The Architectural Legacy of Sarajevo's '84 Winter Olympics

Updated: Jun 5

The city of Sarajevo hosting the Winter Olympic Games in 1984 was among the most significant events in the history of Yugoslavia. Being not only the first Olympics to be held in the country, it was also the first time any Winter Olympic Games had ever been hosted in a socialist state or in a nation which spoke Slavic languages. Furthermore, the Sarajevo Olympics were unique in that they were not boycotted by any nation of the world and were instead a shining moment of global unity centered around sports, standing in stark contrast to the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics (as well as the subsequent 1984 Los Angeles Summer Olympics), which were both heavily protested by numerous countries. As such, Yugoslavia, and Sarajevo specifically, felt a tremendous personal responsibility to exceed in every way imaginable in its role as host nation and host city. And for such a historic event, it should come as no surprise that Yugoslavia aimed to populate the city of Sarajevo with equally befitting historic and transcendent architecture to match and mark the importance of this moment when an attentive world would be closely watching them. To achieve such an architectural marvel of constructing a wholly new built environment for these Winter Olympic Games, some of the most innovative and accomplished architects from across Yugoslavia were brought together to work towards this collective goal. This article aims to examine the history and legacy of these achievements of Olympic architecture, as well as the creators who were involved in designing and constructing them.

A map of the many sites, venues and attractions of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo.

However, while many other articles in the past which explore Sarajevo's Olympic sites excessively dwell on the post-Bosnian War ruined condition of many of these locations (while ignoring other aspects of their history, as well as ignoring other non-ruined Olympic sites), this article aims to instead operate as a more holistic historical survey of ALL major architectural works which were created as part of the infrastructure of the Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games. In each entry of the 16 sites chosen for this article, we will explore the site's creation, its Olympic use, its post-Olympic use, how it fared during and after the Bosnian War, as well as its current condition and utilization. In addition, I will include collections of images for each location, both present-day and historical (not just tawdry photos of ruins), so that the architecture of these Olympic creations can be visualized in such a way as to help give a clearer context and understanding of the amazing and dramatic history behind each of them. With this new historical clarity, not only can the legacy of Sarajevo's Winter Olympics be better understood and appreciated, but also the city of Sarajevo itself.

 

Winter Olympic Sports Venues

 

1.) Koševo Olympic Stadium

A vintage image of the opening ceremonies for the Sarajevo Olympics at Koševo Olympic Stadium.
A vintage image of the opening ceremonies for the Sarajevo Olympics at Koševo Olympic Stadium.
A vintage image of the opening ceremonies for the Sarajevo Olympics at Koševo Olympic Stadium.
A recent view of a football match being held at Koševo Olympic Stadium in Sarajevo. Credit: Ulicar/Wikipedia

Name: Koševo Olympic Stadium (aka: Asim Ferhatović-Hase Stadium)

Location: Koševo neighborhood, Sarajevo, BiH

Architect(s): Vaso Todorović & Anatolij Kirjakov (for original 1947 construction), then Lidumil Alikalfić & Dušan Đapa (for 1980s renovation)

Years of construction: Original conception: 1947, renovated in 1966 and 1983

Present condition: Good, used for many events

Coordinates: 43°52'25.5"N, 18°24'31.0"E

Description: One of the centerpieces of the 1984 Sarajevo Winter Olympic Games was the massive Koševo Stadium, which acted as the place which kicked off the entire event with the Olympic Opening Ceremony being held here on February 7th, 1984. While the stadium at Koševo at it appeared during the ceremony was most certainly tailored specifically for the event, the stadium itself dates back as far as 1947. Just after WWII, the architect team of Vaso Todorović & Anatolij Kirjakov devised an enormous "natural" stadium that would fit into the hilly amphitheatre-like landscape of the Koševo neighborhood of Sarajevo. The stadium, which was built largely through voluntary labor from local citizens, post constructed on top of a location that was originally a large man-made lake that operated as a public swimming space, fed by Koševo Stream (after which the new stadium was named). After the completion of the stadium, it operated as the central sporting complex for Sarajevo, hosting not only local events, but major international sporting events as well. When the announcement was made in 1978 that Sarajevo had won the bid to host the Winter Olympic games, Yugoslav planning officials decided that Koševo Stadium would be significantly renovated to better accommodate the expected crowds. These renovations were overseen by the architect team Lidumil Alikalfić & Dušan Đapa. The original stadium had few architectural flourishes or luxuries, so this renovation and expansion greatly modernized the facility and increased its capacity.


