Just about the time the sun was setting on the world Alpine ski championship in Italy—that's the glamour event, the one where people race down the mountains—the other world championship was already under way in Czechoslovakia. That's the Nordic, the plain, poor folks next door, the ones who race cross-country and jump off hills. Nordic racers not only endure hardships, they insist on them. And right from the start there were plenty of hardships to go around, especially for anyone who figured that this would be the usual Nordic meet. The Norwegians would win everything and go back to their fjords full of medals, right? Not this time.
To start with, there was grumbling that the International Ski Federation had permitted the two world championships to overlap. But there was no reason to get too exercised: not many Alpine racing fans would have cared to assemble in the silent woods of Vysoke Tatry, where there were no colorful gondolas to ride, no beautiful Jet Setters; where Bogner stretch pants would look almost indecent and where the modest dinner steak comes without sauce béarnaise. Vysoke Tatry lies out in the cold Northeast, maybe 10 miles from Poland, 120 miles from Russia and 50 miles from Hungary, and its sturdy people prefer to be called Slovaks rather than Czechs. For the Nordics the setting was perfect: up in the Tatra Mountains lay the most demanding cross-country race courses the world has ever seen and the two finest pieces of engineering art in all Europe, the 70-and 90-meter ski jumps.
The show was worth going off to the woods to see. Ever since the first world Nordic championship in 1925, the Norwegians—who invented cross-country skiing, oh, say, about 4,000 years ago—had taken more gold medals than any other country. After that, the Finns and the Swedes won all the rest; the Russians were way back and the Americans were out of sight. So when the big-boned, tall lumberjacks from Norway with names like Ellefsaeter, Martinsen and Tyldum arrived, they wore the arrogant expressions of confident supermen.
Czechoslovakia 1970 changed the look: surprisingly, two days before the meet ended, the Norsemen still had not won a gold medal and—what was worse—their always-powerful men's and women's teams had finished an embarrassing fourth in both relay races. Only Odd Martinsen, a 28-year-old woodsman from Bul, had salvaged a silver medal in the 15-kilometer and a bronze in the 30-kilometer race. And Lars Grini, 26, who used to make sausages in an Oslo butcher shop, had managed a third place in the 70-meter jump. When they got to counting up the medals before the last two big events—the 90-meter jump and 50-kilometer race—it was painfully clear that Russia, which had won everything so far, was making a historic Nordic move.
March 2, 1970
Still, with people who knew their Nordics best, the real tests were still ahead—the ones that could determine the course of the sport for years to come. The 90-meter jump is at once the most scary and the most sensational event in Nordic competition, and there were plenty of tough ones around to try it. For one, there was Norway's Bjoern Wirkola, that reliable little fireplug, the only man in history to win gold medals on both jumps. And, of course, the Norsemen are always deadly in the 50-kilometer race. Fittingly—although nobody will ever know where they all came from—150,000 spectators flanked the foot of the big hill to watch.
All week long Russia's Vladimir Beloussov had been pegged as one of the men to beat, a Big Bird as jumpers say—whenever jumpers say anything at all. Beloussov, a 23-year-old soldier with melancholy green eyes, had won the gold medal in the 90-meter jump at the Olympics in Grenoble and was doing a good psyching job on the others in the meet. He had winged off the hill beautifully in practice, topping it off with what experts said was a rare perfect jump, about 368 feet. Meanwhile, his teammate, Gari Napalkov, who had just won the 70-meter jump, had looked pretty ragged. But Napalkov—who collects Tom Jones records and who may be the most optimistic Russian anyone has ever met—professed not to be dismayed. "Now we will see who is the better man," he said. And the better man, he indicated, would be the man with the most nerve.
Exactly. Down at the bottom of the hill on jump day, those tens of thousands were not rooting for either of the Russians, nor for Wirkola—but for their own countryman, Jiri Raska, a Grenoble gold and silver medal winner and very much a big bird himself. In the first jump both Napalkov and Raska landed at 300'5" and Beloussov at 297', an effort that left them in 13th, seventh and 12th places, respectively, when points for style were included—and it set up the dramatic showdown. (It also shut out Wirkola, who was to finish back in 27th spot.)
Next jump, from a higher platform, Beloussov choked. He lost his courage somewhere on that long, icy trail down to the edge of the world, jumped 306'11", but landed a bit unsteadily. Next came Napalkov, winging smoothly, dazzlingly, to a perfect 359'5". He landed lightly, which is tricky business, straightened up and, while still running it out, clasped his hands over his head in a victory wave. Never mind that Raska was still to come. The Russian men danced around a lot and kissed each other on the mouth a lot, which is one of their quaint customs. And, sure enough, the little Czech managed only 324'9", which got him the silver medal. A Pole, Daniel Stanislav Gasienica, sailed in third.
And what of Beloussov, the master psycher? He leaned against a building, the 18th-place finisher, trying to blink back tears. "I was very nervous," he said. "And I was afraid. I don't know why I was afraid."
After that came the grinding 50-kilometer race, otherwise known as Norway's Last Chance. But, again, it was not to be: along came Kalevi Oikarainen, a little bitty Finn with a great big beak of a nose, a 33-year-old sergeant in the Finnish border guard who amuses himself in his spare time by chasing wolves on skis, running them to exhaustion. The first Norwegian finished in the 11th spot.
When it was all over, Russia had run off with 12 gold, three silver and four bronze medals—clearly the new world Nordic power. There was East Germany with the next biggest bag, Finland, Sweden and, finally, Norway, which invented the sport. There were the hapless Americans, out of it as usual but full of good cheer. Championship by championship, they are getting better. Maybe one day they'll even beat the Norwegians at their own game. But why not? Everybody else seems to be doing just that.