The Lion In Winter

Feb. 07, 1994
Feb. 07, 1994

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Feb. 7, 1994

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The Lion In Winter

In a few short years Norway has come roaring back as a Winter Olympic power

By William Oscar Johnson

In winter every engineer on every train that makes the 110-mile trip over the single track between the city of Oslo and the village of Lillehammer carries a .308-caliber rifle in his locomotive. The weapon is used to shoot moose. Not healthy, running moose, but badly wounded moose that have floundered out of deep snow onto the track and been struck by a train. Usually the engineer performs a mercy killing beside the track, but sometimes the animal will fall across the rails and block traffic. If this happens, the engineer administers a proper coup de grace, and then the animal (which can weigh as much as 1,800 pounds) is hoisted into the air by a car with a winch attached to it and deposited off the track. So far this winter 78 moose have been hit by trains traveling between Oslo and Lillehammer.

This is an article from the Feb. 7, 1994 issue

During the XVII Winter Olympics, which begin in Lillehammer on Feb. 12, 100,000 train passengers a day will depend on someone keeping that single track clear of moose. To some degree the legacy of the Lillehammer Games will ride on those moose. Will these Olympics be remembered for smooth Scandinavian efficiency or for infuriating Lake Placid-like ineptitude?

Norwegians have been successfully fighting the crises of winter since the Stone Age. Indeed, Norway has probably done more than any other country to tame the old winter lion, turning all that savage weather into a sporting environment. Over the centuries Norwegians have invented speed skates, skis, ski jumps, ski poles, ski races and heel-clamped ski bindings, and given the world the words slalom, Telemark and Axel, the figure skating jump named after Axel Paulsen, who in the 1880s was world champion not only of figure skating but also of speed skating—both forward and backward. (Yes, backward speed skating was a competitive event then.)

Norway likes to advertise itself as "the cradle of skiing," and the validity of this claim is indisputable. A pictograph on a rock near R‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚â§d‚Äö√†√∂‚àö‚â§y in far northern Norway depicts a human stick figure on a very long pair of skis. Carbon tests have shown the carving to be more than 4,000 years old—proving that Norwegians, unlike their moose, were smart enough to figure out a way to keep from floundering through snowbanks.

Norway also advertises itself as the "world capital of winter sports," but the validity of this claim is less certain, particularly in regard to the Olympics. Since the first Winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924, Norwegian teams have been on a dizzy roller-coaster ride, going from glorious triumph to abject defeat and back to triumph. They haven't won a gold medal in ski jumping for 30 years; a medal of any kind in figure skating since 1936; or any medals, ever, in hockey, bobsled or luge. What's more, the 1994 Games are only the second Winter Olympics to be staged in Norway (or any Scandinavian nation). The last time Norway was the world capital of winter sports was in 1952, when Oslo played host to the Games, and they were a major success.

The Oslo Games were the first Winter Olympics centered in a large city, and they drew 700,000 fans, including 150,000 for the 90-meter ski jump at Oslo's sacred old Holmenkollen Hill. That remains the largest crowd ever to gather for a single event in the Summer or Winter Olympics. All told, Norway racked up 16 medals to 11 for the runner-up U.S., nine for third-place Finland and—best of all for the Norwegians—only four, all bronze, for lOth-place Sweden, Norway's despised neighbor and onetime conqueror. In what was surely the Games' most surprising result, the giant slalom was won by the handsome gymnast and man-about-Oslo Stein Eriksen, who also took the silver in the slalom.

There was irony in Eriksen's victory, for the Norwegians openly scorned Alpine skiing in those days. In fact, they had exiled the Alpine races to Norfjell. a village 60 miles outside Skiing and Oslo. Worse, they were negligent in preparing the race courses, waiting until the hand in hand at morning of the women's downhill before removing a couple of dangerous tree stumps from the run.

Well aware of the place Alpine skiing held in the Norwegian psyche, Eriksen crossed the Olympic finish line and proceeded almost directly to the U.S., where he accepted a series of lucrative positions at various ski resorts. "No one was going to fill my platter in Norway for winning at Alpine skiing." he says. "Everyone thought it was a sport from another planet. However, Norwegians soon found out that in the U.S. I skied with movie stars and got paid for it, and they changed their minds."

