EARLY this month, the calendar in the lobby of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee read: "Only 340 days to go!" It was a reminder to the 450 staff members that the countdown to the 1994 Winter Games has begun.
The excitement is building - not just at headquarters, but throughout the country. Look no further than the corner grocery store, where the Olympic logo appears above canned mackerel fillets. Women exchange Olympic knitting patterns; Olympic pin collecting clubs are forming four times faster than organizers expected; farmers train their horses to carry wagonloads of tourists; and evening classes in foreign languages prepare locals to serve the 100,000 or so visitors who will descend on Lillehammer (popul ation 22,000) and the equally small neighboring towns of Gjovik and Hamar.
With a year to go, Lillehammer is ahead of schedule. Steve Saye, an assistant director of the United States Olympic Committee (USOC), visited last month and says, "No host city in memory has been this far along in its preparations this far out." Already complete are the events arenas (ski jump, speed- and figure-skating arenas, hockey rinks, Alpine and cross-country ski arenas), three cultural exhibition centers, and the broadcast center. Housing for athletes, coaches, and media should be ready in the fa ll.
Still, Petter Ronningen, the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee (LOOC) deputy managing director, says, "We need this year to get ready." A bank executive and former military man, Mr. Ronningen is responsible for operations next year. Recent World Cup events at the site went "quite well," despite a few bugs.
Meanwhile, improvements are still being made on the rail line from Oslo to Lillehammer; express trains will soon make the trip in two hours. Transportation links are especially key because hotels for spectators will not be available in the Olympic area. One-third of the buses in Norway - some 1,400 in all - will ferry people to events. Large parking lots are being built in outlying areas near bus routes, as no private cars will be allowed in the city.
HOSTING the Games is a huge undertaking for such a small town. Why did Lillehammer want the Olympics? Jomar Selvaag, assistant director of marketing, explains: "It was never thought of as just a two-week sports event.... The entire purpose of doing this mega-event is to achieve long-term progress; to develop this part of the country as a place to live and work in the future."
"We've invested in highway and railway construction and in telecommunications," Ronningen says. Sports arenas will support tourism; the broadcast center will become part of a new university after the Games.
"We're raising this region to a level, over the next 30 to 40 years, that it might never have reached otherwise," he adds. "I think it will take some years to appreciate what the Olympics mean for the region."
The 1994 Winter Games are being financed by a $1 billion government grant approved by the parliament without serious opposition. Even in a country where oil resources have brought prosperity, this is a large sum.
Several sources of revenue are helping to pay back the grant. Lillehammer receives two-thirds of the $295 million that CBS paid for broadcast rights. (The International Olympic Committee and the USOC receive 24 percent and 10 percent, respectively.) Nine of Scandinavia's largest firms are major sponsors. Additional money came from suppliers and licensing agreements. (Thirty-two companies will produce 600 "official" items.)
Necessity and desire have ensured nationwide participation in the organization of the Games. From the country's population of about 4.1 million, the LOOC recruited "the best Norway had to offer," Ronningen says, to secure expertise in fields as diverse as media relations and computer software.
"We have participation from the entire country," he says, so "all of Norway feels it's taking part directly."
Hundreds of local entrepreneurs, like Gjovik cafe owner Klaus Bratlie, also are planning for the Olympics. He will expand capacity by setting up sidewalk tables (yes, in February) and limiting seating time. He's already using glassware with the Olympic logo.
When it's all over on Feb. 27, 1994, what would make Ronningen happy? "If everyone who comes - athletes, spectators, and media - feels everything worked well, and if they leave with a taste of Norwegian culture, I'll be satisfied."