The international Olympic Committee (IOC) had barely awarded the 1994 Winter Olympics to the Norwegian town of Lillehammer (pop. 22,000) when alarmed members of the local citizenry began to ask. "Is there any way we can get out of this? Can we just give them back?" War ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚â§degaard, executive editor of Gudbrandsd‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®len Lillehammer Tilskuer, the town's newspaper, says, "The people were a little bit proud and a little bit curious, but above all they were very, very frightened."
That was more than four years ago. Now, with less than 11 months left before the XVII Winter Games take place, from Feb. 12 to Feb. 27, 1994, the people of Lillehammer have come to be only a little bit frightened and very, very proud. Nearly 100% of the permanent Olympic facilities have been finished, some ahead of schedule and all within budget. By contrast, a year before the start of the '92 Games in Albertville, the bobsled run was leaking ammonia, the highway into the Olympic area was incomplete, and construction had not begun on the stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies.
Furthermore, after a series of world-class competitions in Lillehammer in recent weeks, athletes judged the facilities to be very good. Even better, all of Lillehammer's Olympic construction has been held to environmental standards that are so strict and yet so reasonable, the IOC is thinking of requiring that future Games incorporate some of the ideas.
Money has not been a problem for these Olympics. In 1990 the Norwegian parliament underwrote the Games with a generous grant of seven billion kroner ($1.2 billion). The Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee (LOOC) has already secured $90 million of the $100 million it expects to get from various commercial sponsorships, and it is guaranteed $195 million of the $295 million CBS is paying the IOC for U.S. television rights. The LOOC is also not above scrambling for loose change. Each day at 1 p.m. a small, jolly crowd gathers in the center of Lillehammer for a small, jolly auction to sell a T-shirt printed with the number of days remaining until the Games begin. This auction started as a no-profit public relations stunt when there were 1,000 days to go. But the price per shirt has averaged more than $300, and the LOOC projects a profit of $350,000 from the auctions.
Lillehammer won the Games over three competing cities on the third ballot at the September 1988 IOC meeting, but the minute the Lillehammer representatives returned home, they found themselves in intense competition with another group of rivals—other Norwegians. Fetter R‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®nningen, a retired army major turned banker who was managing director of the campaign to bring the Olympics to Lillehammer and is now deputy managing director of the LOOC, says, "Few had thought we would get the Games, but when we did, people all over Norway suddenly thought we should spread them around. Oslo people said, 'Wouldn't it be a better idea if the ski jump competition was moved to the Holmenkollen jump here, since it is so famous? And wouldn't it be a good idea if the bob and luge runs were located in Oslo, too, because they would get more use in a big city?' Other people said, 'Wouldn't it be a good idea if the Alpine events were at Oppdal, 155 miles north of Lillehammer?' Well, I could understand that people wanted our Olympics spread over the country, but we had won by promising the IOC a compact Olympics. And when the Norwegian parliament voted us our money, it favored a compact Olympics."
While it is true that the Lillehammer Games will not be spread all over Norway, they won't be "compact," either. The venues are scattered across a 72-mile stretch that runs along the hilly shores of Lake Mj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®sa. Norway's largest lake, and up the valley called Gudbrandsdalen, with Lillehammer situated more or less in the middle. The only compact part, near downtown Lillehammer, will be the area called Olympic Park: It will include the 10,000-seat Lysg‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√Ñ¢rdsbakkene Ski Jump Arena (which will also be used for opening and closing ceremonies, with standing room to accommodate up to 33,000 additional spectators for the ceremonies and 47,000 for the jumping); H‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√Ñ¢kon Hall, the primary hockey arena, with 10,500 seats; and the Kanthaugen freestyle skiing course. Above the town, in the mountain woods, is Birkebeineren Ski Stadium, which marks the starting and finish lines of a network of cross-country ski-racing trails.
The two ski jumps, also situated above Lillehammer, are tucked into a mountainside, in refreshing contrast to the obtrusive skyscraper jumps common at recent Winter Games. The design is the result of one of the many environmentally sensitive decisions the LOOC made to keep its Olympic construction from disfiguring the countryside. The first world-class competition held on Lillehammer's large hill, on March 11, was won by Espen Bredesen of Oslo, who was the upset winner of the large-hill world championship in Falun, Sweden, in February. Bredesen's victory in Lillehammer fanned local hope that next year, for the first time since 1964, a Norwegian would be a gold medalist in this beloved homebred sport.
The bobsled and luge track is a 1,760-meter course that winds through the woods near the hamlet of Hunderfossen, nine miles north of Lillehammer. In late February and early March the run played host to the last two-and four-man bobsled events of the World Cup season. Competitors were amused by the colorful names given to some of the course's 16 curves. Number 6 is called Trollporten, meaning Troll's Gate, in reference to the shaggy creatures—with one eye or no head or many heads—who, according to legend, reside in the Norwegian wilderness. Curve number 10 is named Hulderkurven, after the sirenlike female troll, or ladder, famous for her ability to seduce weary travelers (presumably including bobsled drivers) despite the fact that she is swaybacked and sports a cow's tail. U.S. driver Brian Shimer, who finished third in the four-man race at Lillehammer to clinch the season's World Cup titles in that event and in the two-man/four-man combined, said, "Any little mistake on this track shows throughout your trip. In the Olympics it will be important to do consistently well in all four heats."