As the above photos testify, the 1984 Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony held here at Koševo Stadium was full of pageantry and celebration, with articles from such outlets like the New York Times newspaper describing them as "spectacular". Even the huge colorful platform upon which the Olympic torch sat at the top of was an imaginative creation of stunning architectural brilliance, truly operating as a testament to the architectural wonders yet to be seen during this Winter Games. Sources indicate that as many as 45,000 people attended the ceremony and watched the lighting of the Olympic Flame, which burned here at Koševo all throughout the games. The entire 2-hour ABC TV broadcast coverage of the events of the opening ceremony here at Koševo Stadium can be seen at THIS YouTube link. After the end of the games, the stadium went back to its former pre-Olympic use of hosting local and regional sporting events (primarily football matches). Interestingly, as Koševo Stadium remained in territory under the control of ARBiH through the Bosnian War, sources relate that football matches were played here regularly during the tumultuous and violent Siege of Sarajevo. Meanwhile, former sports fields around the stadium were used as improvised graveyards for the thousands killed in Sarajevo during the war.


After the Bosnian War, the extensive damage which the stadium suffered as a result of the conflict was quickly repaired, with a massive re-opening ceremony held at the stadium 1996 by an Olympic athlete organization. Two years after the war ended in 1997, Koševo Stadium famously hosted the British rock band U2 for their "Pop Mart" tour, while Pope John Paul II also hosted an event that same year at the stadium while on a visit to Sarajevo. Today the complex is widely referred to as "Stadium Asim Ferhatović-Hase" (named after the legendary footballer) and continues to host a wide range of sporting and concert events. Future plans are currently being organized to further expand and renovate the stadium.

 

2.) Zetra Olympic Hall

A vintage image of the speedskating rink next to Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo.
A view of the exterior of the Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo. Credit: Julian Nyča/Wikipedia
A 1984 postcard showing the Closing Ceremony of the 1984 Winter Olympic Games at Zetra Stadium in Sarajevo.
A view of the interior hockey rink of the Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo. Credit: Denis Siljadzic

Name: Zetra Olympic Hall (aka: Juan Antonio Samaranch Olympic Hall)

Location: Koševo neighborhood, Sarajevo, BiH

Architect(s): Lidumil Alikalfić & Dušan Đapa

Years of construction: 1978-1983

Present condition: Rebuilt after ruins, presently in good condition

Coordinates: 43°52'18.3"N, 18°24'34.7"E

Description: As part of the build-up of infrastructure for the 1984 Winter Olympic Games in Sarajevo, a brand new indoor ice-rink was constructed adjacent to Koševo Olympic Stadium. Work on this stadium began as soon as the announcement was made in 1978 that Sarajevo had won its bid to host the '84 Winter Olympics. The design for this arena was conceived by the architect duo Lidumil Alikalfić & Dušan Đapa, while engineering work was coordinated by Osman Morankić. Of all of the sports venues built for these Olympics in Sarajevo, Zetra Stadium was the most expensive, costing near a billion Yugoslav dinars to construct. Unveiled in January 1983 for the hosting of the World Junior Speed Skating Championships, the stadium's primary form is composed of six massive steel trusses which support the weight of the entire structure. Over this angular modernist construction was laid copper roof panels while the interior ceiling was left with its girders and utilities exposed. The seating capacity of the stadium is roughly 12,000. Interestingly, the name of the complex "Zetra" is somewhat mysterious and controversial, as its origin and meaning are not clear. The news outlet Radio Sarajevo relates how confusion over the stadium's name even incited some ethnic tensions in Sarajevo. During the 1984 Winter Olympic Games, competitive matches for speed skating, ice hockey and figure skating were held here, including the many medal ceremonies. At the end of the games, Zetra was used to host the Olympic Game's closing ceremonies. Some video clips depicting the events of the closing ceremony can be seen at THIS YouTube link.

