THE WINTER GAMES

The little town that could

Boring? Dour? The Norwegians are about to give their image a near-total make-over

BRUCE WALLACE February 14 1994
THE WINTER GAMES

The little town that could

Boring? Dour? The Norwegians are about to give their image a near-total make-over

BRUCE WALLACE February 14 1994

The little town that could

THE WINTER GAMES

Boring? Dour? The Norwegians are about to give their image a near-total make-over

BRUCE WALLACE

Myth Number One: Norwegians are boring. Reality: Norwegians are daring and adventurous. They were the first Europeans to sail to North America, after all. To prove their mettle to the world, they will bring the Olympic flame into the Lysgardsbakkene arena for the Winter Games opening ceremonies in unique fashion: former Olympian Ole Gunnar Fidjestol will ski jump off the 90-m hill with the torch in his hands. Top that Atlanta. Myth Two: Norwegians never smile.

Reality: Norwegians do have a sense of humor, despite long Arctic winter nights that make every resident a candidate for seasonal affective disorder, better known as SAD. The national newspaper, Verdens Gang, is now running a full page of jokes every day at the expense of neighboring Sweden. Why don’t Swedes wear hats? Because they can’t find square hats to fit their heads. The Norwegians think the humor is great, but they have an excuse: Norway was a province of Sweden for nearly 100 years until finally winning independence in 1905. The jokes are Norway’s Swede revenge.

Myth Three: Norway is a small country with no international influence.

Reality: like Canadians, Norwegians pride themselves on being a middle power that can be a broker on the world stage. Consider: Norway’s Foreign Minister Johan Holst, who died last month, was the mediator who brought Palestinians and Israelis together during secret negotiations at his Oslo home. And when it comes to Winter Olympic sports, Norway is a downright superpower. Only the former Soviet Union has won more Winter Olympic gold. Its disappearance and Norway’s strong team this year should close the medal gap.

Myth Four: The price of beer and wine in Norway is extraordinarily high.

Reality: OK, true. With most bars and restaurants charging $8 a beer, Norwegians tend to sip their drinks slowly. And on the eve of the Games, local residents were suspicious that the 55 licensed bars in Lillehammer were going to jack prices even higher to cash in on the gathering of Olympian expense accounts.

But other than high beer prices and the fact that local troll souvenirs are gratingly ubiquitous, Norway is on the brink of burying a few clichés. These will not be the Polar Games. Yes, they are the most northerly Olympics ever staged—sitting 180 km north of Oslo, the capital, and above the 60th parallel, Lillehammer is at the same latitude as Whitehorse. But the warmth of the Gulf Stream, which brushes by the coast disguised as the Norwegian Current, ensures that weather conditions are moderate. And by hosting a global sporting event that doubles as an enormous cultural exhibition, Norwegians are about to give their image a near-total make-over.

When the world arrives in the Gudbrandsdalen valley on Feb. 12 (most tuning in as part

of a one-billion-plus-sized TV audience), it will see some of the most esthetically pleasing and innovative sports facilities ever built The skating rink in Hamar, the city 50 km south of Iillehammer where Elvis Stojko and Kurt Browning will duel, resembles the overturned hull of a Viking ship. Advanced construction techniques allowed its roof to be supported by the world’s longest span of wooden beams. The Gjovik Olympic Cavern Hall, a 12,000-seat hockey rink that will host 16 of the 46 Olympic contests, including Team Canada’s opener against Italy on Feb. 13, was burrowed 120 m through red gneiss rock into the side of a mountain, where the rock’s natural insulation keeps heating costs down.

In fact, designers of all the venues tried to alter the surface landscape as little as possible. The tops of the ski jumps discreetly hug the tree line, and the bobsled run was sculpted into the mountainside with remarkably little damage to the surrounding woodlands; the track is hardly visible from surrounding hills. And rather than build an enormous grandstand to seat the tens of thousands of Norwegians eager to see the popular cross-country races, organizers chose to allow anyone on skis to take up a spot alongside the track and watch for free.

Pressing its builders and sponsors to respect the environment was one way that the Iillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee overcame early local concerns about hosting the Games. “We have given the Games a green profile,” says Sigmund Haugsja, the committee’s environmental co-ordinator. Tie paper plates used in serving food will be made of edible,

and compostable, potato starch, while plentiful recycling bins will allow spectators to sort garbage on the spot Smoking will be banned from indoor events, and actively discouraged outdoors. Haugsja is proud of the impact environmentalists have had on the Games. “If we use teamwork to become more environmentally friendly, we can all be Olympic winners,” he says. (Reality: Norwegian Olympic organizers can be very earnest)

Of course, the invasion of corporate sponsors, who have painted their logos and colors on local buses, ensures that the Olympic Games never become quaint Yet tiny Iillehammer retains a quiet charm, offering few distractions from the main event: world-class athletics. It is not an Albertville-style resort favored by the tanned and Day-Glo set. And with just 22,780 residents and one main street it does not provide the metropolitan backdrop of a Calgary. In a sense, by coming to Iillehammer, the Winter Games are coming home—to a country that revels in winter, where strapping on a pair of skis and heading out across a field or down a mountain is a way of life, a natural, almost genetically inspired, act.

