Feature06 Apr 2020

‘A day we believed we would live again’ - remembering the 1996 Sarajevo Solidarity Meeting


Maksim Tarasov at the 1996 Sarajevo Solidarity meeting (© Mark Shearman)

For this year's International Day of Sport for Development and Peace, we recall the Sarajevo 96 Athletics Meeting of Solidarity, the first international sporting event to take place in Sarajevo after a devastating siege that strangled the city for nearly four years was finally lifted.

For nearly four years in the early 1990s, residents of Sarajevo, the host city of the 1984 Winter Olympics, were subjected to daily shelling and sniper fire by Bosnian Serb forces, positioned in the hills surrounding the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina, killing 13,952 people. Thousands were children.

The siege of Sarajevo – all 1,425 days of it – is the longest military siege of a capital city in the modern era, and 5 April marked the beginning of the horrifying tale of the city that just eight years before was hailed by sports officials and athletes from all over the globe for successfully staging the Games.

The days of Olympic glory quickly became a distant memory as shells – an average of 329 a day – started raining down on the city 28 years ago. It was long days and nights of sheer terror. Residents were trapped and held at gunpoint in sub-freezing winters and scorching hot summers. Water, electricity and food were scarce, until they ran out altogether. Snipers targeted mothers waiting in lines for water, fathers queuing for bread at bakeries and schoolchildren running to makeshift classes in basements.

About a month into the siege, mortars pounded the Zetra Arena, host to the skating events at the 1984 Olympics. The bombed out building was later used as a morgue, the seats from which spectators watched Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean ice-dance to a dozen perfect-scoring routines and Scott Hamilton and Katarina Witt launch their dazzling Olympic figure skating careers, fashioned into coffins.

Next to Zetra was Koševo Stadium, an athletics and football facility that hosted the Olympics' opening ceremony. It too, was pounded by mortars during the siege, soon becoming a bombed out shell of a glorious structure of the past. Instead of parks, it was now surrounded by cemeteries on three sides – two filled with residents, killed in the siege.

It was there, at the stadium, just six months after the siege was lifted on 29 February 1996, that World Athletics, then the IAAF, would put on a track meet. The 9 September competition would be the first international sporting event in Sarajevo since war broke out in the former Yugoslavia nearly five years earlier.

An unlikely event takes shape

In late April 1994, officials from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Athletics Federation attended a European Athletics Council meeting in Bled, Slovenia, presented Primo Nebiolo, then the IAAF’s president, with the improbable idea that the governing body help stage a world class competition in Sarajevo that summer. The meeting would be a strong show of solidarity, they said, that could help create an atmosphere of hope for the people of the beleaguered city. The unlikely idea resonated with Nebiolo, and he agreed, setting the plan into motion.*

Carla Sacramento signing autographs at the 1996 Sarajevo Solidarity meeting


Over the next two years, the IAAF partnered with the IOC to renovate the stadium, Nebiolo convinced Mondo to donate a track, and a date, 9 September 1996, two days after the Grand Prix Final in Milan where many of the season’s top athletes would gather, was confirmed. Pierre Weiss, then the IAAF’s General Director, led two logistically challenging site visits in the lead-in to meet with local organisers, once in June and again in July. With a promise from local organisers that the stadium would be ready, all that remained was convincing athletes to go. And then getting them there.

The ambitious programme required about 150 athletes, but in the end about 80 from 30 countries answered the call, Olympic high jump champion Charles Austin, and Grand Prix Final winners Daniel Komen, Hicham El Guerrouj, Maksim Tarasov among them. Freshly-minted Olympic champions Michael Johnson and Noureddine Morceli and triple jump world record-holder Jonathan Edwards, all present in Milan, declined the invitation, citing security concerns, schedule conflicts and illness.

Responsibility for travel arrangements was given to Nathalie Jurinic, who was just wrapping up her third month at the IAAF’s travel office – and the end of her probationary period. A true trial by fire.

Conventional airlines were of course a non-starter, she said. So were any charter operators she contacted. Sarajevo’s airport, heavily damaged during the war, wasn't open for civilian flights. “Parts of its radar system were not functioning or fully operational. So it was next to impossible to find someone to fly there.”

By a fluke, she and Weiss managed to find three planes through a contact in Basel, one smaller twin-engine and two 737s. Next, they needed flight clearance from NATO which had just taken over airport operations from the United Nations Protection Force. When that came, two flights were scheduled for the day prior to the competition, and one early the next morning. These flights, Jurinic said, were essentially the first that shuttled non-military or non-relief aid personnel to the city after the war.

Bad weather and heavy fog in Sarajevo forced one to be rerouted to Zagreb. Nebiolo was on board. Weiss said that several nervous hours passed before any other IAAF personnel knew what had happened to the missing plane. “Nobody had mobile phones then. We thought that maybe the plane had crashed.” That 700-mile flight wound up taking 10 hours. 

Arrival in Sarajevo

Steinar Hoen, the reigning European champion in the high jump, was on the early morning flight. Arriving after a runner-up finish in Milan, he was in good spirits. The memories of what he would experience over the next 12 hours would stay with him for the rest of his life.