A vintage 1980s view of the original untarnished copper roof of Zetra Stadium. Credit: Arhitektura i Urbanizam 94/95

In the six years following the Olympic games, Zetra was used for a number of sporting and cultural events. However, as tensions boiled across Bosnia in the build-up to the Bosnian War in 1991, Zetra Stadium hosted a concert called "YUTEL za mir" (YUTEL for Peace), which was an anti-war event hosted by the Yugoslav National Broadcasting Agency 'Yutel'. It was attended by tens of thousands of young people from across the region. Video scenes from the concert can be watched at THIS YouTube link. This was the last major event held at Zetra before it was struck by missiles during the Siege of Sarajevo, which resulted in catastrophic damage to the arena. Also during the war, French soldiers with the United Nations used the burned-out ruins of Zetra Stadium as a military post. In 1993, the Sarajevo pop music group "Aid" filmed a music video for their song "Help Bosnia Now" in the ruins of Zetra, which can be watched at THIS YouTube link. After the war ended in 1995, Zetra was in an extremely dilapidated and damaged state, while the fields around the stadium were used as an improvised cemetery for the many across Sarajevo who perished during the war. Funds were put forward in 1997 by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the City of Barcelona and the European Union to reconstruct Zetra Stadium, which was completed in 1999.

A 1990s-era view of war damage at the Zetra Olympic Hall in Sarajevo, with war casualties buried in the foreground. Credit: DefenseImagery.mil

Today, Zetra Stadium continues to operate an ice rink, which is used for a whole host of sporting events, while the arena also hosts many other sporting, musical and cultural events as well. The complex is often referred to as the "Juan Antonio Samaranch Olympic Hall", named in honor of the IOC head who worked towards reconstructing the stadium after the war's end. In addition, a modest museum exists within the arena dedicated to the history of Sarajevo's 1984 Winter Olympic Games.

 

3.) The Skenderija Center

Name: The Skenderija Center

Location: Sarajevo, BiH

Lead Architect(s): Živorad Janković, Halid Muhasilović & Slava Malkin

Years of construction: 1966-1969, expansion 1977-1983

Present condition: Good, used for many events

Coordinates: 43°51'16.7"N, 18°24'50.3"E

Description: Just west of Sarajevo's city center along the south banks of the Miljacka River is the Skenderija Center, which was used as one of the primary venues of the city's 1984 Winter Olympic Games. However, this venue was not one built exclusively for this Olympics, but was instead a pre-existing indoor arena retro-fitted with new features and amenities to suit the needs of Olympic events. The Skendarija Center was originally conceived in the late 1950s to stand as Sarajevo's first significant indoor arena and large exhibition space. The spot chosen for the new arena was the site of the former bazaar established along the Miljacka in 1499 by nobleman Skender Paša, as well as a mosque which also built on this site by his son Mustafa in 1518. While the mosque collapsed in 1935, the remaining minaret was demolished in 1960 to make way for this new sports arena.

A vintage image of the International Table Tennis Championship of 1969 at Skenderija. Credit: carlotamir.com

The architect team of Živorad Janković, Halid Muhasilović and Slava Malkin won the commission to construct their design for this complex, which consisted of several event halls and cultural spaces placed around a central square. All of the structures were built in bare concrete which were crafted in a hybrid mix of architectural styles, with hints of Internationalism, Modernism and Brutalism, which all came together to create a structure that was distinctively "Yugoslav" in style. The unveiling of this new arena complex, which was named the Skenderija Centar, occurred in 1969 on Republic Day [November 29th], which was presided over by Yugoslav President Jozip Broz Tito himself and was then followed by the premiere screening of the new Yugoslav Partisan war film titled "The Battle of Neretva". Soon after opening, Skendarija's architects Janković, Muhasilović and Malkin all won the "BORBA" award for excellence in architecture, which was the highest professional award for architecture in Yugoslavia. Over the following years before the Olympics, the Skenderija Center was used for a variety of events, most notably the 6th Congress of the League of Communists of BiH in 1973. The first photo in this series shows the Skenderija Center decorated for this event, with a huge picture of Tito front and center.

