The gold medal winner had lipstick on both cheeks. One singer, Silge, had sat on his left. The other singer, Rita Erickson, had sat on his right. They are both Norwegian Top 40 stars, and they had sung a song just for him, a traditional Norwegian tune that involved both whistling and yodeling. The singing was also accompanied by some tousling of his red hair, and at the end there had been the kisses.
Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®rn D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie was not an unhappy man.
"Oh, my," he said in Norwegian.
Or something like that.
February 28, 1994
He was at the tag end of the best day of his life. The gold medal, for the 10-kilometer cross-country ski race, hung from his neck and bounced against his plaid flannel shirt. Across the couch from him sat Halvard Flatland, the Halvard Flatland, the most famous talk-show host in Norway. Behind the camera pointed at both of them sat, well, their entire country.
The show is called Vindu Mot Lillehammer (Window on Lillehammer), and from eight to 11 every night during these 1994 Olympic Games, it has killed all competition. Part interviews, part film clips, part song and dance, Vindu Mot Lillehammer is a nightly celebration of Norway's latest great moments. One five-minute segment is even broadcast in 3-D, and the popularity of the show is indicated by the fact that its producers expected more than a million pairs of 3-D glasses to be sold, with the proceeds being donated to charity.
The highlight of the show is a long interview in front of a live audience with a Norwegian athlete, preferably a gold medal winner from the day's competition. Amazingly, there was a new winner available on seven of the first nine nights of the Games. Through Sunday, the host country of a scant 4½ million people had amassed eight gold medals, five silver and two bronze, placing it first in golds and tied for first, with Russia, in total medals. The language of success in these Winter Olympics has a 29-letter alphabet and, to the American ear, tongue-twisting pronunciation.
"This day is the best," D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie said last Thursday night in Norwegian to Halvard Flatland and the studio audience and the country. "In 1992 in Albertville, I won three gold medals and one silver, but there were only 10,000, maybe 15,000 people along the course. To win here? Before all of these people? My country? I was hoping to do this but afraid that I would not."
The best day of his life. The lipstick marks were exclamation points to a smile that crossed all of Norway.
D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie's race had been two laps around the five-kilometer course at the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium. This is the most popular Olympic site, 31,000 seats sold out for every race, estimates of 100,000 people lining the course for each event. Nine tenths of the crowd is Norwegian, people who have all skied cross-country sometime in their lives, many of whom use skis as their means of daily transportation, most of whom are fans of cross-country skiing and cross-country skiers. There are so many Norwegian flags, the familiar red banners with the blue-and-white crosses, being held aloft by the crowd that from a distance the course looks as if it were a white ribbon stretched between two red ribbons winding through the pine trees and the snow.
"All those people, what can you say about them?" D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie said. "Everywhere you go, there is noise. A roar. You can't hear anything. We had to work out a thing on our team...someone had to stand with a piece of white paper with the times, so we could know how we were doing. You couldn't hear the public-address system."
"It gives you another gear," Fred B‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®rre Lundberg, Norway's gold medal winner in the Nordic combined, said. "The people, they earn part of the medal for you."
Hundreds of people are camping for the entire Olympics in the woods surrounding the cross-country venue. They live in tents in the single-digit cold, entire families eating freeze-dried reindeer bits or cooking meals outdoors, melting snow for water, calling home on mobile phones. A constant is the cross-country skis. That is how you tell if people are inside their tents. You check to see if the skis are outside.
"It's quite natural for us to sleep in caves and in small huts," said a 22-year-old spectator named Alexander Nordahl. "It's part of our culture. It's also something we learn, survival, during one year of mandatory military service. We camp out here, and then we cheer."
What could be a better setting for someone to have the race of his life in? D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie rolled through this tunnel of adoration. He worried that he might have started too fast, encouraged by the crowd, but he churned to the end. When he finished, he Hung himself onto the snow, exhausted. He then had to wait for teammate Vegard Ulvang and rival and friend Vladimir Smirnov of Kazakhstan to finish. Ulvang, suffering from an injured left hip, faltered early, but Smirnov was still a contender until the final straightaway. As the late times flashed, however, it became apparent that Smirnov had no chance and would finish second. D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie cried with happiness.
"Seier'n er var," the crowd sang. It was the Norwegian song of these Olympics. "Seier'n er var. Vi har vinni, seier'n er var."
"We won the gold," the rough translation went. "We won the gold. We are the champions, we won the gold."