Of all the Olympic facilities built by the LOOC, the one that least disfigures the environment is Mountain Hall, which stands in the middle of the town of Gj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®vik, 25 miles southwest of Lillehammer, and yet is almost invisible. Billed by its builders as "the world's largest in-mountain coliseum," the structure is a cavern, about half the size of Madison Square Garden, that has been dug inside a large hill. The centerpiece of the hall is a 5,500-seat hockey arena in which 16 Olympic games—including one semifinal—will be played. Work on the rink began two years ago, and it is now on the brink of being finished, four months ahead of schedule. The hall, which also has a swimming pool, cost 134.7 million kroner ($20 million) to build. In the process, 141,000 cubic meters of rock were removed from the cavern and used to build roads and harbor facilities along Lake Mj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®sa. Steinar Simonsen, assistant project manager of Mountain Hall, says, "This cavern cost more to build than a normal arena, but it will be cheaper in the future—no windows to wash or fix, no outside walls to paint, no roof to repair. And it costs about half as much to heat as a regular building."
Then there is the speed skating arena in Hamar, across Lake Mj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®sa from Gj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®vik. It is an eye-opening piece of architecture that sits on the shore of ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√±kersvika Lake, a sanctuary for migratory birds. Because of environmental concerns, the building was moved farther from the water than originally planned, and it was turned 90 degrees so that none of its lighted entrances would face the sanctuary and disturb the birds. To the uninitiated the roof of the arena seems to be shaped like an armadillo shell. Wrong. It is supposed to resemble an upside-down Viking ship. It was the winning design of the six entered in an architectural contest. Inside this overturned ship is a 10,000-square-meter plain of ice encircled by a standard 400-meter speed skating oval. It is a versatile facility: One night recently a layer of snow was placed on the oval and cross-country ski races were held indoors; this summer a 250-meter velodrome will be installed for bicycle sprint, pursuit, tandem and points races, and for motor-paced events. The arena will also be used for equestrian competitions, horse races, indoor soccer—indeed, the locals say it's "for every sport known to man except ice fishing." In mid-February, when the arena housed the world speed skating championships, Falko Zandstra of the Netherlands, the all-round world champion, raved, "Oh, what a hall! It must have been expensive, but the ice is perfect!"
Perfect was not the word used to describe the women's Olympic downhill course. Located in Hafjell, nine miles north of Lillehammer, the course is so fiat, so insultingly sissified, that when a World Cup downhill was scheduled there two weeks ago, 12 of the 15 women in the first seed boycotted the final training run. The protesters demanded that for the Games, the organizers move the event to the much tougher mountain in Kvitfjell, 22 miles farther north, where the men's Olympic downhill will be staged. U.S. women's coach Paul Major said, "It is O.K. to have one of 12 regular-season World Cup downhills on a low-caliber course like Hatjell, but for a one-time event as big as the Olympics, it won't do. Moving it to the men's course in Kvitfjell would make for a much more dramatic challenge—an Olympic battle of the sexes, if you will."
As it turned out, the World Cup race at Hafjell on March 13 was won by Canada's Kate Pace, who had refused to join the boycott. Not coincidentally, it was Pace who won the downhill on a similar course at the world championships in Morioka, Japan, in February. The rising U.S. star, Picabo Street, who had gotten silver in the combined in Japan, did join the protest and still finished a strong second in Hafjell.
Last week the men on the Alpine World Cup circuit arrived in Lillehammer to try their first runs on the Kvitfjell course. Unfortunately the first race, on Friday, turned into a squirrelly affair in which sunshine broke through the clouds and made the snow substantially faster, thus changing the condition of the course so radically, halfway into the competition, that several third-rate racers finished ahead of the stars. The second race, on Saturday, was skied under more normal conditions, and the rising Austrian star Armin Assinger got his second victory in the last three downhills. Win or lose, most of the World Cup racers came away praising Kvitfjell. Said Franz Heinzer of Switzerland, winner of this season's World Cup downhill title, "This is going to be a super Olympic downhill. It is difficult, it is technical and it has great jumps." U.S. downhiller AJ Kitt agreed: "It is a bit short, but it has so much action that I place it among the top courses in the world—just behind Kitzbühel."
Thus the forecast for the 1994 Winter Olympics is good, though Lillehammer's small-town ambience gives it an uneasy resemblance to Lake Placid, where in 1980 small-minded local organizers, transportation breakdowns and huge post-Games deficits prevailed. But there is an aura of stubborn country competence about Lillehammer that promises a clean—if bland—Olympics. Nevertheless, as the numbers on the countdown T-shirts get smaller, echoes of those early fears can still be heard around the region. ‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚â§degaard says. "You know, for 16 days, we will have 100,000 people per day moving in and out of our small town, a trainful of people arriving every 10 minutes from Oslo. We get questions from our readers such as 'Shall we buy bread and milk for the whole period before it starts? Can we get to the hospital here, or will we have to go to Oslo?' They are not negative; they are just a little bit anxious."
And more than a little bit proud.