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Norway Welcomes the World

In the land of Northern Lights, Vikings, and Nobel Prizes, the locals will lend their unparalelled enthusiasm for winter sports to this year's Winter Olympics

By Ross AtkinStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / February 9, 1994

WHEN the announcement came six years ago that Lillehammer had been selected to host the 1994 Winter Olympics, the first upset of these Games was scored.

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Representatives of other candidate cities were shocked by the news that some place called ``Lilly-hammer,'' to use the pronunciation of Juan Antonio Samaranch, the International Olympic Committee president, had beaten out the favorites - Sofia, Bulgaria; Anchorage, Alaska; and Ostersund, Sweden.

The correct pronunciation is ``Lill-uh-hahm-er,'' but in a comical tribute to Samaranch's original introduction, ``The Lilly Hammer Games'' were recently held in the coastal village of Ulvik, Norway.

``When he made the announcement, he got the name of the town wrong, but he said my name perfectly,'' says Lilly Hammer, the event's organizer. ``So I had no choice. I had to host the Olympics.''

In a way, this wry takeoff only served to underline the fact that these Olympics have come, if not to the end of the world, closer to it than ever before. Lillehammer is the northernmost community and the second smallest, with 23,000 residents, ever to host the Winter Games. (Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1932 and '80, is smaller.) Moose occasionally wander onto main streets, startling visitors.

One suspects that the moose will keep their distance though, as the crowds swell for the 17th Winter Olympics, which begin Saturday, when Norwegian ski jumper Ole Gunnar Fidjestoel soars into the opening ceremony holding the Olympic torch, and end 15 days later on Feb. 27.

Despite the dramatic torch entry, neither the opening nor the closing ceremony will approach the spectacles produced in Albertville, France, and Barcelona, Spain, for the 1992 Winter and Summer Games, according to one planner.

``Competing with them would not be very Norwegian,'' says Bentein Baardson. ``We must create our own Norwegian tradition, at once expressing both simplicity and wholeness.''

The world will be watching as never before: CBS is carrying 120 hours of television coverage, and Norwegian state TV will never blink, with 300 wire-to-wire hours. About 7,500 news-media personnel will swarm over the spectacle like ants at a snow-covered picnic.

Certainly the amount of attention showered on the Olympics will far exceed that paid to the Winter Games in 1952, when Oslo hosted the only other Winter Olympics ever held in Scandinavia.

That was a quainter, less hurried time. Even in New York, pedestrians were heeding newly introduced ``Don't Walk'' signs. Dick Button, with his second Olympic skating title, and Andrea Mead Lawrence, with two skiing gold medals, were American heroes. Debonair skier Stein Eriksen and speed skater Hjalmar Andersen, with three golds in three days, thrilled the home crowds, and Germany swept the two- and four-man bobsled races.

But the real stars of the Games then, as they may be this time, were the Norwegian people, whose enthusiasm for winter sports may be unmatched. A crowd of 120,000 turned out one day at the Holmenkollen ski jump.

The 900,000 tickets available to Norwegians this year were snapped up almost immediately.

Many spectators will arrive by train from Oslo, 100 miles to the south. At one point there was even talk of holding some events in Oslo. Given a federal outlay of $1 billion to put on the Games, parliament understandably wanted to spread them around Norway's largest valley - Gudbrandsdalen - a little more.

But organizers didn't want to go back on their promise to put on a ``compact Olympics.'' The idea is to bring the Olympic family closer together than it had been two years ago in southern France, when Albertville put on a ``scattered Olympics'' in the Savoie region.

Nonetheless, Lillehammer's Olympic organizers have had to hedge on their plan. Some of the hosting duties have been farmed out to other communities on Lake Mjosa, which slices through Norway's largest inland valley. The town of Hamar, 30 miles south of Lillehammer, will be the site of figure-skating and speed-skating events. Across the lake, almost equidistant from the Olympic hub, the industrial town of Gjovik is the site of the ice-hockey arena.