Ever since their modern re-incarnation, the Olympics are an opportunity for countries to show off their wealth, might and cultural sophistication, all under a pleasant guise of global unity, fair play and athletic achievement. They are certainly the most enduring and spectacular pinnacle of Belle Époque intellectual trends from increased importance of sports in individual and social development (e.g. the Sokol movement), globalism, international competition, romanisation of the past, nationalism, individualism all the way to eugenics.
It is thus no wonder that Belgrade, which always so desperately seeks to get in on any global craze with its typical (over-)confidence, seriously considered to host them thrice and even submitted two formal bids. Although it is far from the unluckiest biding city – that would be Detroit, which tried to get the games 7 times – or country (Hungary, with 5 bids and one withdrawn bid for Budapest) – the stories of Belgrade’s bids all have a poignant air to them (a bit like Tokyo’s doomed 1940 and 2020 Olympics) as they were made just ahead of some of the worst times in Belgrade’s modern history: for the Summer Olympics in 1948, 1992 and 1996.
Belgrade 1948 (bid planned but not submitted, hosted by London)
The idea of Belgrade becoming an Olympic city was forged by the Yugoslav politicians who were wowed by 1936 Berlin Olympics. Even before the Olympics officially started, Yugoslavia and Belgrade were drawn into their preparation as the first ever Olympic torch relay passed through it on its way to Germany (this would only happen twice more: ahread of 1972 Munich Summer Games and 1984 Sarajevo Winter Games). These games, which went down in history as an infamously successful Nazi propaganda coup, had an additional wow effect on Yugoslavia which was going through an awkward period of increasing internal and external tensions.
Less than two years before the Games, King Alexander I was assassinated in Marseilles in 1934 by a Macedonian-Bulgarian nationalist Vlado Černozemski who was assisted by Croatian Ustaše. On the other hand, the country found itself increasingly economically reliant on its old German foe as Germany under Hitler was experiencing an economic boom and led an ever more aggressive external economic policy. The rapprochement was led by Milan Stojadinović, Yugoslav Prime Minister, who, depending on various accounts was either a true enthusiast for Hitler’s Germany or was just attempting to ease the tensions with Axis countries which were increasingly meddling in Yugoslavia’s complex internal politics already plagued by competing nationalisms and opposition to centralisation of power in Belgrade, as well as loss of a major historical ally (Yugoslavia did not formally recognise USSR until 1940 and was the last European country to do so).
The Yugoslav delegation was so wowed by the Werner March designed stadium in Berlin that he was first approached by Stojadinović to design a stadium that would support Belgrade’s bid.
March’s vision was predictably a megalomaniac project in totalitarian neo-classicism which, were it completed, would have made Belgrade unrecognisable. Described as a “national shrine” his project foresaw near-destruction of the Belgrade fortress (made militarily useless by the advent of airplanes) and creation of a 55,000 seat stadium in Lower Kalemegdan, a site from where Belgrade as a city grew. The upper part of fortress would have been converted into a series of grand buildings of national importance.
March also enlisted help from Dragiša Brašovan, a local architect famed for his ground-breaking modernism and beloved by the Yugoslav government (he designed the National printing company’s building as well as airforce HQ in Belgrade as well as the building of the regional government in Novi Sad, who was to „solve“ the issue of Belgrade’s Sava docks and wider „Sava amphitheatre“ (including what is now Belgrade Waterfront). Although famous for stripped down modernism, Brašovan went historicist monumental, imagining Belgrade’s Sava bank as a series of over-sized arches.
The project was met with fierce opposition from the public and especially local architects who (accurately) saw it as a way of completely destroying some of the most valuable parts Belgrade’s history, made worse by the fact that the starchitect who was tasked with doing it was not only foreign but from a country which had a history of enmity with Yugoslavia and Serbia.
Even though Stojadinović was deposed from power in 1939 (he fled to Argentina after the War where he had a complicated relationship with Ante Pavelić of Ustaše infamy), the Government and Belgrade City hall persisted and the complete project was presented inside the German pavilion of the newly completed Belgrade Fair Ground in October 1940 as part of an exhibition of German contemporary architecture.
