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Travel: Skiing: War and piste, the Sarajevo story

The slopes are de-mined, the ice-rink is no longer a morgue. But will Torvill and Dean be making a comeback?
For what, asked my contact in Sarajevo, is the capital of Bosnia- Herzegovina famous? He answered his own question: "War, the Winter Olympics, and more war."

Television came too late to record Sarajevo's arrival on the world stage, with the assassination there in 1914 of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne; but it relayed images, unforgettable in different ways, of the city's other two international events. First there was the 1984 Olympics, made memorable for British viewers by Torvill and Dean's Bolero routine, with which they won a gold medal at the Zetra ice rink. Less than a decade later, during the war in the former Yugoslavia, came the city's siege, with nightly news reports of Sarajevo under attack from Bosnian Serb artillery on the surrounding hills, and soldiers firing from the suburbs into the infamous "Snipers' Alley".

If history tends to repeat itself, however, Sarajevo's limited international repertoire gives grounds for optimism to a group of people who are involved in winter sports in the area - my contact, Piers Thompson, among them. Next year they plan to make a formal bid to hold the 2010 Winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

More Winter Olympics? Why not, when much of the infrastructure of the 1984 games has survived the war?

Jahorina, the resort to the east of the city where the women's downhill race was held, is in need of refurbishment; yet Piers Thompson's company, Harlequin Leisure, takes more than 500 skiers a week there, predominantly soldiers from the UN's stabilisation force, SFOR, based in Sarajevo. To the south, the ski-jumps at Igman are back in use and the Bjelasnica resort, where the 1984 men's downhill took place, reopened this season (after de-mining) with a new chair-lift, a cafe and other facilities for skiers.

Later this month, the rebuilt Zetra ice-rink will be inaugurated, an event which the Sarajevo authorities hope Torvill and Dean will attend. Its use as a morgue during the war - what was the car park is now a cemetery - makes the rink something of a memorial to the war's victims; the 1984 bobsleigh run in the hills is more obviously marked by the conflict, being set on a heavily mined area within the International Entity Border Line (IEBL) that separates the two areas into which Bosnia- Herzegovina is now divided. This division, between the Bosnian Serbs' Republika Srpska and the Bosnian/Croat "Federation" area, effectively isolates Jahorina, as the only one of the 1984 Winter Olympics facilities in Serb territory; it renders the bobsleigh run a no-go area and, thanks to a spur of the IEBL, makes Igmen and Bjelasnica relatively inaccessible for Bosniaks (forget the nomenclature "Bosnian Muslims" - it's outdated) from Sarajevo, in the Federation area.

These political factors make Sarajevo, for the present, impractical as an Olympic city; but as a winter sports area it is already functioning.

The ride from Sarajevo airport, which was itself on the front line during the siege, brings back memories of the distressing wartime television images. True, I had forgotten that Snipers' Alley is about a wide as the M25 (not surprising, since a real alley would give distant snipers little at which to aim); but the heavily shelled Sixties concrete towers on either side are instantly recognisable. They are either bitten away and partly destroyed, like the building in which the Standard newspaper was produced on every day bar one during the war, or burned out, like the huge Unis block that was memorably turned into a flaming torch by a Bosnian Serb artillery attack.

Now, however, the city trams that once provided targets for Bosnian Serbs and sniper-cover for the Sarajevans merely go about their business, rumbling up into the narrow streets of the old town. Its 19th-century buildings on the southern perimeter, facing the Miljacka river, took a lot of punishment - particularly the beautiful, pseudo-Moorish National Library, which is now being restored. Elsewhere relatively little structural damage seems to have been done, although shell-holes filled with red-tinted concrete bear permanent witness to attacks that caused fatalities. The mosques, some of which date from the 16th century, still stand; and the old Bascarsija market area - all cobbled streets and single-storey wooden buildings - looked so untouched that it could almost be a film set.

