EVEN before they begin Saturday, something feels right about these Olympics, the XVIIth Winter Games.
Mostly, the feeling stems from the location.
Norway calls up all the appropriate images: ski sweaters with snowflake and reindeer designs; ski jumpers leaning gracefully into a chilling wind; and a heavy cloak of crystalline white wherever you turn.
So the setting in ``the cradle of skiing'' may be picture-perfect, but what of the sports themselves?
Here, too, expectations run high. These Games, after all, will forever hold a special niche in Olympic history. As the first Winter Games to be held on the new alternating winter-summer schedule, they come only two years after the Winter Olympics broke camp at Albertville in the French Alps.
The intent is to avoid Olympic overload in any given year, and in the process give the Olympic family - athletes, officials, media members, and sponsors - a chance to catch their breath and reload their wallets.
Having one Winter Games follow so close on the heels of another theoretically will never happen again. It certainly has positive repercussions for the Lillehammer Games, because many athletes who might have packed it in after Albertville have been encouraged to stick around. In other words, many more Olympic ``lettermen'' are returning than is usually the case.
Spectators may still need a program to know who most of the competitors are, but there will be some athletes whose identities and performances linger in memory from previous Olympics, such as Alpine skier Alberto Tomba, speed skaters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen, cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang, and figure skater Nancy Kerrigan.
Kerrigan is a central figure in one of the most intriguing Olympic figure-skating competitions ever held and, through no fault of her own, also at the center of perhaps the most bizarre controversy ever to visit the Olympics.
The latter stems from an attack on Kerrigan at last month's United States national figure skating championships in Detroit, where a hit man attempted to disable her after a practice session. The case turned into a huge melodrama as it emerged that the assault was a conspiracy, allegedly hatched by individuals associated with Kerrigan's chief American skating rival, Tonya Harding. Complicating matters is the possibility that Harding herself was involved - a claim made by Jeff Gillooly, Harding's ex-husband and confessed instigator of the attack. Harding has admitted to withholding information about the attack after it happened, but continues to deny any advance knowledge.
Not surprisingly, the case has created difficulties for almost everyone involved. It has also created a media circus. (At least one, and perhaps three made-for-TV movies are in the works.) American Olympic officials will meet in Oslo Feb. 15 to decide whether Harding will skate in Lillehammer. She has not been charged in the case.
With the ladies' skating event falling near the end of the Games (Feb. 25), this drama could give a tabloid feel to some of the proceedings. Will Harding be allowed to skate? How will Kerrigan (who has fully recovered from the attack) and Harding rehearse together, now that Olympic officials have denied them separate practice times? And if Harding skates, what will the reaction of the audience and judges be?
All this aside, some of the most-anticipated competitions of these Games will occur in figure skating. A major contributing factor is the sport's new liberalized eligibility rules, which make it possible for seasoned professionals and past Olympic champions such as Brian Boitano, Katarina Witt, and the dance team of Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean to compete alongside young skaters who have only dreamed of Olympic glory.
``A lot of people who are reinstating are looking for a revitalization of their star power,'' says CBS skating analyst Scott Hamilton, a gold medalist in 1984, ``and that upsets a lot of skaters who have remained eligible. They think, `They already had their time in the sun, this is my time.' ''
Hamilton, like others, figures that the sport is supposed to advance, so if younger skaters can't push the older ones off center stage, the youngsters have no one to blame but themselves.
The return of Torvill and Dean may be like unlocking a time capsule. The British team produced one of the most unforgettable performances in Olympic history at the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, in the former Yugoslavia. Their breathtaking rendition of ``Bolero'' was a show-stopper that garnered a string of perfect marks from the judges and revolutionized ice dancing. Last month, they won the European championships, but it was no waltz, and their showdown with several Russian couples could be one of the most tightly contested of all Olympic events.
The men's event should be a lollapalooza as well: Boitano, whose campaigning was instrumental in allowing professionals to compete, will tangle with fellow Olympic champion Viktor Petrenko (a Ukrainian now living in Las Vegas), reigning US champion Scott Davis, and Canadians Kurt Browning and Elvis Stojko.
Witt's antiwar statement
Among the women, things are no less intense. Kerrigan is the lone returning 1992 medalist (bronze), but she is only one among a number of serious medal hopefuls, including, yes, Harding, as well as Ukrainian teenager Oksana Baiul and France's Surya Bonaly.
Witt, who finished eighth in Europe and barely made the German team, doesn't appear to have enough technical difficulty in her program to repeat her Olympic titles of 1984 and 1988. But in what promises to be a moving statement about the sad developments in Sarajevo, the site of her first Olympic triumph, Witt will skate her long program to the antiwar ballad, ``Where Have All the Flowers Gone?''
Such somberness also echoes in Alpine skiing, where Austrian Ulrike Maier, a World Cup circuit skier, was killed last month during a downhill race in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany. Questions were raised in the aftermath of her collision with a timing device about whether the sport has pushed too hard for speed at the expense of safety.
The women successfully lobbied last year to have their Olympic downhill race moved to a more difficult run. That decision isn't likely to be revisited now, but clearly the organizers in Lillehammer have been made more aware of the importance of safety.
Alpine's man of the hour will surely be Italian Alberto Tomba, who aims to become the first skier ever to win gold in three consecutive Olympics.
It takes nerves of steel and incredible concentration to ``attack'' the gates in the slalom and giant slalom, and Tomba is confident that he has both. He faces formidable competition - including Norwegians Kjetil Andre Aamodt and Finn Christian Jagge -
in both events.
Norway has surged in the Alpine events in recent years, but the home team is expected to be strongest where it has traditionally been, in the Nordic events of ski jumping and cross-country skiing. Ironmen Vegard (The Terminator) Ulvang and Bjorn Daehlie return. Native son Johann Olav Koss is also projected as a winner in some of the long-distance speed-skating races.
Bonnie Blair returns
The indoor speed-skating oval in Hamar, about 30 miles south of Lillehammer, boasts a very fast track, and Olympic and even world records could come in bushels. Leading the charge will be American sprinters Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen. If she can win her two specialties, Blair, who already owns three golds, will be the most prolific American Olympic champion in history, summer or winter. Jansen, meanwhile, looks to shed disappointments in the two previous Games to finally strike gold.
A serious program and some sophisticated sled designs may pay dividends for the US Olympic effort in bobsled and luge. Duncan Kennedy, who weathered an attack by right-wing extremists in Germany earlier this winter, should contend in the men's luge, and Cammy Myler, who last week became the first American woman to win a World Cup luge event, is a threat among the women.
While all the skiing, sliding, jumping, and pirouetting goes on, the masters of grunt-and-groan mayhem - the hockey players - will engage in an Olympics-long tournament that seems more wide open than ever.
``I don't think the `playing field' has ever been more level for an Olympics,'' says CBS hockey expert John Davidson. This is the result of the exodus of many European players to the financially greener pastures of the US National Hockey League.
This encourages US hockey captain Peter Laviolette, who thinks ``it might just happen for us in Lillehammer.'' If the competition holds to form, however, the teams from Russia, Sweden, and the Czech Republic might freeze the Americans out of a sequel to their 1980 ``Miracle on Ice.''