Lillehammer, Norway, is surprise choice to host '94 Winter Games

The longest race of the Olympics is not the marathon, but the competition cities undertake to host these sporting spectaculars. It can last years. The latest race began in 1986 after Albertville, France, was named to hold the 1992 Winter Games, and ended here with the surprise selection of Lillehammer, Norway, as the site in '94.

Lillehammer thus earned a place in history as the first community that will hold the Games under a new scheduling format.

The winter and summer competitions have always been held in the same year, but after 1992 they will part company so as not to crowd one another on the calendar.

After being the runnerup to Albertville, Sofia, Bulgaria, was considered the favorite this time ahead of Lillehammer and Anchorage, Alaska, both of which also made unsuccessful bids for 1992, and Ostersund, Sweden, a new bidder this time.

The Bulgarians had mounted an aggressive campaign that emphasized the proximity of the various competition sites. ``The Olympics within 20 km'' was a phrase used to describe how close together everything could be.

That might have won over the necessary votes of the International Olympic Committee members were it not for a miscalculated attempt to curry favor for a socialist state. Olympic officials try to steer clear of global politics and perhaps were alienated by Sofia's effort to play a questionable trump card.

Anchorage felt it had two geographical advantages. It lies at an air crossroads conveniently reached by Asians as well as Europeans flying over the pole. It also sits in an ideal time zone for attracting the large North American audiences that bring in TV dollars.

Ostersund, which appeared to gain support at the end, made the point that no Swedish city had ever held the Winter Games despite that country's long tradition of strong showings.

But the Lillehammer lobby was also able to highlight its country's position as a leading nation in winter sports. Norway has competed in every Winter Games, and has won more medals than any country but the Soviet Union.

The Winter Olympics last came to Norway in 1952, when Oslo was the host. Lillehammer is about 100 miles from Oslo, with a population of 22,000, making it the smallest of the four bidding cities.

Some observers felt that the trend was away from small resort communities and that the choice of Albertville may have been an exception. But now, after successful Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, and Calgary, things again are shifting away from the big cities.

Whether the Winter Olympics have outgrown small towns remains to be seen. Certainly the problems confronted by Lake Placid, N.Y., when it held the 1980 ``Olympics in perspective,'' raised many questions about the wisdom of such small-town settings. So 1992 and 1994, when the new format creates a one-time situation of Winter Olympics just two years apart, and when both will be in small towns, should provide some important answers.

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