D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie entered the Norwegian press conference in the auditorium at the Main Press Center carrying a tray containing maybe 30 small brandy snifters, each filled with an inch of dark-red liquid. This was the room in which Nancy and Tonya each had undergone her grand inquisition, but the atmosphere was quite different this time. D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie distributed the snifters to the members of the Norwegian press.
"It is cherry brandy from my father's garden," he said. "I have been saving it for a special occasion."
Toasts were offered. Everyone drank. Like the other members of the Norwegian team who have stepped forward—Lund-berg; Thomas Alsgaard, the surprise winner of the 30-kilometer cross-country race; Johann Olav Koss, the triple gold medal winner in speed skating; and Ulvang, who read the Olympic oath at the opening cermonies—D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie has an old-time quality, a sense that he is more like the athletic heroes of the past than like those of the present and certainly the future. More normal. More tied to the real world.
Koss, after his speed skating win in the 1,500, announced that he was giving his 225,000-krone bonus (approximately $30,000) to Olympic Aid, a charity, and he asked each Norwegian to contribute 10 kroner for each gold medal won by the country's athletes in these Games. Ulvang, Norway's top athletic hero, broke down at a press conference when asked by a reporter from Baltimore about the disappearance of his brother, who vanished while running during a snowstorm four months ago. The question became a national scandal. How could anyone ask something so insensitive? The newspaper Dagbladet of Oslo printed a telephone number for readers to call the paper and express their outrage. More than 10,000 people called in a day.
"We like our heroes to be part of us, not somewhere above us," Dagbladet sports editor Esten Saether said. "We treat them as our neighbors. You take a sport like skiing: Everyone in the country has skied. Someone like D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie is no different from anyone else. We ski. He skis. He is like a boy in some ways, happy all the time. We had never seen him cry before today. That was a surprise, that he cried."
D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie, 26, will not become fabulously wealthy from his success. He will become—perhaps already is—a millionaire. but the million will be measured in kroner, and there are slightly more than seven kroner to a U.S. dollar. D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie has already built a large house in Nannestad, 20 kilometers north of Oslo. He drives a Volvo. He lives with his girlfriend. Normal. His father is a teacher. His mother too is a teacher. Normal.
A reporter at the press conference stood at a microphone and asked about the brandy D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie's father had made. Did D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie have the recipe? D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie replied that he couldn't give the recipe, that maybe it contained ingredients that might not help athletic training. The reporter suggested maybe one of the ingredients was Smirnov, This was a joke, playing on the name of the silver medalist in the 10-kilometer race and the vodka Smirnoff. D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie did not get the joke for 30 seconds. Finally he laughed. "I must have worn myself out in that race," he said. "I'm not thinking too fast."
The medal ceremony was held at seven o'clock in the cold at the foot of the Olympic ski jump. More Norwegian flags. More renditions of the "We won the gold" song.
Afterward D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie rushed into town for the 8 p.m. start of the television show, in a studio in a renovated bank near the Lillehammer train station. One of the other guests was International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch, but D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie clearly was the prime attraction.
A video clip of his mother was shown. She told a story about how Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®rn had adopted 50 small roosters when he was 15 years old, planning to raise and sell them. The roosters started to grow, and soon they were crowing, not exactly in unison, every morning at sunrise. The neighbors complained. The roosters were given away.
Another clip was shown, this time of D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie. He was singing on a bandstand somewhere. The song was My Way. He was awful. Everybody laughed.
"And before you go, Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®rn, we have some gifts for you," Flatland said in his famous voice.
One gift was a cake. Flatland said he had baked it personally. Another gift was a cookbook and an accompanying chef's hat, because D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie, a hunter, likes to cook and eat what he kills. A final gift was a print of the painting The Scream, by Norwegian master Edvard Munch. The work was in the news because it had recently been stolen from the National Art Museum in Oslo. D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie held the print in the air and wondered aloud if it was worth more than his gold medal.
Everything was small-time, small-town and wonderful. Normal. Norwegian. If that other story, the women's figure skating story, was dominating the attention of the world, this was the story that was replayed again and again here. Local boy makes good.
"Bj‚Äö√†√∂‚Äö√†√®rn D‚Äö√†√∂¬¨‚àÇhlie!" Flatland shouted to the studio audience and all of Norway.
The hero waved and walked away with his gifts. Two days later at Birkebeineren he won a second gold medal, in the pursuit (which combines the 10-kilometer with a 15-kilometer race), to tie the record for gold medals won by a male athlete at the Winter Olympics. With another gold in either the team relay, which was scheduled to be held on Tuesday, or the 50-kilometer on Sunday, he would break the record.
All was very much right in this frozen, excited neighborhood.