With his charm and elegant skiing style still intact, Eriksen, at 69, remains a hero in his native land 40 years after moving to America. He will carry the Olympic flag at the Lillehammer opening ceremonies with seven other past and present Norwegian Olympians, including marathoner Grete Waitz.

Norway's seven gold medals in 1952 were the most it would win in one Winter Olympics for 40 years. Indeed, Norwegians totaled only 22 golds in the next nine Winter Games. The nadir was Calgary in 1988, when the 66-pcrson Olympic team brought back only four medals—three silvers and a bronze. The medal drought was partly due to the emergence of battalions of outstanding Nordic-sport competitors who appeared on the scene when the Soviet Union and East Germany began competing at the Games in 1956. Still, even the most fanatic Norwegian patriots agreed their country had lost any claim to being the "world capital of winter sports."

Then, just six months after the Calgary Games, the International Olympic Committee declared that the host for the 1994 Winter Games would be...Lillehammer (pop. 22,500). Many Norwegians couldn't believe it, and some didn't want to believe it. While it was tremendously satisfying to whip Sweden's bunderhinder—Ostersund, a mountain town in northern Sweden, was the other finalist to host the Games—many of them asked, What if we can't handle it? Worse, What if we come up with no gold at our own Olympics? Even worse, What if the Swedes win more medals than we do? Norway mobilized as if for war.

"The Norwegian Olympic Committee moved in and took full responsibility for all sports," says Alf Henning Fredstad, sports editor of Verdens Gang, Norway's largest newspaper. "There was more money for everyone. New ideas were tried. We have everything organized, a plan in place, a system, a timetable."

The Norwegian Olympic Committee, aided by sponsors like SAS for the cross-country team and Bergesen, a shipping agency, for the Alpine team, put up roughly S100 million to underwrite the athletes' every need. Finn Aamodt, a technical-events coach for the Alpine team, says, "With Lillehammer coming up, money was no object anymore. If we said we wanted to go to New Zealand, and the leadership said it was too expensive, then we'd say, 'We won't get results at Lillehammer,' and they'd say, 'O.K., go to New Zealand.' "

Says Inge Braaten, coach of the men's cross-country team, "The money bought us the chance to do original things and not just copy what Sweden or Russia had done in the past."

The windfall also allowed the Norwegians to hire coaches who had excellent records with other national teams. Dieter Bartsch coached the Austrian Alpine team until he had a falling-out with his federation in 1989. He had offers from France, Italy and the U.S., but Norway got him. His new charges adore him. Atle Skaardal, runner-up in the downhill at the 1993 world championships, says, "Dieter Bartsch knows what you need to hear, and he is very good at finding exactly the right words. Without Dieter Bartsch I would be a racer finishing between 10th and 20th place. He has taught me so many things. He has made me believe that I am a winning racer."

Norwegians are quick to point out that they are not using their largesse to construct a rigid Chinese-or East German-style system of factories to turn athletes into robots. In general, potentially elite Norwegian athletes do not undergo intense grooming until they are in their early teens. Then the best of them are invited to training camps, at which they work under the country's best coaches. Sports schools are available for older teenagers.

Norwegians, though, are proud to tell you that no more than half of the country's recent medal-winning athletes have attended these institutions; the rest prefer schools in which a varied education is offered. "Norwegian ideology in sport is to keep the human being at the center of the system," says Fredstad. "We strive to make our elite sportsmen versatile athletes instead of picking them as babies to specialize as discus throwers or downhill racers."

Although the new programs to build winners for Lillehammer were humming along before the start of the '92 Games, expectations for Albertville were modest. Amazingly, however, Norway brought home more gold medals than it ever had before. Two Alpine skiers won golds—the first Alpine medals of any color since Eriksen's gold 40 years earlier. Kjetil Andrè Aamodt, Finn's 22-year-old son, won the Super G; Finn Christian Jagge, 25, won the slalom; and two others were bronze medalists.