Lillehammer is located in one of two Norwegian counties without access to the sea. And in Norway, attention has always focused on the coasts. It was from the west coast that expansionist Vikings left to conquer large parts of northern Europe in the ninth century, cutting a swath through the British Isles and on down to Normandy in France. Norwegian explorers also pushed farther westward, first to Iceland and

THE WINTER GAMES

Greenland and then to North America, where Leif Ericsson founded the first European settlement at L’Anse-aux-Meadows in Newfoundland at the turn of the millennium. More recently, oil reserves off the west coast brought new wealth to Norway in the 1970s and 1980s. Falling oil prices have cooled the boom, but the coastal regions continue to monopolize investment. So strong is the lure of the sea and its resources that the Norwegian government, normally the darling of the environmental movement, defies international attempts to shut down its centuries-old whaling industry.

All the attention on the west and north left the heavily wooded interior—places like Lillehammer—largely ignored. Recreational skiers have come to Lillehammer on the northern tip of Lake Mjosa since the 1860s—its ski club was founded in 1883—and over the years resort hotels have sprung up to handle the tourists. But with other industry restricted mostly to lumbering and dairy farming, the closing of the local pulp mill and brewery by the 1980s left business and banking interests concerned. “Iillehammer was the Sleeping Beauty of Norway, but you can only sleep for so long,” says Rolf Kjaemsli, a retired teacher and ski instructor who has lived just outside town for 36 years.

In 1982, a group of businessmen proposed the seemingly farfetched idea of bidding on the Winter Olympics as a way of generating tourism and attracting investment. The notion encountered so much local resistance that Kjaemsli, who supported the bid, doubts that a referendum on it would have passed. “It would have been close,” he says. “People feared that the small-town feel would disappear and worried that we would turn into a flashy resort.” Many residents also protested the spending and building that started even before the 1994 Games were awarded. But such construction—notably a 4,000-seat hockey arena, Kristin’s Hall, and an alpine ski mn—impressed the International Olympic Committee (IOC) with the seriousness of Lillehammer’s intentions. And in September, 1988, after considering bids from Sofia, Bulgaria, and Ostersund, Sweden, the IOC gave the 1994 Games to Lillehammer.

Now, there is no sign of what many residents feared: a population explosion or Banff-like commercialism on Storgate, the pedestrian

Kvitfjell

50 km north of Lillehammt Alpine skiing (downhill, super G)

mall. But there has been change.

Roads have been built and improved and the downtown has been spmced up. Yet another hockey rink has been built—there are three in all— this one with room for 9,000 spectators, including a section of wider seats for Olympic VIPs. The arena will have a short hockey lifespan: the gold-medal game will be its last. Afg ter the Games it will host trade ^ shows and European handball35 matches, while its other attractions, such as bowling lanes and a 30-m wall for recreational climbing, will remain in use. “There is no way Lillehammer could ever fill an arena that size for hockey,” says Zamboni driver Stein Ame Skoglund.

like the Montreal Games, costs have risen far beyond original projections, from $320 million to more than $1.3 billion. But unlike Montreal, where construction crews worked through the night before the opening ceremonies, Lillehammer has been ready long in advance of the Games. Many of the sporting venues have even been tested in competition: when women downhillers found the original course too easy, organizers built a new, tougher mn for the Olympics. Torch-bearer Fidjestol has also been practising for his opening leap with the flame. Organizers first tried strapping a proxy torch to his back, but Fidjestol just grabbed it with one hand and jumped. He has been asked repeatedly if he worries about falling. “I don’t fall,” he says.

But there was no way to test how Lillehammer would handle the cmsh of more than 100,000 visitors a day, a majority arriving on the one rail line or by the single two-lane highway into town. There are not nearly enough hotels in Lillehammer to meet the demand, so most ticket holders will commute every day from Oslo, a prospect that so worried the United States Olympic Committee that they built their own hotel on the other side of Lake Mjosa for the exclusive use of their officials and Olympic sponsors.

Hunderfossen

15 km north of Lillehammt Bobsled and luge

Gjovik Cavern Hall

45 km south of Lillehammt Hockey

Transportation officials bravely insist they can handle the crowds. Trains will make the 2x/2-hour run from Oslo every 10 minutes at peak times, and planners have arranged for sleds of food to be towed into the woods to keep hungry elk from wandering across the rail tracks and causing a de railment. But a December survey showed that 40 per cent of trains were arriving more than five minutes late. Railway officials blamed snow and cold for the delays. And Svein Stubberud, a spe cial transportation consultant to the 1994 Games, insisted, as he stepped from a punctual train one morning last month that he was “relaxed and confident that everything would run smoothly.” Just in case, though, he has changed his home phone to an unlisted number.

