What is all this nonsense about racing downhill on skis? Anything that lasts—what—one little minute, two minutes?—is strictly for sissies. What really counts, they tell you in Norway, is slogging through the trees, over the rocks and into the hills. What also counts is jumping recklessly off high platforms and holding yourself up in the sky by grabbing the seat of your pants. Anything less is for callow kids and girls.
Norway ought to know. Norwegians ski across their country, not down it, and they figure around Oslo that a ski lift is probably a stiff drink after a day in the woods. Norwegians are tough. Nordic skiing is tough. But the two go together—and there go a goodly share of the gold medals that will be won in the 1968 Olympics.
A lot of this special hardness can be explained with the bear story. In the old, old days, Norsemen used to have a high old time rousting out hibernating bears, beating the very Winnie the Pooh out of them with long, stout poles and cooking them up for dinner. Got to be a sort of thing a man did while skiing.
What happens, of course, is that you do this sort of thing two or three times each winter, and pretty soon the kids get to doing it for laughs every Saturday night and then their kids. And next thing you know, in a generation beyond that, you have spawned a mean, coldly tough crew of blue-eyed bashers. They all get together and call themselves the Norwegian Nordic Ski Team.
February 5, 1968
The 1968 collection of Norway Olympians is the fiercest ever assembled in that cold, bumpy and rockbound country.
They look it. They are proud, aloof men, each one tightly wired together with several miles of sinew, with the shoulders and arms of linebackers and the spindly legs of 10,000-meter runners. All wear bone-white, slightly blotchy looks, as if they scrub with Brillo pads. All wear those fine, hooked Nordic noses and a clear air of confidence—which figures. There are 11 world champions among them, a couple of almost-champions, and there are so many more stacked up around the fjords that their coach, Oddmund Jensen, has one 18-year-old hidden off in his farm system who he admits is "the best I have ever seen." But the kid still can't make the traveling squad.
Collectively, they're overpowering. Most of them have unpronounceable names that crackle on the cold air and hang there ominously, full of trick vowels and consonants. Try Ole Ellefsaeter. Wrong. The first name is rolled off the tongue until it sounds like "Yule." Gjermund Eggen is relatively easy to say. But Odd Martinsen's first name rhymes with "ode," and about the time the Olympic announcer struggles through something like, "Here comes Harald Gronningen now," old Harald will be almost halfway to Lyon.
Anyway, the legend about those bears was confirmed by Ole Ellefsaeter, toughest man on the squad and perhaps the premier man in the world today over 50 kilometers—which is 31 miles of churning over hill and tree. He told it a few weeks ago in a roadside cafe somewhere near Heidal, Norway, 4,000 miles from the nearest Howard Johnson.
He sat with his giant's shoulders hunched over a plate containing a gluey mixture of reindeer patties and thick gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots and something suspiciously like creamed buckshot. He stared shyly into his food and talked through an interpreter. He summed up the story with a moral of his own.
"The non-Nordic nations—and the U.S.," he said, "have too high the standard of living and too soft the life for our game. Too much indoors and too much the television.
"You cannot help but note," he said, "that the good Nordic teams come from small towns, surrounded by the woods. We must be tough just to live; we ski from the time we are small. We play on skis; we learn to accept the bitter cold. We learn about the wilds."
Ellefsaeter knows. He is so flinty that the only thing that really worries Coach Jensen is that he will break his skis—which Ellefsaeter does often—since he does not seem to know his own power. At the last Olympics in Innsbruck, Ellefsaeter was slashing along in the 50 kilometers, burning his competitors behind him, until he broke a ski. Still, from first spot, he managed to limp in eighth.
Ole lives in a simple cabin off in the north woods, spends his working days wandering through the forest with an ax, marking trees to be cut down. And, on Sunday, he says, "to relax I run very hard and fast for, mmm, three to five." Three to five miles? No, hours.
He won every 50-kilometer race he entered last year and after one of them, to unwind a little, he decided to ski home. It was only over a mountain. About that time a fierce blizzard struck and Ole became lost in the woods. What did he do? Well, he shrugged and then he dug a hole in the snow, curled up like a sled dog and slept until daylight, got up and slogged home. And any bear that might have been careless enough to cross his path that morning would have been a very dead bear, indeed.
