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The ‘Olympic Express’ and the Sarajevo 1984 Travel Nightmare

July 14th, 2017 · No Comments · Olympics, Road trip

I survived some ridiculous road trips as a professional journalist but nearly all of them were my own damn fault.

The Saturday night/Sunday morning back-to-back football road games. (Tempe to Minneapolis by way of Dallas; Tuscaloosa to Houston by way of Atlanta.) Doable. Just.

The 730-mile early January drive from San Bernardino to Grand Junction, which was to continue with 240 more miles over the Rockies to Denver for an NFL playoff game the next morning; the red-eye to San Jose, Costa Rica, from LAX via Houston for a U.S. soccer World Cup qualifier. (Not doable. Those two ended in failure, one stop short of my plan.)

My own fault. How it usually worked.

An exception? The most prominent in my memory was the trip from southern California to Sarajevo ahead of the 1984 Winter Olympics. I was told to sign up for the Associated Press Sports Editors charter, and it was at least as screwy as anything I ever invented.

It strikes me that even now, 33 years later, that many of the work-related nightmares I still have include scenes that I would have encountered on a  two-day journey to the Balkans and what is now the capital of Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Oddly, the most vivid bit oin my memory of the trip was the two hours (my memory makes it longer; the archives do not) when 69 journalists went absolutely nowhere while standing on a train platform in dreary, freezing Zagreb.

Wait, didn’t I say that the Olympics were in Sarajevo?

Ah, yes, but we touched down in Zagreb after flying a red-eye from JFK to Frankfurt and transferring to a charter flight to the Croatian capital.

That is how the travel agency decided to do it, for the client, APSE.

Even I might have said, “That’s a hare-brained scheme.”

The tricky part of this Winter Games was getting to Sarajevo. It was not a place with lots of air-travel options. Hence, the stop in Zagreb.

Where things broke down was the non-arrival of something we had been told was called the Olympic Express. It was to carry the journalists via (in my imagination) a sleek, modern train, nonstop, from Zagreb to Sarajevo.

So, we landed in Zagreb at 10 a.m., cleared customs (this was back when Croatia and Sarajevo were part of Yugoslavia) and then buses took us to a fancy downtown hotel (the Esplanade, apparently), where middle-aged male waiters in formal attire served lunch — when we all just wanted to have a sandwich and move ahead.

Eventually, the 69 of us were loaded back onto a bus and taken to the train station, where we went to the platform to await the Olympic Express.

And waited.

And waited.

It had become late in an early February afternoon and it was getting dark and cold, fast, in Zagreb, as it does, and we were pretty much stuck on the platform because the tiny waiting area, inside the station, was jammed with locals who were chain-smoking, leaving us with a choice of freezing versus severe smoke-inhalation.

I picked freezing.

I remember walking up and down the platform, trying to stay warm (my best winter gear was in my luggage, somewhere or other), peering down the tracks, waiting for our special train to appear and end our misery. Asking about the train, several times. Being told it would be along any minute.

It never did show up.

What annoyed me back then was that we travelers were not told about the non-Express. I am not sure organizers of the trip knew about it, either, until the clock had given the lie to the Olympic Express concept.

Eventually, Just a Regular Old Yugoslav Train pulled up and all of us got on, and soon discovered we were on the “local” to Sarajevo.

We must have stopped 25 times. No, really. And it took us seven hours. Yes, seven hours for 250 miles. Even Amtrak can beat that.

During that ridiculous ride, not all the sports hacks kept a grip on their dignity. Several of them were thoroughly drunk long before we got to Sarajevo, and I remember several of them (a couple of big names from the Northeast, in particular) stumbling through the cars and loudly criticizing the hosts for the travel debacle, as local residents looked at them in disgust.

My situation was slightly worse because the night before we left from JFK (to Frankfurt, to Zagreb), I had flown from Los Angeles to JFK, so by the time we got to Sarajevo, after midnight, I had been on the move for all but a few of 48 hours.

Ah, memories.

Our wee-hours arrival in Sarajevo came after the media center had closed. After standing in lines going nowhere for another hour or two, organizers realized no one was going to issue credentials and rooms at 2 a.m., so they just put everyone in vans and cars and took them to the media housing and aimed them at any empty room available.

(The next day, while I was at the media center, organizers picked up my luggage and moved it to the other side of the big housing complex, which I finally deduced, at midnight, in German, from the old guy who was sitting behind the front desk of the place-I-was-no-longer-staying. I found it presumptuous, but it was a communist country, so anything was possible.)

Lots of other memorable things happened at that Olympics, my first (and my second trip to Europe). But one more travel event comes to mind.

At the end of the Sarajevo Games, which were pretty odd in a lot of ways and perhaps especially for those who had not been in eastern Europe before … the 69 of us were boarding a charter, leaving from Sarajevo, headed to Frankfurt (and then on to JFK).

However, not enough seats were available, and somehow two or three guys were standing in the aisle, being asked to get off the plane.

One reporter, and I can still see his face and the sweater he had on, had reached the end of his tether.

He began to shout, after being told he had to get off the plane, and the memorable statement was this one: “I am not staying another f*cking minute in this f*cking country!”

Strangely, this worked for him. (This was 1984, remember; no cops were called.) Someone in our group gave up his seat, and the shouter took it and went quiet.

As suggested a few grafs previously, other interesting stuff went on in Sarajevo, before it was destroyed again. But this is enough for today.

Oh, and I thought of all this because I an re-reading “The Forgotten Soldier” and the protagonist is waiting on a freezing platform in Minsk during World War II.

No, our train-platform experience was not as fraught as that one.


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