“This was my first real war experience, one that I will never forget,” said Hoen, who is now director of the Bislett Games. “We arrived at an airport that was shattered by war.” The scars left by shells and gunfire were readily evident.

Military vehicles escorted the buses first to the Holiday Inn, the city’s only operating hotel, made famous during the siege, and again later to the stadium. “You could see how the war had devastated the city,” Hoen said. That evening, some 20 journalists that covered the meeting would share the hotel’s only working telephone line to file their stories, each allotted just three minutes.

‘Endless columns of people’

That devastation he witnessed didn’t bode well for the meet, Hoen thought, until the athletes’ convoy approached the Koševo complex.

Kosevo stadium in Sarajevo


“I thought we would compete there in an empty stadium but I was shocked when we were getting close and saw so many people.”

More than 50,000 people wound up filling the stadium that day, walking from nearby neighborhoods and far off villages. Hundreds more watched from windows and rooftops of nearby shelled-blasted apartment blocks. From those same rooftops, armed soldiers kept watch.

“What I remember most is the panorama of Sarajevo right before the meeting began,” said Nusret Smajlovic, the meeting director and that year’s national team coach at the Atlanta Olympics.

“You saw endless columns of people, coming from all directions towards the Olympic Stadium. They were walking through streets that were no longer tree-lined avenues, through parks where there were no more trees or flowers. Like a scorched earth.”

The scene, he said, was uplifting, but moved him to tears.

“People came to the meeting as pilgrims. They believed that a new normal life was beginning. And they passed by the cemeteries that housed more than 12,000 Sarajevans killed in the mindless storm of war. I was sad to tears. Those people would never enjoy sports again. They would not attend the Solidarity Meeting today. They would never enjoy watching the beauty of a sporting event again. It was a picture of the absurdity of war and the unstoppable force of life.”

The stadium was filled to capacity when the action began with a regional U20 1000m battle between local runners Anton Sisul and Jasmin Salihovic. The latter would go on to compete at the 2000 Olympics, but on this day Sisul triumphed, bathing in the rapturous applause of the crowd as he crossed the line.

Later the crowd cheered as Hicham El Guerrouj romped to a 1500m victory, nearly a second clear of Komen, the season's overall Grand Prix winner. In one of the day's closest races, Briton John Mayock edged Salah Hissou, the Olympic 10,000m bronze medallist, by a scant 0.04 in the 2000m. Portuguese star Carla Sacramento won the women's 1500m.

But few who look back on that day remember much about the action on the track. What has stayed with them nearly a quarter of a century later is the emotion of those few afternoon hours in a city whose people were desperate to simply connect with the outside world.

“I don’t remember so much about how the competition went but I remember the atmosphere and the warm welcome we got from the spectators and the people from Sarajevo that had lived through so much hardship for so long,” Hoen said. “This competition was, for them, maybe the start of the beginning of their old normality.”

“The athletes were so impressed by the crowd,” Weiss recalled. “For most it was the first time they saw foreigners in more than four years.”

Most athletes gave what they could, flinging their vests, t-shirts, spikes, even their socks into the crowd. After emptying their bags, they tossed those, too.

Darren Campbell signing autographs after the Sarajevo Solidarity meeting


For Weiss, it was the most emotional experience of his professional career. "You could feel it. People were smiling for the first time."

Jurinic concurred. She doesn't remember much of the meeting itself, but recalls vividly the connection between the athletes and spectators. "It was very emotional, a lovely exchange between the athletes and the people."

“I also remember the pure reality of what we were experiencing - that got into the hearts and souls of us competing,” Hoen said. The camaraderie between competitors, he said, was much closer and warmer than in any other competition he’d participated in.

“It didn’t matter so much who won, it was more important to try to put on a show. Whoever jumped well that day, we all were cheering for him. I think Charles Austin won the competition, but I am not sure.”

Austin did win, topping a modest 2.27m, three centimetres better than Hoen. But he too emphasized the symbolic importance of simply being there.

“We’re here to tell the people in Sarajevo they’ve not been forgotten,” he told Tracy Wilkinson of the Los Angeles Times. "Hopefully," he told the Independent, "we will appreciate our privileged way of life much more after being here."

Journalist Doug Gillon, who covered the meeting for The Herald, said that prior to boarding their night flight back to Milan, every athlete and journalist was handed a photo print of Sarajevo. On the flight, Austin took his print seat-to-seat and had everyone on board autograph it.

“Several years later, on a subsequent meeting, I asked him: ‘Where’s your picture?’ He knew exactly what I was talking about, and replied that it had pride of place on the wall of his home in Texas.”

Athletics’ liberating force

After the meeting, Smajlovic said he and federation president Mehmed Sokolovic walked through the city’s main square, where they were greeted as heroes, liberators of the city.

“Athletics sent a message of solidarity to the international community. It was an event that solidified the hope and faith of all the local athletes and the citizens of Sarajevo of a new, more humane life.”

"It was a day when we believed that we would live again, worthy of humanity, and have a new future," he said. "People who came believed that a new normal life was beginning."

Bob Ramsak for World Athletics

*updated on 8 April to correct the date when the meeting was first proposed.