H√§m√§l√§inen (pronounced hah-mah-lie-nen) is a common name all over Finland and is one shared by four world-class cross-country skiers, past and present, none of whom is related. On Sunday that name resounded in Sarajevo when a tall, strong, handsome H√§m√§l√§inen named Marja-Liisa became the first competitor at the 1984 Games to win two gold medals. She had taken the 10-km women's cross-country race on Thursday and now she had a gold in the 5 km as well. She was also the first Finnish woman skier by any name to win two Olympic golds. And this week she could be the first woman skier ever to win three individual golds when she competes in the 20-km race.
Racing on a pillowy Plain of Igman course in falling snow that never stopped, H√§m√§l√§inen, 28, collapsed at the finish of the 10 km in a kind of swoon of fatigue and joy. Later she said, "I've never been so happy before. Since last May I haven't been thinking about anything but the 10 kilometer in Sarajevo. It's the first, and you have to concentrate on the first or nothing that follows will succeed."
Because of her age she wasn't considered a supersprinter, so her victory in the 5 km was unexpected. All the more surprising was the winning margin—a hefty 10.1 seconds over Berit Aunli of Norway. Though H√§m√§l√§inen has been racing internationally for 10 seasons and competed in the '76 and '80 Olympics, she's a relatively new star. Indeed, until last week she hadn't gotten a single individual Olympic or world championship medal. However, she'd won the Nordic World Cup, with three victories in four races at the end of the 1983 season. As her coach, Sulo Repo, said, "We worked last year to make her tough in international competitions. For this year, we worked on getting a medal in Sarajevo—any medal."
After her second gold, H√§m√§l√§inen faced a barrage of Finnish journalists, many of whom had needled her for years over her failures. She was particularly upset because at the finish of the race she had been overrun by a stampeding herd of photographers and had been clubbed by a camera. As she reeled away, she smelled alcohol on their breaths. Later she told Leena Jokinen of Helsinki's Ilta-Sanomat newspaper that she had been angered and hurt by the fact that they had come to her competition drunk. Yet, when she stood before her journalistic adversaries, she was triumphant. "A hundred times they've written that I would never become anybody," she told Jokinen, "and I've wanted to show people that I am somebody and that if I didn't do well, there was always a reason."
February 20, 1984
One reason for some of her less brilliant performances over the years has been her sensitive makeup. H√§m√§l√§inen is capable of deep upsets that cruelly affect her skiing. Her father, a former ski racer, died shortly before the '80 Olympics, and the shock was so great that Marja-Liisa did no better than an 18th and a 19th in the individual races in Lake Placid.
Her fiancé may well be as responsible for her double gold performance as H√§m√§l√§inen herself. He is Harri Kirvesniemi, 25, who is the best male cross-country racer on the Finnish team. Kirvesniemi finished seventh in the 30 km last week and third in the 15 km and is a favorite in the man-killing 50 km this Sunday. H√§m√§l√§inen's skiing results have improved dramatically since they got together. The chief cross-country coach of the Finns, Immo Kuutsa, said of the H√§m√§l√§inen-Kirvesniemi relationship, "This is very important. I tell all women now that they need clever sportsmen behind—no, beside—them."
At Sarajevo, H√§m√§l√§inen and Kirvesniemi haven't been behind or beside or anywhere near each other most of the time. The Finnish men's team doesn't even attend the women's races. But Kirvesniemi was certainly with her in spirit when she ran those gold medal races. Now H√§m√§l√§inen has many things going for her. As Kuutsa said, "She has won two gold medals already and her best event is the 20 K. Rest assured, she is the snow queen."