Sounds of Sarajevo
by Doug Wilson
In a post 9-11 world, nothing may seem the same. But as he heads out for this summer's Olympics in Athens, legendary ABC Sports producer, Doug Wilson, remembers the aftermath of another terrorist tragedy and the impact it had on those producing the Olympic Games.
A cloud of tragedy followed Jim McKay and me to Sarajevo in the spring of
1973. Only the winter months had passed since the Munich Olympic Games
stunned the world when all the members of the Israeli wrestling team lost
there lives in the hostage taking horror that changed our world forever.
Never again would we board a plane without a security check. Never again
would we approach traveling with the innocence of those halcyon days before
We were assigned to cover The World Table Tennis Championships for ABC's
Wide World of Sports. In those days we covered everything from wrist
wrestling in Petaluma to Muhammad Ali fights to The Grand Prix of Monaco to
baseball in Japan and gymnastics in South America. But this was different.
The participants for most of the events we covered were from western
countries. Not the Middle East, and certainly in those days not China.
Table Tennis, however, was fully global. Members of my production team and
I were shrouded by the thought that because Jim McKay had had the attention
of all television viewers during those bizarre, surreal hours of coverage of
the Munich tragedy, he was a perfect target for extremists who would want to
capture the world's attention.
To all appearances the town was full of the glory of early spring. I
remember particularly the shining faces of school children heading home on a
balmy afternoon. Yet in our hotel, everyone looked suspicious. Everyone
seemed to talk in low voices amid the thick Turkish cigarette smoke and sips
of syrupy black coffee made so the grinds sat in the bottom of the cup. Our
job was not only to report the event, but also, to let them know what it was
like to be there. This time we couldn't do that fully. We couldn't talk of
our shadowy fears. Instead, we focused on the sounds of Sarajevo, its
history, and the championship.
Standing on a bluff high over the city, Jim opened the show talking of the
confluence of cultures and religions that through the centuries had made
Sarajevo the mystical city it had become. We began by listening to the
sound of the muezzins calling to Allah from the minarets which towered above
their Mosques. That sound gradually blended with the sound of church bells
from the belfries of Eastern Orthodox Church spires. It was a marvelous
cacophony. As the camera moved through a bazaar and down a narrow alley,
Jim imagined Sidney Greenstreet in search of "the missing icon." We
introduced a third sound, which at first seemed like a coffee percolator,
then a popcorn popper, then, its true source, a maze of ping pong balls
being swatted and sliced and slammed against table top courts which filled
the huge Skenderija Sports Hall where the competition took place.
It is strange, now, to think back over the creative process of assembling an
opening for the program and to realize the contrast between our creative
efforts and the fearful feeling which surrounded us. Back at the hotel I
was so concerned, I asked our production manager to hire a 24-hour guard to
be on duty outside Jim's room. I still get shivers recalling, as I entered
my room, the vision of the guard down the shadowy hallway, sitting in a
chair, leaning against the wall. He was well armed and ominous. A symbol
of how times had suddenly changed with the horror of the Munich Tragedy.
The rest of our creative efforts went toward the telling of the historical
tragedy that caused the start of the First World War. In 1914 Archduke
Ferdinand of the Austro-Hungarian Empire was visiting Sarajevo with his
wife. Gabrielo Princip, a student revolutionary, and a small group of
discontented Serbs had plotted to assassinate the Archduke. Their original
plan was botched when a bomb missed the open car and the thrower fell into
the river adjacent to the roadway. Subsequently, due to that incident, a
ceremony that was planned to receive the Archduke at City Hall was canceled.
The Archduke and his party continued on their way to a hospital in their
open car. As fate would have it, the car took a wrong turn exactly at the
corner where Princip stood. He raised his pistol, fired, and mortally
wounded the Archduke, lighting the political fuse that exploded into the
First World War. Princip's footprints were recreated in the concrete
sidewalk where he stood. Toward the end of our documentary, McKay stood in
those footprints and completed the telling of the story. It was a powerful
and communicative piece. Jim was brilliant. Little did we think that 25
years later the whole area would be devastated by warring factions whose
roots could be traced back through the same incident.
The presentation of the World Table Tennis Championship went well. If
you've never been to one, it is worth the ticket of admission to watch these
extraordinary athletes drive the feather-like ping-pong ball at each other
with bullet-like power and millisecond hand-eye coordination. The sight and
sound of eighteen or twenty tables in action at the same time is awesome and
fascinating. The brilliance and athleticism of the finalists at a solitary
table in the great arena is extraordinary.
As expected, the Chinese dominated the competition. The People's Republic
had encouraged its 900,000,000 comrades to participate in the sport. They
were the powerhouse of ping pong and the sport had a major influence on
world history as the 1970s evolved.
You may recall what history refers to as "Ping Pong Diplomacy." It occurred
during the Nixon Administration when a small group of American players went
to Japan and then to The People's Republic to play in "friendly
competition." That paved the way for further interaction with the Red
Chinese government on the highest governmental levels, culminating in
President Nixon actually visiting the country and opening a diplomatic door
that had been locked tightly for decades.
