Looking Back on the Olympics' Best

The heart and soul of Lillehammer's Olympics comes from its athletes

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

THE collage of athletic energy that rushed at the world for 16 days during the Winter Olympics from Norway has ended. Peace and quiet has begun to descend again on the intrepid community of Lillehammer and the picturesque Gudbrandsdal valley.

Horse-drawn sleighs no longer have to yield to a steady stream of buses, waiting lines in restaurants and shops have disappeared, journalists have shed their Olympic dog tags, and the festive trappings have begun to come down.

Trying to summarize all that happened during the 17th Winter Games may best be achieved via a crazy quilt of arbitrary awards. This exercise - more subjective than scientific - follows.

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Biggest upset: Italy's victory over host Norway in the men's cross-country skiing relay. Not only was it a major surprise, it also was high drama, with Norwegian superstar Bjorn Dahlie and Italy's Silvio Fauner racing side by side to the finish. This event looms very large in Norwegian minds as a showcase for displaying national fervor and strength in Nordic skiing. One of the largest crowds of the Olympics turned out, with most of the 100,000 spectators lining the track beyond the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium. When Norway's Dream Team was beaten, the throng fell suddenly and eerily silent. Afterward, Dahlie said that even if some Norwegians ``broke their televisions'' in frustration, ``we offered them good entertainment.''

Happiest ending: Dan Jansen finally claimed the Olympic medal that had long eluded him. Competing in his fourth and final Olympics, the oft-frustrated American speed skater won his first medal in his very last race, the 1,000 meters. Poetically, it was a gold with a dollop of whipped cream in the form of a new world record - and not at his best distance. He had slipped earlier in the 500 to add to his string of Olympic miscues.

Top age-barrier breakers: This was an Olympics in which athletes of advancing years proved themselves a force to be reckoned with. The golden-agers made their presence felt in many events. Perhaps the most inspirational competitor in this regard was 43-year-old cross-country skier Maurilio de Zolt, who said he felt ``over the moon'' after he won a gold in Italy's stunning relay upset of Norway. ``He is almost old enough to be my father,'' Norway's Bjorn Dahlie said. A member of the Italian team for 17 years, de Zolt's best Olympic results previously were a pair of silvers in the 50-km.

While de Zolt was showing the value of experience, 13-year-old speed skater Yoon-Mi Kim of South Korea was demonstrating the promise of youth. She became the youngest athlete ever to win a gold medal in a Winter Olympics by skating on the winning women's 3,000-meter short-track relay team.

Most enduring images: 1) The seas of cowbell-ringing, flag-waving Norwegian fans; 2) the wholesome looking athletes, whose glowing faces were a wonderful advertisment for winter sports and the Olympics; and 3) Dan Jansen carrying his little girl on a victory lap at the Viking Ship speed skating oval.

Best bronze medal performance: British skaters Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean in ice dancing. Ten years after their performance for the ages in Sarajevo, when they won a string of perfect scores for artistic impression, T&D skated a brilliant long program only to finish behind two Russian pairs. Some speculated that T&D incorporated too many old chestnuts into their program to win over the judges, but they won the crowd, which had to be some consolation in this most subjective of winter sports.

Most profitable idea: The insistence by the Lillehammer Organizing Committee that official souvenirs be of the highest quality. Only 35 of 1,000 producers who approached the Committee were accepted. The result was a fivefold increase in income from licensed products. The final take: more than $13 million.

Closest finish: Men's luge singles, in which Germany's Georg Hackl edged out Markus Prock of Austria by a hundredth of a second after four runs.

Worst sportsmanship: Yanmei Zhang, upset that China's protest of the finish in the women's 500-meter short-track speed-skating race was not upheld, refused to shake winner Cathy Turner's hand, walked off the medals podium, and threw her flowers down. At worst, Turner could be accused of incidental contact with Zhang in a sport filled with bumping.

Only national sweep: Norway, in the men's Alpine combined (downhill and slalom races), where Lasse Kjus, Kjetil Andre Aamodt, and Harald Christian Strand Nilsen grabbed the top three spots, shutting out the central Europeans, who once dominated the event. The feat marked only the third time one country had ever swept an Olympic Alpine race.

Best lifetime achievements: Russian cross-country skier Lyubov Egorova, who tied an Olympics record with her sixth gold medal, including three from 1992. Also American speed skater Bonnie Blair, who became the leading gold-medal winner in US Olympic history, summer or winter Games. In running her career gold total to five, she moved ahead of sprinter Evelyn Ashford, swimmer Janet Evans, and diver Pat McCormick.

Greatest personal turnaround: Norwegian ski jumper Espen Bredesen, who went from last in the normal hill event at the 1992 Winter Games to first this time. Bredesen, once called ``the Crow,'' transformed himself athletically by adopting the popular ``V'' style, in which the skis are spread instead of held together. Bredesen's effort gave Norway its first jumping gold since 1964.

Best pep talk fodder: Sports Illustrated's pre-Olympics description of the US ski team as ``Uncle Sam's lead-footed snowplow brigade.'' Their fires lit, the Americans jumped out early with two golds and two silvers in the first four races.

Most symbolic performance: Katarina Witt's figure skating tribute to war-torn Sarajevo, where she won the first of two Olympic championships. She skated her long program to the poignant strains of ``Where Have All the Flowers Gone?''

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