Photo of hockey match between the USA & Czechoslovakia being played in Skenderija during Sarajevo Olympics. Credit: Getty Images

The Skenderija Center is composed of three primary buildings, the central one being the Central Hall (today called the Mirza Delibašić Hall), the Sports Hall (today called the Ledena Hall) and lastly the Youth Hall. The name of the whole complex "Skendarija" is named after Skender Paša, which essentially translates as "Skender's Place". The first major sports event to be held here at Skenderija was the the International Table Tennis Championship in 1969, with basketball, handball and boxing matches also held here over the following years. However, when Sarajevo won the bid to host the Winter Olympics in 1977, planning officials realized that major expansions of Skendarija would need to be made to accommodate the massive number of attendees, with the main hall being increased to hold up to 6,000 spectators. In addition, a press center and a new state-of-the-art ice rink was built as well, with the latter hosted Olympic events for hockey and figure skating. After the Olympics, the Skenderija Centar resumed its operation as a local sports, cultural and entertainment venue.

A recent interior view of the Skenderija Center in Sarajevo. Credit: Mirza Hasanbegovic

During the Bosnian War and the Siege of Sarajevo, the Skenderija Centar suffered considerable damage, most notably with the shelling of the Youth Hall. The UN subsequently used much of the space in and around Skenderija as a staging grounds for humanitarian relief and supplies. Restoration work began on the complex in 2000 and was not fully completed until 2006. This restoration was accompanied by the inclusion of an underground shopping center beneath the main plaza. However, tragedy struck the Skenderija Centar again in 2012 when heavy snowfall collapsed the roof of the Ledena Hall. This damage was repaired in 2016. Despite these changes and setbacks, Skenderija has continued to be used a venue for sports, cultural and entertainment events. The complex now is even home to several art galleries and nightclubs. Though, the future of Skenderija remains uncertain as BiH government officials are debating over whether to allow foreign investors to demolish the complex to build a new modern facility in its place.

 

4.) Mt. Igman Olympic Ski Jump Complex

A 1984 view of the Olympic ski jumps on Sarajevo's Mt. Igman. Credit: TVP Sport

Name: The Olympic Ski Jump Complex

Location: Mt. Igman, Hadžići, BiH

Lead Architect(s): Janez Gorišek & Vlado Gorišek

Year opened: 1979-1982

Present condition: Destroyed, in ruins

Coordinates: 43°46'05.5"N, 18°14'47.0"E

Description: Perched upon the slopes of Mt. Igman overlooking the alpine fields of 'Malo polje' or 'Little Meadow' (approximately 15km southwest of Sarajevo's city center as the crow flies) are the remains of the 1984 Winter Olympic ski jump venue. This sprawling complex was constructed specifically for these Olympic games and planning for its construction begun soon after Sarajevo won the bid to host the Winter Olympics in 1977. Out of 12 submitted proposals, the Olympic ski jump design concept selected to be built was the one put forward by the the Slovenian brothers Janez Gorišek & Vlado Gorišek, who were both not only architects and engineers highly respected at that time for their work creating ski jump complexes around the world, but they were both accomplished ski jumpers themselves (Janez participated in the 1956 Winter Olympics at Cortina d'Ampezzo). Completed in December of 1982, the Igman Ski Jump complex consist of two primary jumps: a large jump (with a K-point of 112m) and a smaller jump (with a K-point of 90m). The jumps were oriented parallel to each other, which resulted in the need for only one judging pavilion. The methods and technology integrated into this pair of ski jumps by the Gorišek brothers and their construction team were hugely innovative for its time and these design approaches went on to become the industry standard over subsequent decades for ski jump design. In addition to the ski jumps, the Gorišek brothers also designed the ancillary buildings around the jumps (such as the Ski Center, the Judges Pavillion, among others), crafting them in a modernist architectural style of sloping and angular features which would complement and seamlessly integrate into the dramatic form of the ski jumps themselves.