Norwegians also swept all five men's cross-country events, an unprecedented feat. Vegard Ulvang, 30, won the 10K and the 30K, while Bjorn Daehlie, 26, won the pursuit and the 50K. Ulvang, Daehlie and two teammates won the 4x 10K relay, with the clownish Daehlie skiing backward (shades of Axel Paulsen!) over the finish line. All told, Norway claimed nine golds, two more than its haul at the Oslo Games.

Had money been a significant factor? Says Daehlie, "Because the money became available, it was possible to train at high altitude in Italy and to have physical-training experts and all the other extra things. The competitions at Albertville were at almost 1,900 meters, and training at altitude made a big difference—maybe three, four minutes in a long race."

Money is not solely responsible for Norway's sports rebirth. The new generation of Norwegian athlete has something to do with it, too. Jan Frederik Kvinnsland, press chief of the Alpine team, points out that the young Norwegians have broken free of a debilitating national inferiority complex: i.e., Sweden Envy. Says Kvinnsland, "For 200 years Norway was ruled by Sweden, until we got our independence in 1905. We hated being ruled by Swedes so much that we made them our target to defeat—at sports or anything else. We came to believe that the most important thing was not to win but to beat Sweden. This had a strange negative effect on our athletes, because they never cared if they excelled as world-class competitors; they just cared if they beat Sweden. Now we know we can do both."

With any luck Norway should win at least five gold medals in Lillehammer. The deep men's Alpine and men's cross-country ski teams, plus speed skater Johann Olav Koss, who won the 1,500-meter race in Albertville, are the best bets, but gold medals could also be won in ski jumping, freestyle skiing, Nordic combined and biathlon. On the other hand, medal hopes in hockey, bobsled and luge are slim again. The same holds true for figure skating, and that is one of the true Olympic oddities.

Norway, after all, is the land that spawned the greatest figure skater—and most famous Winter Olympian—of all: Sonja Henie. She won three golds, in 1928, '32 and '36, and became known around the world as Pavlova of the Silver Blades and the Nasturtium of the North before heading off to Hollywood. At the time of her death in 1969, she was one of the richest women in the world and the owner of a priceless art collection.

No Norwegian, man or woman, since Henie has finished among the top eight in Olympic figure skating. One reason for the decline is that Norway, a relatively poor country until oil was discovered offshore in the mid-70s, didn't have the money to build rinks. Another is that Norway has never had any world-class figure skating coaches. Whatever the reason, Henie's feats have become blurred in the minds of her countrymen. "These days," says Fredstad, "I think Sonja Henie may be more famous in Norway for the art museum she gave us than for her skating medals."

So what will Norwegians remember about the Lillehammer Games 50 years from now? Bushels of gold medals for them and none for the hated Swedes? Or wounded moose and stalled trains? The medal count is anyone's guess, but so far the moose look like a sure thing: Heavy snow has forced the moose to migrate in an attempt to find food, and wildlife researchers estimate that there arc now 10 times the normal number of moose in the region near the railroad track. There are plans to spread wolf urine beside the track to keep the moose away.

Moose or no moose, much of Lillehammer's legacy is already apparent: Norway's athletes, with a little help from the IOC, have again made the country the world capital of winter sports.

ILLUSTRATIONTHREE PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGELong before Lillehammer (left) got the Games, Norwegians were taken with trolls, senior ski competitions and Eriksen.PHOTOJ. BRUN/DAGBLADET[See caption above.]PHOTOAPThree generations after Henie's Olympic debut at 12, Norwegians still start young.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGH[See caption above.]PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGENorway, which has never won a bobsled medal, built its first run for these Games.PHOTOCARL YARBROUGHSkiing and temwork go hand in hand at outdoor sports festivals.TWO PHOTOSBILL EPPRIDGEFor youngsters, ski jumping comes naturally, but, alas, hockey doesn't.PHOTOBILL EPPRIDGEMoose permitting, 100,000 people per day will arrive in Lillehammer by train.