Ellefsaeter is the toughest, but he also is typical of this new-old Nordic breed. Jensen is one of the few coaches in the sport who does not coach; he simply unchains his gang, turns them loose on everybody else and then paces around on skis, holding a stopwatch.
"I don't know where they come from, such a strong team," he says. "The sport today is in the situation of the wind blowing the right way for Norway."
This situation has been inevitable all along, even if it has been a long time in coming. After all, Norwegians invented skiing—and Norsemen were skiing from camp to camp about the time other tribes in the world were wrestling dinosaurs. Not long ago, archaeologists turned up a 4,000-year-old rock carving at Rodoy, near the Arctic Circle, showing a primitive stick figure on skis.
In the last Olympics, the Norwegians made away with two Nordic gold medals—in the men's combined (in which a cross-country skier must get up enough guts to hurl himself off a jump as well) and the 90-meter jump. Then they picked up silver medals in the 15-and the 30-kilometer runs. And in the years between they have been gathering force like an avalanche.
At the 1966 World Championships, Norway's Eggen burst through to win an unprecedented three gold medals, sweeping the 50, the 15 kilometers and running the 4 x 10 relay (with Ellefsaeter, Martinsen and Gronningen as partners). And Bjorn Wirkola—whose first name means "bear," the greatest natural tag line in Norwegian history—came out of nowhere and stood the jumping world on its ear. He won gold medals in both the 70-and 90-meter jumping events, first man ever to pull off that lofty coup. In the latter event Wirkola sprang into what oldtime experts still say is one of the best jumps ever made, hanging up in the sky over Holmenkollen for an hour or two before coming down inside a small target area surrounded by a crowd of 90,000.
In the 15-kilometer event that year Norway not only snowballed everybody, it ran one, two, three, with Ellefsaeter and Martinsen hot behind Eggen—and in the relay event, the Norwegians blew off everybody in sight.
Since Martinsen was then a mere 23 and the baby on the squad (in Norway, nobody is considered ready for this stuff until he starts to silver at the temples) they let him run the first leg, with Eggen, Ellefsaeter and Gronningen figuring that if the kid goofed they could make up the time between them.
Martinsen made his move at about five kilometers—which would be about as unwise as turning Buckpasser loose on the backstretch—and took off. While Norway stood amazed, he came in for his leg 25 seconds ahead of everyone else. The other three breezed in.
Together, they are as natural an act as, say, The Supremes. And it figured that Ellefsaeter, Eggen, Gronningen and Martinsen were tabbed immediately as Norway's Golden Quartet—darlings of the fjord set and fallen upon by fans wherever they go.
"The Golden Quartet. We are not," says Ellefsaeter dryly, "a rock 'n' roll band, you know."
Still, Ole bangs a mean guitar at his cabin up in the woods and sings in a rather commanding voice, a la Tennessee Ernie Ford. So he cut a couple of records, two 45s and one LP, which promptly became tops on the Norway Hit Parade. There was Hulder Slotten, written just for Ole, which rocks right along. It loses a lot in translation, but it is about this girl named Hulder, see, who is the wife of a troll, and it is sung in slotten—which is the Norwegian equivalent of country and western.
Eggen, meanwhile, promptly turned out a best-selling book called Three Times Gold, and Martinsen married a stunning nurse. And all of them took dead aim on this year's Olympics.
The country seems ready. If one were to add up all the gold medals, dating back to the pre-Alpine days when the two divisions were still a little mixed, Norway still leads the world in total championships (in which Olympics also count) with 56. Finland is next with 40 and Austria has 38.
And even against growing East European competition they are a cinch to add at least six more to that total when the massacre starts next week.
A couple of weeks ago Coach Jensen sat in an Oslo hotel lobby and talked about it; tall, lean, wearing his sweater with the reindeer pattern, his legs stretched out, and wriggling his toes in a pair of soft boots. Skis were stacked all around and upstairs the world's toughest skiers were wallowing in all this unaccustomed luxury.
