A Small Country With Big Winners

Norway's athletes continue to surge back from a long dry spell in the Winter Games

ONE of the questions permeating the 17th Winter Games is, ``How do the Norwegians do it?'' How can a country of only 4 million people be an international sports power?

At Albertville, France, two years ago, the Norwegians were third in medals behind Germany and the Unified Team of former Soviet republics, and this year they make no secret of their ambitions. ``On our home turf in Lillehammer, we want to see Norway as the best nation,'' says the Norwegian team's media guide.

Norway, of course, has history and culture on its side. ``We have a saying that Norwegians are born on skis,'' says Jan Morten Berger, the press attache here for the Norwegian Olympic team.

No one doubts the essence of that statement. But the fact is that Norway, a high-profile participant at many Winter Games, is rebounding spectacularly from a long Olympics slump.

The Norwegians collected seven gold medals when Oslo was the first Scandinavian city to host the Winter Games in 1952, but in the next nine Games they struggled to add 22 more. In 1988, Norway missed adding a single gold. Ironically, that was the year the International Olympic Committee awarded the 1994 Games to Lillehammer.

Wishing to put its best foot forward in 1994, the Norwegian Olympic Committee went to work restructuring its athlete-development program. The master plan has been eagerly underwritten by big hitters in business to the tune of a reported $100 million. Backers include SAS, the Scandinavian airline, and Jordan, which supplies the current team with toothbrushes. (Got to keep those smiles bright, given the many opportunities to flash them on the medals podium.)

Most of Norway's successes have been scored in cross-country skiing (Vegard Ulvang, Bjorn Daehlie) and speed-skating events (Johann Olav Koss). But Norway has improved in other pursuits as well: Its Alpine skiers have blossomed under coach Dieter Bartsch, who came over from the Austrian team.

In 1992, Norwegians won their first Alpine medals at the Olympics since 1952, when the debonair Stein Eriksen captured some giant slalom hardware. Tellingly, he then moved to the United States. Until recently, Alpine skiing has been mostly an afterthought in the minds of the Nordic-loving Norwegians.

Kjetil Andre Aamodt is the leader of the new Alpine pack. He won the super giant slalom (Super G) at Albertville and collected a downhill silver in the first day of the Lillehammer Games. Thursday he added a bronze in the men's Super G.

One strategy the Norwegian program has latched on to is cross-training. Some of the speed skaters have taken ballet to strengthen their balance. Ulvang engages in many off-season adventures, including climbs up some of the world's highest mountains as part of what he calls his ``basic training.'' Ski-jumper Espen Bredesen, another climbing enthusiast, also likes to parachute. ``You feel safer at the top of a jumping hill when you've tried parachuting and climbing,'' he says.

Norway has collected medals at a significant pace at the Lillehammer Games, obviously inspired by the highly charged home crowds, yet it has not patched up all the holes in its winter armor.

The women have not made their mark the way the men have, a curious fact given Norway's reputation as a champion of gender equality. Stine Lise Hattestad's winning of the gold medal in moguls freestyle-skiing here may be an indication of more promising results to come.

Norway is a nonfactor in the sledding events, hockey, and (to the consternation of some) figure skating, a sport that produced Sonja Henie, Norway's most noted sports figure and three-time Olympic champion (1928, '32, and '36).

Norway's struggles in hockey might be chalked up to size. After all, some say, how many world-class athletes can be wrung from such a small talent pool?

More than many might think, because - surprise, surprise - Norway has qualified a team for this year's World Cup soccer tournament in the United States.

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