The still elegant, busy city feels safer than London's West End on a Saturday night, which is hardly surprising with so many peace-keepers present - not just the SFOR troops but also the OSCE (Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe), OHR (Office of High Representative) and IPTF (International Police Task Force), among others. But as you head towards Jahorina across the IEBL into the RS - that's Republika Srpska, if you're not getting the hang of these military abbreviations - the tensions of being in a former war zone become rather more apparent, if only because the ski resort is right next to Pale, the former stronghold of the hard- line Bosnian Serb leaders Radovan Karadzic and Ratko Mladic.

Bosniaks do not ski at Jahorina. Luckily, a lot of helpful, English-speaking Serbs from Belgrade do, for which I was grateful. Few people in Jahorina speak English (they do not have the Sarajevans' daily exposure to the largely Anglophone international organisations), and they still use the old Yugoslav dinar; I speak no Serbo-Croat, and I had Deutschmarks - which, along with locally issued "equivalent marks", are the currency of the Federation.

The skiing at the resort is limited: three chair-lifts and two drag-lifts were running, giving access to about a dozen ungroomed pistes, mainly reds, and to large off-piste areas in between - but not to the 1984 women's downhill run, whose chair-lift has clearly not worked for a long time. The top of the resort is at 1,889m, offering vertical drops of some 300m; but the lumpy surfaces made the descents quite fun, especially for the largely unskilled Serbian skiers. (The SFOR troops did rather better, although some had the handicap of a pistol strapped to their thighs.) Jahorina obviously needs investment, and not only on the pistes. It is short of accommodation, since two of the hotels and many chalets are permanently occupied by Bosnian Serbs who were displaced from Sarajevo in the wake of the Dayton agreement.

Sarajevo's other ski area, to the south of the city, at Bjelasnica in Federation territory, has seen investment this season. And it does offer the thrill of going down an Olympic run, the 1984 men's downhill course. Long, fast and ungroomed, this made me look more like an average Serbian skiier than an Olympic contender. But Bjelasnica is currently even more limited than Jahorina, with just the one piste and one off-piste descent open. And it has no accommodation at all; while retreating from the area during the war, the Bosnian Serb army destroyed all of its nine hotels.

Evidently, Sarajevo cannot compete with Val d'Isere as a skiing destination. But for its interest as a political arena, it has no rival in Europe.

After skiing at Jahorina I met up again with Piers Thompson, a 30-year- old from Cheshire who is now in his second year running Harlequin Leisure. The company provides accommodation, equipment rentals and other local ski services in Jahorina (and, next season, in Bjelasnica) to the international organisations. But Mr Thompson is looking forward to more normal times, so he and an aid-programme manager for the Refugee Trust Ireland, Killian Forde, are acting as facilitators for the committee that has been set up to revive Sarajevo as a winter-sports destination - and to bid for the 2010 Winter Olympics. Shortly after the committee's second meeting, Mr Thompson invited me to join the members for a meal.

If the atmosphere seemed tense, that was hardly surprising; for the two Bosniak ski-area managers, this was the first time they had been in Bosnian- Serb territory since the war started, and the committee's members - former colleagues - had been reunited, after seven years, only in the previous week. But the meeting had "gone incredibly well", according to Mr Forde (thanks largely, he said, to "the unique relationship Piers has with the people here") and, after a few drinks, the mood relaxed; the senior Bosniak representative even allowed himself a political joke.

To someone like me, who had dropped into Sarajevo only for a couple of days' skiing, to sit in with those attempting to repair the damage of almost a decade of armed conflict seemed absurd - but extremely affecting, too. More Winter Olympics? Obviously. If I were on the International Olympic Committee, I know which city would get my vote for 2010.

Stephen Wood paid pounds 341 return on Austrian Airlines (0171-434 7300) to Sarajevo, via Vienna. He stayed at the Saraj hotel in Sarajevo (00 387 71 472 691), for DM157 (pounds 55) a night. Harlequin Leisure (00 387 71 445 076) can organise ski packages in Jahorina from DM520 (pounds 184) per person, based on two sharing, including half-board chalet accommodation and transfers from Sarajevo airport. Credit cards are not accepted in Bosnia-Herzegovina