"Let's see, now," said Jensen, ticking them off on his fingers. "Twelve Nordic gold medals are possible.
"We do not have a chance with the women, so we can subtract those. We can compete with the Finns and Swedes, but Eastern Europe—where the Russian and Czech women do a man's work—they will produce the winning women. Our women are good, but they are also charming and some of them"—he shrugged—"are surprisingly ladylike.
"But we are in a favored position otherwise. If Eggen fails, which is not likely, I have someone else to send in. Ellefsaeter or Martinsen. Plus some more.
"There is always the possibility," he said, "that they might get overtrained. It is even possible [he sounded like he didn't believe it] that they could get stage fright and do badly."
Still, it is difficult to picture Ellefsaeter scared of anything. Gronningen is as relaxed as, and looks like, Ray Bolger about to shuffle into a chorus of Once in Love with Amy, and Martinsen, Eggen and the others are icily cool about competition. And if there is one man in all the Northland who is not going to get stage fright it is the littlest Norsk of them all, Wirkola, the Andy Hardy of the ski jump.
While Coach Jensen was shepherding his team through the social perils of Oslo, Wirkola was up at his home in Trondheim, 250 miles to the north, standing atop the town's small jump and looking down the iced track into the thickest snowstorm since Leif Eric-son was a kid. He had his knit cap cocked down over both eyes. It rested on the bridge of his nose, which is slightly twisted, Rocky Graziano fashion, and a faint smile played around the edges of his mouth.
The little jump in Trondheim is 60 meters or so, all rickety, and it creaks and groans and goes bump in the night. To the unpracticed eye, coming off that monster would be like jumping off the St. Louis Gateway Arch. But Wirkola figures it is the snap jump of all time, and he could go off the thing doing the Monkey, the Bird or the Slop—all of which he does well.
But what about that snow? Jumping into a blizzard like that would be like jumping off the world, right?
"It may look awful," said Wirkola. "But it's nothing. It is not that dangerous." He grinned, with a burst of teeth and that cocky look. "After all, a snowstorm does not matter; nothing matters but to jump, you see? Look, you know the hill is down there. You don't have to see it—you just have to jump because jumping is everything."
Wirkola jumps, the experts agree, like nobody else in the world. For one thing, he is small—barely able to peer over the top of a Volkswagen—and he has the short, slightly bowed legs of a weight lifter. But more than that, he is made out of what is suspected to be blue steel and helium. He does not have, his teammates say, a single nerve ending in his body.
Jumpers have got to be slightly daffy, anyway. Before Wirkola, the most beautiful in the world was Toralf Engan, Norway's 1964 gold medalist and now its jumping coach. Engan used to agonize over perfection before every leap, doubled over with tension and often throwing up before stepping into position on top of the ramp. Wirkola is his opposite: he is so cool that he scares everybody else on the platform.
"I look down that big jump and it does not scare me," he says, teeth clenched in a sort of savage joy. "It makes me want to jump the more. It's beautiful; it calls me, that thing."
Wirkola wears elevator lifts on his jumping skis—not because he is built like Mickey Rooney but because all good jumpers wear them—that pitch him forward over the tips. On a flat surface it would be practically impossible to stand on them. But on the inrun it gets him properly set up.
And even to the amateur eye, the difference is plain: where other jumpers uncoil at 60 mph and leap slightly upward, Wirkola comes roaring down tucked into the tightest muscular ball anyone has ever seen and then uncoils straight out into the world like a bullet. And where other jumpers break position, the Little Bear floats down, following the curve of the hill until it seems he is a cinch to land on his left eyebrow. He holds and holds and holds until the crowd starts to wince like some giant animal below and, at the last second, smoothly brings his feet around from somewhere and gets them under him.
Is it a special style? A tactic? A strategy? A bird, a plane? No.
Simple: "It is because I hate to have it all end," he says.
And if you think that sort of routine does wonders for judges and the crowds, it does even more for Wirkola. It sets him afire. "When you come down from a perfect jump," he says, steel-blue eyes slit half shut, "you are only angry that you didn't stay up there longer."
