Heartbreak in Olympic Big Top

Crowds throng `greatest show on earth' replete with warmup `clown' and gasp-causing action

THE logistics of organizing the Winter Olympics, now in full swing here in picturesque southern Norway, has been compared to putting on two Super Bowls a day for 16 days.

Truly the Games are a large and fragmented undertaking, which is perhaps one reason a visiting pundit was inspired to call them a five-ring circus. That is a rather clever description considering that the Olympic symbol consists of five multicolored rings that form, according to the Olympic charter, a ``regular trapezium.'' Big Top talk for sure.

And speaking of Big Tops, one of the hottest destinations at the Lillehammer Olympics is a sprawling structure that could double as the ultimate Barnum & Bailey ``tent.'' Only this is no tent, but Hamar Olympic Hall, one of several architectural wonders built for these 17th Winter Games.

As the name implies, the hall is not in Lillehammer, but Hamar, a community of similar size (26,000 residents) that is serving as a satellite about 30 minutes away from the center of Norway's Olympic universe. Just as the Astrodome in Houston was an attraction in its own right, so is this hall, commonly called ``the Viking Ship,'' due to its resemblance to one.

In deference to nature lovers, who bent Olympic Committee ears early in the design process, the long-track speed-skating facility was turned around so the entrances and exits would face away from a fragile sanctuary for migratory birds. But on this day, no birds are in sight, perhaps because the temperature is hovering well below zero degrees F.

Inside there is yet another sellout crowd of 11,000 wildly enthusiastic and knowledgeable fans. On Feb. 14, the event is the men's 500-meter sprint, the 100-yard dash of the sport. Speeds reach over 30 miles per hour for these modern-day Hans Brinkers, who are said to be the fastest humans unaided by mechanical equipment.

The crowd consists largely of Norwegians and Dutch, judging by the flags, banners, and cheers. These two countries are big rivals in the sport, yet today's attraction, which finds journalists queuing up four hours before the competition for limited press seats, revolves around American Dan Jansen. The native of West Allis, Wis., is the fastest of the fast, the reigning world-record holder, but a frustrated, medal-less Olympian.

Several days earlier, one journalist asked him ``if the third time would be the charm.'' Mr. Jansen, however, reminded the questioner that this was actually his fourth Olympics. At his second, in 1988, he fell in both the 500- and 1,000-meters, and in his third Games two years ago, he stayed up but finished fourth and 26th.

Before the competition began, a guy who could have passed for Michael Jordan on runners was out at center ice entertaining the crowd by leaping over ever-higher hurdles, and once sailing over the elevated body of the master of ceremonies. Bands played, too, to prime a crowd that didn't need priming.

Jansen toes the line in the second pairing of the day. The starter asks the racers to get ready a second time after an overly long pause the first time. The electronic beep sounds, and Jansen begins a blazing 1-1/2 turns around the elongated 400-meter oval. Only in his eagerness to clock an unassailable time, he slips going into one turn, a fatal development in such a short race. His time (36.68 seconds) eventually drops him to eighth place as a Russian wins the gold with a winning time that is well off Jansen's world record of 35.76, set just two weeks ago.

The sport's Heartbreak Kid, now a 29-year-old father, would say later, ``Everybody knows I am the best, but I wasn't today....'' Thus ended another chapter in one corner of the Olympic circus.

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