WHEN the Winter Olympics begin next Saturday, huge crowds at the cross-country ski races are expected to be a sure sign of the Norwegianness of the Lillehammer Games.
A number of these aficionados might even be familiar with a distant American triumph in Nordic skiing that stands as perhaps the finest moment the United States has ever enjoyed in the sport. Ironically, hardly anyone in the US knows about it.
In Norway, however, the name John Bower is liable to ring a bell even 26 years after he shocked the skiing world by winning the King's Cup at the 1968 Holmenkollen Ski Festival. The cup is awarded to the best skier in the Nordic combined event, which tallies the results from a ski-jumping competition and a 15-kilometer cross-country race. Bower won the 15-km race by such a wide margin that he got the cup with only a fourth-place finish in ski jumping.
Holmenkollen Day is a national holiday in Norway, and the festival, held at the famous Holmenkollen jump outside Oslo, nearly always includes royal family members among its throng. To the Nordic world, the Holmenkollen is a bit like Wimbledon is to tennis or the Boston Marathon is to running.
``In Norway, everyone understands Nordic skiing,'' Bower says. ``It's really an integral part of the Norwegian way of life and is on a par with baseball or football in our country.'' Begun in 1892, the Holmenkollen meet is one of the oldest continuously held sports events in the world.
Bower, who is now the director of the Utah Winter Sports Park in Park City, Utah, says in a telephone interview that the event has lost none of its domestic prestige over the years, but it has declined in international importance because of the growth of the world Nordic circuit.
In 1968, however, Holmenkollen was not to be missed, and everybody who was anybody in Nordic skiing was there, making it like an Olympics.
At the time, Bower says, Norway was experiencing a slump in its development of Nordic combined skiers. As a result, the Holmenkollen title was ``ripe for the picking for any non-Norwegian who was skiing well at the time.'' Americans have seldom cracked the upper echelon of Nordic skiing, but Bower was enjoying a great season and was in the top 10, getting better with each competition.
At the Olympics earlier that year, Bower, a native of Auburn, Maine, had not been up to par physically and did not come close to winning a medal.
It would be another eight years before another American, Bill Koch, would capture the only Olympic medal the United States has ever won in Nordic events - a silver in the 30-km race at the 1976 Winter Games in Innsbruck, Austria.
Koch's was a major achievement, but Paul Robbins, a long-time observer of the US Nordic scene, says Bower's Holmenkollen victory ``has to be the beacon for American Nordic athletes. It was the breakthrough, the one that tells everybody else, hey, this is possible.''
The US Nordic outlook heading into Lillehammer is bleak. In fact, a $100,000 award has been put up for any US cross-country skier who medals. ``I think it's pretty safe,'' says Bower, who was a coach at Middlebury College in Vermont at the time of his Holmenkollen victory. He has since made other career stops as a Nordic program director with the US ski team and as the athletic director at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.
Nordic skiing lacks the numbers in the US, Robbins says. ``The bottom line is that the US is not a winter-sports country.'' People exercise on Nordic-like contraptions at home, but they don't hit the trails. And Robbins claims the image of ski jumping in the US has long been ``distorted'' by the ``agony of defeat'' footage ABC's ``Wide World of Sports'' ran for many years of a horrifying-looking crash.
Many community ski jumps in places like northern New England have fallen into disuse. One place where there is a surge of jumping activity is the Utah Winter Sports Park, where Bower not only oversees Olympic-size 65- and 90-meter jumps (built as part of Salt Lake City's bid for the 2002 Winter Games) but also 18- and 38-meter natural training jumps.
A program of recreational ski jumping started last winter has enrolled people from four to 74 years old. ``You have to have a low-intermediate skiing ability and be able to run straight and stop,'' Bower says. Alpine skis are used to make it more accessible to greater numbers of people.
``Last year, we had over a thousand jumps,'' Bower says enthusiastically, and most of them with safe landings.
Few of these new flyers, one suspects, have ever heard of Holmenkollen, but a former champion there hopes his love of Nordic skiing will catch on with others and snowball all the way to the 2002 Winter Games.