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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 1972.

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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