Most myths, of course, have some roots in the truth. There is a palpable Norwegian reserve and love of tradition that many are not willing to shed, not for the Olympics or for the promises of a Better Tomorrow in the proposed European Union, currently the hot politi-

cal topic. Past generations of Norwegians have had comfortable relations with Britain and North America, less so with continental Europe. Memories of the Nazi occupation during the Second World War persist. And the country shared a 196-km border with the former Soviet Union, whose air bases were just five minutes flying time away.

Norway’s historic gaze westward has not been completely averted by the arrival of European satellite television. Younger Norwegians may be more European in outlook than their parents, but there is still hardened resistance to a formal union with Gucci Italy and haughty France. That resistance is strongest outside the main cities of Oslo and Bergen, in regions such as Lillehammer’s surrounding countryside where farmers and hunters, known as dol—hardened rural Norwegians given to furrowed brows and grunted one-word answers—are deeply suspicious of Euro-influences. A roots revival is evident in Lillehammer, where many residents still negotiate icy sidewalks on the traditional sparks (a sort of walk-

er with metal runners), which long ago disappeared from the sidewalks of more cosmopolitan Oslo. “We do not suffer from isolationism, but rather a fear that Norwegian traditions could be overrun,” says Kjaernsli. “People wonder: will rich Germans and Italians start buying up huge chunks of our southern coast, or outbid us for land to hunt on?”

This is a country that has always been far more comfortable going out to explore the world than welcoming others to its shores. Outside of Oslo, the country remains a monolithically white, Lutheran society. Norway has put on a friendly face for the Games, but the feeling is one of being welcomed into a family get-together rather than the more colorful mix of a block party. “Norwegians have a strong sense of moral superiority that sometimes can by hypocritical,” says Nita Kapoor, a Norwegian of East Indian heritage. ‘They can be very critical of American race relations, but then complain about their own problems of ‘integrating some groups.’ They are having the same

problem with the rise of neo-Nazis as the rest of Europe, and I think that a lot of the reason they wanted the Olympics was a nostalgia for the simpler world that existed when they hosted the Games the last time in 1952.”

h, the 1952 Oslo Games. They are nostalgic for Canadians, too, since that is where the Edmonton Mercurys won Canada’s last hockey gold medal—the last before Soviet hockey dominance began. Which begs the question: why can’t Norwegians play hockey? The internationalization of the sport swept up the Swedes and Finns, as well as central European countries. How did Norway, the winter sports superpower, get left behind to endure 16-0 blowouts in Olympic hockey?

Hockey certainly has deep roots in Norway. Bandy, its predecessor, was played there in the 19th century, and the modem game has been around since at least the 1930s. The oldest Norwegian hockey trophy is even called the “Canada Cup,” donated by the Canadian Embassy in 1947 to go to the Norwegian junior hockey champion. ‘We must admit that time has taken its toll on the actual trophy,” the Norwegian Ice Hockey Association wrote in a letter last month to the Canadian ambassador, requesting that the embassy pay to have the cup refurbished. “It now has been won 46 times and been through the same number of not-always-too-gentle victory celebrations.”

Norwegians themselves are puzzled by their lack of hockey success. There has never been a Norwegian hockey star, although some scouts see great promise in Espen (Shampoo) Knutsen, a 22-year-old scoring sensation who has been drafted, appropriately, by the Hartford Whalers. “Norway has never had a hockey culture of its own,” says Geir Myhre, 39, coach of Lillehammer’s local professional team, who previously played 15 years for Norwegian national teams. “Some years, we are coached by North Americans who teach us to play aggressively up and down the ice. And some years, we are coached by Swedes, who prefer a defensive style, with more curves, more patience.” Myhre himself prefers the Canadian approach. “Canadian players are always talking to one another, playing with heart and guts,” he says. “That is what I try to teach my team, but I have to remind them to talk to one another—to overcome that Norwegian reserve, you know.”

Like the rest of those clichés about Norway, these Olympics may bury that old image. The hockey team, “our best yet,” says Myhre, is ready. So is the rest of Norway’s talented home team, led by versatile alpine skier Kjetil André Aamodt. Olympic success at home may earn Norway more international sporting respect. And exposing the world to Norwegian culture will certainly help prevent a repeat of British figure skater Steven Cousins’ unhappy experience in December, when he tried, but failed, to find ingratiating Norwegian music to accompany his freestyle routine (ever daring, Cousins will settle for the reliable Chariots of Fire theme). This is Norway’s moment in the winter sun, its chance to join Calgary in showing the world that Nordic nations are not just beautiful landscapes inhabited by dour, boring people. When the flame goes out and the last traffic jam evaporates, Lillehammer may well be etched in memories as the Little Town That Could. □