Photos

Sarajevo: Post-Olympic City and Post-War City

Photographing the complex legacies of the war-torn host of the 1984 Winter Olympics.

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Jon Pack

After taking second place in the giant slalom race on February 14, 1984, 21-year-old Jure Franko stood on this concrete podium as the first and only member of the home team to receive an Olympic medal when the city of Sarajevo, then of Yugoslavia, hosted the Winter Olympics. Eight years later, this same podium would be the site of a more grisly event, the executions of countless victims of the Bosnian War and Siege of Sarajevo.

These two separate and wildly different events still have a strong presence in this city, now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

"Many of the buildings are still riddled with bomb indentations and bullet holes," says photographer Jon Pack. "You can't go very far without being reminded of [the war]."

As the latest iteration of the Olympic Games gets underway in London, Pack is in this former Olympic city of Sarajevo to explore these overlapping legacies for a photo book about cities that have hosted the Games. He's working with documentary filmmaker Gary Hustwit, director of the 2011 film Urbanized (we interviewed him back in September). The two are traveling to past Olympic host cities to explore what's left behind by these events – both physically and culturally.

In Sarajevo, Pack says the legacy of the Olympics has become intertwined with the legacy of the war, which raged for more than three years, between 1992 and 1995. Many of the sites and venues of the Olympics unintentionally became sites and venues of the war. Pack says all but one site – the women's alpine run – were affected in some way by the war. Some, like the medals podium, became as if not more significant in the war as they were in the Games.

The concrete luge and bobsleigh track still stands on Trebević mountain, just outside the city. During the war, its strong walls were used by the Serbian guerrilla fighters as trenches. "It overlooks the city and it was used as a sort of artillery position," Pack says. "I don’t know how they did it, but they blasted holes in parts of it, and you can look through it and see the city. This is where the snipers would be stationed. It's really creepy."

A family enjoying a weekend barbecue near the luge and bobsleigh venue, as seen through a hole in the concrete track used by Serbian snipers during the war.

Another nearby mountain, Igman, was the site of ski jumping and Nordic races during the games. During the war, it was used by the United Nations as a buffer zone between the two fighting factions.

"The U.N. had set up a base right next to the ski jumps in this building, and you can still see the letters 'U.N.' on the building," Pack says. "It's completely bombed out."

The ski jumps nearby are still standing, but are also dotted with bullet holes.

Pack has been touring around the city and its Olympic sites with the help of a local, someone who reached out after backing the book project on Kickstarter.

Touring through the mountainous Olympic venues, Pack has noticed a number of signs warning of areas likely containing still-live landmines; they're a unique legacy for a former Olympic site, and understandably disconcerting.

"I kept asking [my guide], 'Am I okay to walk over here?'" Pack says. "He kept saying 'Probably.'"

Pack says many locals from past Olympic host cities are eager to show he and Hustwit their cities. In every city, the Olympics have left a strong impact on the people, says Pack. Most are proud, though in Sarajevo the crossover legacies of the Games and the war create conflicted memories. Pack says he's just as interested – if not more interested – in exploring how the people of these cities are impacted by the games rather than the physical cities themselves.

"I think it would be pretty boring to just go to the venues and see what was there. But meeting with people and getting a sense of the culture and how they’ve been affected by it has been really interesting," Pack says. "I'm mostly just curious about and want to document what ghosts remain in these cities."

So far Pack and Hustwit have visited seven other former host cities: Barcelona, Mexico City, Los Angeles, Lake Placid, Montreal, London and Athens. They've got about seven more cities to visit, and are planning to wrap up their travels in November. The book is expected to be available next March. In the meantime, Pack and Hustwit are organizing a gallery show of some of their photographs at the Storefront for Art and Architecture in New York City. The show runs August 8-18.

Photos courtesy Jon Pack

About the Author

  • Nate Berg is a freelance reporter and a former staff writer for CityLab. He lives in Los Angeles.