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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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``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.

And, oh, what an arena it is. Gjovik Olympic Cavern Hall is, as the name implies, inside a mountain. Billed as ``the world's largest in-mountain coliseum,'' the 5,500-seat hockey arena is not big. But as a stunning architectural feat, it has few rivals. Those who gain admission through its bunkerlike entrance may be satisfied simply to gawk at the facility and ponder the effort required to build it - 140,000 cubic meters of rock were removed.

And this is not the only fetching manmade wonder. The speed-skating arena in Hamar is a massive facility, big enough to house a 400-meter oval that encircles a 10,000-square-meter rink. The roof is made to look like the hull of an inverted Viking ship. Inside, that theme continues with innovative laminated-wood beams that stretch 360 feet.

Both Hamar's Ice Rink and Gjovik's coliseum are not only huge billboards for indigenous industries (tunnel engineering and timber), they are also centerpieces of what has been promoted as the ``greenest ever'' Olympics.

The organizers have endeavored mightily to keep an environmental focus in everything from construction to concessions. In one promotional photo, a chef nibbles one of the edible plates - made of potato starch - that will be used during the Games.

This ecological consciousness has been identified as a possible legacy of these Olympics. And despite Norway's image problem over its whale-hunting, the organizers' interest in nature seems genuine. In one recent citizens poll, 67 percent considered preserving the environment more important than winning gold medals.

Of course, Norwegian athletes are expected to give the local population plenty to cheer about. Norway has won more gold medals in the Winter Olympics than any other country except the former Soviet Union, a testament to Norwegians' love and affinity for winter sports - especially speed skating and Nordic skiing events. Norway is one of the few countries to compete in every Winter Games since they began in 1924.

Not only is Norway one of the traditional winter-sports powers, it basically introduced the world to skiing: ``Slalom'' is a Norwegian word. A 4,000-year-old Neolithic rock carving discovered in northern Norway depicts a skier, an image that has inspired the primitive-looking sports icons devised for these Games.

In another effort to pay homage to Norway's sports heritage, a torch called the Morgedal Flame has been run through the country in a huge relay. The flame was lit at the home of Sondre Nordheim, who was born in 1825 in the town of Morgedal and is called the father of competitive skiing.

Initially, Lillehammer Olympic organizers planned to unite this flame with one from Greece before the opening ceremonies, but the Greek Olympic Committee objected to anything that might spoil the purity of ancient Olympic traditions. A compromise solution calls for the flames to meet but not mix.

By Olympic standards, this is only a minor glitch.

``It's a reflection of Norway's characteristic efficiency and singularity of purpose that Olympic preparations were completed ahead of schedule and under budget,'' says Gerhard Heiberg, chairman of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee.

Expectations for a great Games are running high. In fact, the International Olympic Committee has declared the Lillehammer organizers the best prepared Olympic hosts of recent times.

``[We] have shown that a little town in a small country can accept the greatest of challenges,'' says Petter Ronningen, operations manager of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee. The real test, however, hasn't yet begun. And no final grades will be available until the curtain comes down Feb. 27 and Nagano, Japan, begins rolling out the welcome mat for the 1998 Winter Games.

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