The plan was that the stadium was supposed to be completed by September 1941, in time to celebrate King Petar II’s adulthood and assumption of full royal duties.
Yugoslavia however, never got to submit its bid to the IOC for the 1948 Olympics. WWII enveloped in April 1941. Interestingly though, it was the Germans who ended up redeveloping Lower Kalemegdan in the end. After bombing of military barracks and archaeological excavations by the infamous Ahnenerbe around Carl VI gate (built during Austrian rule in 18th century) n 1942 and 1943, allegedly seeking to show true Germanic history of Belgrade, the occupying authorities laid out the park as we still see it now and worked on flood defences on the Sava (which remain to this day).
Belgrade 1992 (4th place hosted by Barcelona)
Belgrade’s most famous and first successful attempt at actually bidding came in 1980s. Although SFRY was wrecked with debt and early signs of political instability started emerging, the country decided to shoot for Olympic gold and try and host games using its already well developed sports infrastructure: from the huge Red Star stadium to 25 Maj swimming centre.
The organising team decided to try and capitalise on the country’s international clout, through the Non-aligned movement, and remaining money from industrial giants like GENEX, and try to present itself as a perfect site for Olympics as it was not to be mired in Olympics Boycotts (such as 1980 Moscow or 1984 Los Angeles) and had many success in both competing in the Games and organising major sporting events in Belgrade. The benefit for the country would be further increasing its international prestige and also giving something to hope for its increasingly dissatisfied citizens.
The Olympics were to be held mostly in existing venues (including non-sporting venues like Belgrade World Trade Centre), with the notable exception of the planned Olympic village in Bežanijska Kosa and “Press Village” on the spot of the present-day Belgrade Waterfront.
However, more impressive were Yugoslav attempts at making Belgrade stand out among more famous rival cities such as Paris, Amsterdam and Barcelona through ingenious marketing. The proposed logo for the bid was the first time a designer (Dragan Stamenković) re-imagined the famous Olympic Rings and there were many publicity stunts: from two songs for the Olympic bid (“Let’s start the games ” sung by Dado Topić and Slađana Milošević and „My Belgrade“ sung by Nataša Gajević of Zana), a wonderful poster by Vladimir Veličković to creation of an arcade-like machine to wow the IOC members when they were voting in Lausanne in October 1986.
Sadly, however, the competition proved too stiff. The competition for hosting 1992 Olympics was the fiercest to date: there were other 5 competitors (Amsterdam, Barcelona, Birmingham, Brisbane and Paris), excluding New Delhi, which withdrew before formal process. It also did not help that Juan Antonio Samaranch, whose long reign over the IOC covered this period, was actually from Barcelona.
After losing, the organising team behind Belgrade 1992 immediately stated its intention to bid for 1996 Olympics. Little did they know that Belgrade would not only not host the games, but that its sportspeople would be banned from participating in Barcelona due to cultural sancions imposed on Yugoslavia due to the War.
Belgrade 1996 (6th place; hosted by Atlanta)
The controversy surrounding the choice of Atlanta for the Centennial games over Athens (where the whole thing kinda started) overshadowed Belgrade’s struggling bid increasingly made ridiculous given the instability in the country.
This AP article from 1990 just ahead of the time when IOC made its infamous decision, presents the desperate situation rather well:
“Belgrade’s biggest disadvantage, they say, is Yugoslavia’s serious political and economic turmoil. Inflation is high and the central government is faced with separatist movements in several regions.
But organizers remain confident. They talk about what they have and what is planned, even if the Olympics don’t come to the Balkan peninsula.
Among the projects on the drawing board is a subway system to solve Belgrade’s perennial traffic jams and badly organized public transport.
Bakocevic said that Belgrade’s long-term strategy for getting the Games consists of being persistant in its bid.
″One day the IOC will get tired of us and they will award us the games,″ a member of Belgrade’s city council joked.
Although Belgrade came dead last, at least Yugoslav sports teams were allowed to participate in Atlanta and won four medals.