February 9 to 16, has become a rare opportunity for the city's two administrations to find common ground.

With the slogan "Two cities, one dream", the Sarajevo and East Sarajevo mayors, Abdulah Skaka and Nenad Vukovic, have held joint press conferences about their desire to "revive the spirit of the Olympics" with the Youth competition.

The European Youth Olympics will bring more than 1,500 young people from 46 countries to Bosnia to compete in sports ranging from alpine skiing to figure skating and curling.

"We want to create a new memory, and a positive dynamic that will serve as a foundation for better times," said Abdulah Skaka.


'Forget politics'


Today, relics of the 1984 Games are sombre reminders of the city's once mult-ethnic and peaceful past, before it was shattered by war.

The old bobsled track on Trebevic mountain is covered in graffiti, while towering ski jumps on Igman mountain have been left to go to ruin.

A museum dedicated to the 1984 Olympics is still under construction after it was bombarded during the nearly four-year-long siege of the city in the 1990s, which left some 11,000 dead, including civilians.

The founder of the museum, Edin Numankadic, says he is dedicated to preserving the sporting heritage in order to safeguard one of Sarajevo's happiest memories.

In the 20th century, "we remember the assassination in Sarajevo marking the beginning of the World War I, we remember the siege and finally the Olympic Games," he said.

"The Olympics is an exceptionally positive event, on a global scale. That is why it is necessary to keep the memory," he told AFP.

The museum curator said he hopes the new generation will come to see "differences as a richness, not a fault".

Former skater Kerla shares a similar dream: "I would like that at least for these 10 days... we could forget the politics and get close to each other."

Agence France-Presse