AMERICANS who came to Norway for the Lillehammer Olympics are bound to take many memories home with them. Mine will forever remain a special Sunday in the middle of the Games. Day 9 of 16 to be exact. I purchased an Olympic pin commemorating this date as a keepsake.
The images are not of athletic triumphs, but of a glorious few hours in which the spirit of Norway, its people, its culture, unfolded before my wondering eyes during a trip to the large hill ski- jump competition. The Lysgardsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena serves as the crowning jewel of the Olympic Park. This is where these Games began and where they will end. At night the illuminated jumps rise like majestic cathedral spires on the mountain over Lillehammer.
This was a Sunday afternoon, however, one basking in brilliant sunlight. This was a day for taking the family to the park - the Olympic Park - a day for drinking in the Olympics and the atmosphere surrounding them in huge gulps.
The Norwegians were celebrating, exulting in a winter scene with as much joy as New Englanders might display vacationing on the beach at Cape Cod.
Here in the Olympic Park, the spirit of a people in love with their environment was evident.
This clearly was the moment to take out the point-and-shoot camera the Monitor loaned to me. Here was something I could feel through the soles of my sub-zero, insulated boots and wanted to capture. No professional journalist armed with a cannon-sized telephoto lens could feel what was happening here any better than I could.
I started at the base of the mountain snapping shots of the thousands of spectators making their way up to the ski jumps. Many had begun the day's journey in Oslo, alighted after a 2 1/2-hour train ride at Lillehammer's beautifully appointed station, and then bused to the edge of Olympic Park.
They were now streaming through an outdoor gallery of snow sculptures the size of small parade floats. Children climbed over, around, and through them; families posed. After pausing, they hiked on, many bearing one of the unofficial symbols of these Olympics - a fully loaded backpack with a Norwegian flag or two sprouting from it.
Many of these pilgrims came with tickets, eager to jam the ski- jumping stadium, turning the bowl at the bottom of the landing area into a thundering sea of humanity.
Hope ran high that Norway's Espen Bredesen, a jumper who had transformed himself from a last-place finisher to a top contender since the 1992 Winter Olympics, would come through.
On the first of two jumps, Bredesen sent the crowd into ecstasy with a new hill record of 135.5 meters. In Round 2, however, he touched down 13 meters short of his new mark and came in second to Germany's Jens Weissflog.
While all this was going on, I ventured down the mountain to visit the ``cheap seats,'' where thousands of people were enjoying the event and the ambience enveloping it - without a ticket.
A throng stood looking up from below the Olympic flame, enjoying a panoramic, if more distant view of the event.
Countless others, meanwhile, were using the vast field of deep snow at the mountain's base as a picnic ground. I strolled the area searching for the definitive snapshot. There were many candidates, including the young boys who were sledding down one of the pedestrian walkways on what looked like contoured plastic shovel blades.
But one visual vignette summed it up best for me. I closed in on the dugout that several bus drivers, temporarily off duty, had made in the deep snow. All the important amenities were in place: a small Norwegian flag, a tin of cookies, rubber mats to sit on, a large thermos, and a little jerryrigged campfire to cook a string of hot dogs one driver held up like a day's fishing catch. Oh, yes, and there was a radio tuned to the ski jumping play-by-play in what looked like the Norwegian equivalent of American baseball fans settling in to listen to Vin Scully or Harry Caray.
The bus drivers were obviously relishing these hours of friendship and communion with the Olympics and the great outdoors. I called to them, asking them to look at the camera. They delighted in cooperating, then offered me one of the hot dogs boiling in an empty pineapple can.
FROM here, I walked to Hakon Hall, also in Olympic Park, to take in some hockey - Russia vs. the Czech Republic.
The crowd was only mildly enthusiastic, a fact that led to a revelation of sorts.
Norwegians, despite their winter-sports heritage, are not especially zealous about hockey. Nor are they big figure-skating fans, even though Sonja Henie and Axel Paulsen (of Axel jump fame) helped shape the sport. Americans wonder how this can be.
Now I had my answer: No Norwegian wants to be caught indoors when winter, in all its splendor, beckons so alluringly. The weather outside is never frightful to these folks. They know how to dress for it and rejoice in it.
Roel Puijk, one of the six anthropologists doing research on the Olympics, confirms this hunch. When asked what Norwegians are telling the world about themselves during the Winter Games, he says, ``I think they are trying to create the impression of a nation that lives in harmony with nature.''
To be out in the elements, to Telemark ski down a hill, to cross-country ski through a stand of white birches, to play in a snow pile as if it were a dirt pile, this is real invigoration.
As Espen Granli, a young ticket taker at the ski-jumping stadium, so succinctly put it: ``I need to be outdoors in order to feel alive.''