War dimmed Sarajevo Games' glow

War dimmed Sarajevo Games' glow

Woman who volunteered as Sarajevo tour guide shares her memories at UI exhibit

Thirty years ago, Sanja Koric was a high school student in Yugoslavia, eager to learn English to satisfy her love for pop culture and rock music.

So she volunteered as a guide at the 1984 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, mingling with foreign tourists and athletes like speedskater Bonnie Blair.

She even struck up a friendship with a couple from Champaign, an encounter that would eventually lead her to the University of Illinois.

The glow from those Olympics, which charmed a worldwide audience, would evaporate less than a decade later as her country plunged into a three-year civil war.

But with the world's focus once again on the Olympics, this time in Sochi, Russia, Koric doesn't want people to remember home "as a city that was bombed and shelled."

"I would like people to remember Sarajevo as a friendly and open city," Koric, an engineer with UI Facilities and Services, said this week. "Sarajevo still welcomes people from all over the world."

Koric's thoughts are part of a 30th anniversary exhibit on the Sarajevo Olympics at the UI's Main Library this month, timed to coincide with the 2014 Winter Olympics wrapping up in Sochi this weekend.

The exhibit features mementoes from the games, media coverage from around the world and Olympic photographs by Ivica (John) Jurisic, a Chicago-based photographer from Bosnia, as that region of the former Yugoslavia is now known. Among the memorable gold-medal faces in his photos are U.S. slalom skiier Phil Mahre and the British ice-dancing duo of Torvill and Dean.

Jurisic will visit campus Thursday to give a public lecture about what the Olympics meant to the people of Sarajevo, at 4 p.m. in 1090 Lincoln Hall.

Steve Witt, director of the International Studies Library, said the exhibit is pulled from the UI's Olympic and foreign-language collections, which include the papers of UI alumnus Avery Brundage, former head of the International Olympic Committee. Witt hopes it will convey the impact of the Sarajevo games, which represented huge growth for the winter Olympics as countries from Africa and Latin America participated for the first time. The two previous summer games — 1980 in Moscow and 1984 in Los Angeles — had also been boycotted in a Cold War battle between the U.S. and the Soviet Union.

For Koric, the games were a symbol of peace and brotherhood, as major religions had co-existed peacefully in that mountainous city for centuries. Amid the churches, synagogues and minarets were streets "decorated and crowded with people," she wrote. "Those who could not communicate in a foreign language did it in a friendly gesture, or with a big smile. We laughed for no reason. ... We were the center of the world."

Her father, who owned a small grocery store, ordered produce "from all continents" to make guests feel at home.

The fairy tale ended with the onset of war eight years later.

"The 'Zetra' sports center, the magnificent hall of ice and speed skating ring, and a place where I met American athletes and new friends, was bombed and set on fire, destroyed to its foundation," she wrote.

She and her husband, Seid Koric, eventually made their way to the U.S. during the war.

On her first day as a tour guide in 1984, Koric had met the parents of U.S. speedskater Erik Henrikson from Champaign. They gave her an American flag to cheer on U.S. speedskaters, and after learning of her plans to study engineering, told her about the UI's highly ranked engineering school.

It was her "wild dream" to visit, so during her junior year at the University of Sarajevo, she came to the UI as an exchange student in the early 1990s.

And when her husband was deciding where to go for graduate studies in engineering, she suggested the UI. Seid Koric won a scholarship and is now a research scientist at the UI.

"I keep telling everybody, there are magnetic forces that attracted me to Champaign," she said.

They try to visit Sarajevo every other year with their two sons, and she said people there are "trying to move on.

"Things are getting much better."

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