During that period, the People's Republic National Table Tennis Team even
came to North America. They arrived in Canada, then crossed the border
into Detroit. This happening provided one of the most memorable and
significant ABC's Wide World of Sports programs in its 37-year history.
The team played the U.S. right there in Detroit, again in "friendly
competition." I'll never forget the opening ceremony with the two teams
side by side entering Cobo Hall Arena in "Motor City," the capital of
American industrialization! The Red Chinese flag waved in the crowd next to
Old Glory and the Michigan University Band played the Michigan fight song.
What a sight! Impossible to imagine in those times. It was the ultimate
example of sport opening the door of communication, overriding political
barriers. Since the 1970s our differences and concerns have remained, but
at least we're talking. The continuing communication can be traced back to
ping pong players having at it from opposite sides of a political net.
So, back in the spring of 1973 in Sarajevo, we finished our assignment
without incident. The murky concerns about potential hostage taking were
unfounded as far as I know, and the next time we visited Sarajevo things
were very, very different.
It was eleven years later. The Olympic Winter Games were being held there.
The city was full of the Olympic spirit. It once again welcomed the world,
but the shroud of tragedy was now a part of distant history. The ambiance
of Sarajevo was celebratory. It had been a bit modernized since 1973, but
the Old Town and the mosques and the churches remained as the base of this
historic multicultural crossroad.
Perhaps the spirit of these games can be represented by the memory of John
Denver. He had been brought on board the ABC team by Roone Arledge, then
President of ABC Sports, who had orchestrated our Munich telecasts in 1972
and all our Olympic productions before and since. John wrote a song in
honor of The Games entitled, "It's About Time," which he sang on the air in
our pre-Olympic telecast the night before the Opening Ceremony. It was an
inspirational piece about overriding injustice and celebrating humanity.
Our production team stayed at the Bosna Hotel. It was a short drive outside
of town in a wooded area, quiet and welcoming after non-stop hours of work
at the broadcast center downtown, or in my case, at the Zetra Arena in which
the Figure Skating Competition took place.
Most nights John would perch himself atop a table in the dining room and
sing for hours, just because he loved to. We would gather, a libation of
choice in hand, and "come down" from the extreme stress of doing our shows
and listen to this Colorado Mountain troubadour as he moved us with his
music. He'd run through them all: "Colorado Rocky Mountain High,"
"Sunshine on My Shoulder," "Annie's Song," the whole repertoire. What a
treat and what an honor for us all. Each night it put a musical cap on the
celebration of the human spirit which the Olympics ideally represents.
The giddiness and joy of the games of Sarajevo can be remembered, too, in
the experience of a cameraman named Dianne Cates. Dianne is a tall,
beautiful first-rate camera person. She is also a pioneer. She helped
break down barriers for women in the world of television sports production.
In Sarajevo, aside from helping me cover the Figure Skating Competition, she
also did hand held camera work for hockey. She often recalls with a smile
the moments after the Russian hockey team's victory. She followed the
jubilant players from the team box, around the corner of the ice surface,
down the stairs right into their locker room! They laughed and kidded her,
in Russian, of course. She couldn't understand anything they were saying,
but they were delighted she was there and showed it by including her in the
shower of champagne that was spurting all over the room. She and her camera
got drenched. The dead pan Russian coach, at whom she had spent hours
pointing her camera during the competition, was now laughing and kidding
around with the rest of them and Dianne was the center of the celebration on
camera and all!
There was another incident that reflected the spirit of the people of
Sarajevo during The Games of 1984. During a rainstorm, a woman came rushing
out of her house when she saw a passerby getting wet. As I recall, he was
an ABC engineer easily identified by the ABC Sports Olympic outfit. She
handed the fellow an umbrella. He was concerned about returning it. She
said in broken English, "Keep it." She just wanted him to be comfortable
and happy in Sarajevo.
It was a grand time, but it didn't last.
Eight years later the sounds of the muezzins, the churches and Olympic fan
fare changed to sniper fire and bombs. From May 2, 1992 to February 26,
1996, the city was essentially destroyed. Zetra Arena was completely
burned. The parking lot surrounding the Opening Ceremony stadium became a
graveyard and the Skenderija Sports Hall was damaged by shellfire. It is
painful to think about the details, not only of the physical damage to the
city, but also of the 10,615 people who were killed.
Today, the city is being rebuilt. Zetra Arena has been fully reconstructed.
Despite the years of horror, the spirit of the people of Sarajevo has not
been vanquished. The survivors seem happy and optimistic. The Olympic
Spirit is still alive there, like an injured athlete, healing, and looking
toward better times.
In a few weeks we will turn our attention to Greece. The Summer Games will
be held in Athens, where the Olympic Spirit will continue. What better place
to have it nurtured and celebrated? Greeks are famous for their
hospitality, gusto and joie de vivre. So those who are lucky enough to be
there will be participating in the marvelous, historic celebration. Nonetheless, viewers the world over will watch and pray that this year's event will signal a time of hope and healing --- a time when people everywhere will spread the Spirit of the Games, as well as emotions of pride and competition.
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