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Olympic Skater Returns to Find Stadium of Triumph Burned

April 8, 1996

SARAJEVO, Bosnia-Herzegovina (AP) _ Five years ago, Olympic gold medalist Johann Olav Koss won the European speedskating championship at Zetra Stadium in a peaceful Sarajevo.

On Easter, he returned to the shell-pocked, burned venue.

``It’s very depressing to see how much damage war can really do to a city like this,″ the 27-year-old Norwegian said. ``I wasn’t prepared for what you can see _ you have it everywhere. It’s amazing how much has been bombed.″

Koss has spearheaded campaigns to raise money for victims of the war, first in his native Norway during the 1994 winter Olympics in Lillehammer, where he helped Norwegian Olympic Aid collect about $12 million. He also personally gave the prize money from his three gold medals.

Now a special representative for UNICEF, Koss is helping to raise funds for Olympic Aid-Atlanta, an initiative tied to the Centennial Olympic Games this summer in Atlanta that seeks to help millions of war-affected children in 14 countries.

It aims to raise at least $7 million, and will help more than 1 million youngsters in the former Yugoslavia, said spokeswoman Nancy Sharp.

For Koss, the trip to Sarajevo was a chance to see how war has affected children here and what needs to be done. His first stop was Zetra Stadium, scene of his 1991 sporting triumph and a symbol of the 1984 winter Olympics in Sarajevo.

``It’s really, really a depressing site, especially since I had my great moments there,″ he said of the muddy stadium, now filled with armored vehicles and camouflaged soldiers of the NATO-led peace force. ``As an athlete, to see an Olympic stadium ... totally destroyed, is terrible.″

What made the visit even more depressing were the graveyards around the stadium, he said.

But Koss’ mood lightened when he arrived in Dobrinja, the journalists’ Olympic village in 1984. There were skeletal buildings, burned out buses and apartments with no windows _ but dozens of kids still played outside on a sunny day.

``There was a pretty well developed sports system, but now it’s ruined; not only equipment but sportsmen and trainers left the country,″ said Ismet Kapetanovic, a physical education teacher in Dobrinja. ``It’s going to be very difficult to rebuild.″

Two years ago, Kapetanovic started organizing sports for children in enclosed spaces. With help from UNICEF and the U.S. Agency for International Development, the program now has sports for 650 youngsters in 25 groups and hopes to expand all over the city.

``The idea here is not to have Olympic winners, but to have sports for as many children as possible,″ Kapetanovic said.

Koss watched youngsters playing soccer, tennis and basketball, and then joined the handball team, trying out as goalkeeper.

Fourteen-year-old Muamar Delibasic asked Koss whether it was true that he sold his Olympic skates for $100,000 and gave the money to war victims in Sarajevo.

Koss said yes. The youth was impressed.

``This is something done by a man who feels compassion and understands how young people feel,″ he said.

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