From atop Igman ski jumps looking at the crowd below during the 1984 Olympics. Credit: Getty Images/Heinz Kluetmeier/ABC Photo Archives

As an Olympic venue, the Mt. Igman Ski Jumps were a resounding success, with tens of thousands of people attending the events here. The ski jumping events here at Mt. Igman are particularly remembered for famous and notorious Finnish skier Matti Nykänen making his Olympic debut by setting the hill's distance record in front of a stunning 90,000 spectators, while also winning the large hill event by the widest margin in Olympic history. Video footage of Nykänen on one of his runs at Sarajevo's Mt. Igman ski jumps can be watched at THIS YouTube link. After the end of the Olympic Games, there was a considerable increased interest in the sport of ski jumping among the youth of Sarajevo, with many using the Mt. Igman facilities to practice and train. However, during the Bosnian War, the region around the ski jumps turned into a front line of fighting between Bosnian Serb forces and the Army of the Republic of Bosnia & Herzegovina. Some stories even relate that the winner's podium at the far end of the ski jumps was used to conduct executions, but I was not able to find confirmation of this. Later in the war, UN peacekeeping forces took over the Judges Pavilion as a lookout post. The structure bears their emblem up to the present day.

A current view of the old Judge's Pavillion and Press Center at the Mt Igman ski jumps. Credit: Kathmandu & Beyond
A recent view from the top of the ruins of the Mt Igman Olympic ski jumps.Credit: BosniaHistory@Twitter

By the end of the war in 1995, the ski jumps were left in a completely unusable ruins. Through the 2000s, numerous efforts were put forward to refurbish and rehabilitate the ski jumps, but, as of yet, these have not manifested into actionable results. In 2016, the local municipality of Hadžići, which oversees the ski jump site, has put forward a plan to construct a small 25m K-point ski jump for young people to train on, with the complex's original creator Janez Gorišek even putting forward collaboration efforts. Regardless of the rehabilitation of the ski jumps, the area around the Malo polje continues to be a popular winter sports playground, with downhill skiing, sledding and other such activities.

 

5.) The Bobsled & Luge Track on Trebević Mountain

A 1984 vintage view of the Olympic bobsled & luge track on Mt. Trebević at Sarajevo. Credit: David Madison/Getty Images
A 1984 view of the starting point for the Olympic bobsled track at Sarajevo. Credit: Arhitektura i Urbanizam, 94/95
Image from the 1983 European Bobsled Championships at the Olympic bobsled & luge track on Mt. Trebević. Credit: Ivan Terzić/Wikipedia

Name: Olympic Bobsled & Luge Track

Location: Trebević Mountain, Sarajevo, BiH

Lead Architect(s): Gorazd Bučar (NOT Boreisa Bouchard)

Year opened: 1981-1982

Present condition: Destroyed, in ruins

Coordinates: 43°50'22.9"N, 18°26'35.0"E

Description: Nestled within the thick conifer forests of Trebević Mountain just south of Sarajevo's city center are the remains of the Bobsled & Luge Track left over from the city's 1984 Winter Olympics. As Sarajevo was awarded its bid to host the Winter Olympics in 1977, it immediately became clear for local planners that designing a multi-functional and sustainable world-class bobsled and luge track would be one of its biggest hurdles. One of the goals of Sarajevo's Olympic organizers was to make this track not only functional and competitive, but also accessible and engaging for local citizens and spectators, bringing them closer to the action in order to entice them to witness a sport they may have not seen before. The commission to build this new bobsled and luge track was awarded to the proposal submitted by Sarajevo engineer Gorazd Bučar, who was a builder by trade but also worked on the technical faculties of the universities at Sarajevo, Rijeka and Osijek.