"From the top I look down the icy tracks," he says, "and I become very anxious to jump. Then I run down the inrun a few paces, fast as I can, and bounce into a low, low crouch. My chest is practically on the skis. I need a great deal of speed. And when the edge of the jump comes I am going maybe 110 kilometers an hour, and I leap straight out, pushing with my legs.
"One must not uncoil," he says, "until one is about to start floating. And then! Suddenly you meet a flow of air coming up the hill. You can feel it hit your belly as you uncoil. Wonderful! And you actually ascend slightly before you start to descend. You lay out over your skis, arms back at your sides, and lie perfectly still.
"If you give in just the slightest bit or make a frightened move, your skis will come up against your body and it is like slamming on the brakes. And you start to fall, too soon, too soon. I do not even become aware of the crowd until I land, and then I hear them roar and I suddenly know they're there."
Wirkola was not always a jumper; not any more than anyone was a sky-diver until he bailed out of a plane. And even at that he was obviously born, not made. Until 1964 he was a Nordic combined man and has only been a jumper-come-lately.
"I thought I would take a year off and just jump," he says, "and I would see if it happened. Well, it happened; I found my true life."
In 1966 Wirkola turned the jumping world upside down, winning the Norwegian championship, which is tougher, in its way, than any other, and the two gold medals in the world meet. For one year he held the world jumping distance record at 479 feet, which does not particularly interest him since form and floating are the real rewards. And last year he cocked his jumping cap down on the bridge of his nose and took on the Germans and Austrians in their traditional "jumping week" events. Wirkola won three of the four on the program—and the title. In the pre-Olympic competition at St. Nizier, outside Grenoble, he won the 90-meter jump easily and chose not to enter the lesser jump.
And now he faces the prospect of the 1968 events. In that regard, jumpers are not like Norway's cross-country runners, who tend to be modest and kick at the snow a lot, heads down, when they talk.
"You have got to believe in yourself," Wirkola says flatly, in the clear tone of a true believer. "I would like to win two gold medals at Grenoble: the 70-meter and the 90-meter jumps. I would think that Reinhold Bachler of Austria would win a silver—he is my biggest threat—and there are at least five who could get bronze medals."
Wirkola unquestionably believes he can do it. It shows up in his walk and manner, and in a crowd he gives off the fire of a champion. In a way, Bjorn is like Eggen, the only other man on the team who clearly wants more than one gold medal.
Eggen wants three, in the 50, the 15 and the one he figures to pick up as a member of the Golden Quartet. He will start in all four events and take on all comers, including Ellefsaeter, who expects to attack in a couple of events, and Martinsen, who insists he is now old and strong enough to go 50 himself. Gronningen, the fourth member of the quartet, will enter all events and perhaps win a silver or a bronze.
"It is," says Eggen, "the tradition, like the bears, remember? It is a way of life with us in Norway. What else is there to do here in the winter?"
So the Golden Quartet and the rest of the team assemble in Oslo, and it seems as though all 470,000 residents know them; then the jumpers come to town, walking in their special, down-from-the-hills swagger, caps pulled down over their eyes, and there is the feeling of fierce pride all through the cold air. Wirkola comes on like a transistorized Joe Namath; he gives off an aurora borealis of glittering hardness. "There is Bjorn Wirkola," everybody says. "There is the Little Bear!"
And up behind the National Theater, at the head of Karl Johan's Gate (street), is the biggest fan of them all, King Olav V, onetime jumper (in 1923), present-day cross-country skier and fulltime Nordic buff. King Olav skis every Saturday on the miles of trails around the city. On a good day there are 100,000 people out there. Everyone meets on the trails, nodding courteously: the King, the Golden Quartet, the commoners, Coach Jensen—everybody.
King Olav's royal bodyguard skis with him in a sort of Secret Serviceman role. But halfway through the evening he has fallen more than a block behind, puffing badly.
In a country full of tough people it is incongruous. Ah, well, maybe the guy is a Swede.