It is early December, and Norway's greatest Olympic hero, cross-country skier Vegard Ulvang, sits in a tiny hotel bar in the Dolomite Alps of Italy, where he is training at high altitudes with the Norwegian team. He speaks calmly about the tragedy that shattered his world less than two months before. On Oct. 13 his older brother, Ketil, who was also Vegard's best friend, disappeared while running home at dusk in high winds and falling snow across a low mountain outside their hometown of Kirkenes, which is 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle and just eight miles west of the Russian border. Ketil has not been seen since.
"I was here in Italy when word came, and then I was home for three weeks searching on skis, 50, 60 kilometers every day," says Vegard. "Ketil had run this mountain 100 times maybe, and we don't know what went wrong. An accident and he couldn't move? Hit a rock? Broke his leg? Hit his head? Fell in a lake? We had helicopters, dogs, heat-seeking lasers, hundreds of searchers, sometimes thousands. We took all the most possible routes from Point A to Point B, and we found nothing. It was very hard both physically and mentally—very hard."
When he pauses, he is asked how he thinks this might affect him during Norway's own 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer. "It's strange," he says. "For an athlete the Olympics means having a deep concern about the small details of his physique—small muscles, small sore throats, small blisters, small aches. I was here in Italy, concentrating completely on these details, when I heard about Ketil. I went home, and for those three weeks I didn't think for one second about the Olympics or the details of my physique. In truth, at that time the Games became such a lesser event in my life that they didn't exist at all."
If Ketil's death lessened the significance of the Olympics in Vegard's mind, it has only served to increase the Norwegian public's fascination with Vegard. "The interest in Norway in me and this Olympics is crazy," he says. "People follow me every step I take. The pressure can be felt at all times."
Given the passion with which Norwegians worship any champion in their national sport of cross-country skiing, it's not farfetched to wonder whether this athlete from the farthest northeast corner of the Norwegian Arctic has become the most famous man his country has ever known. The editor of Ulvang's hometown newspaper says, "Well, no, not when you think of Henrik Ibsen and Edvard Grieg." A taxi driver in Oslo says, "Well, no, I believe our kings all were a little more famous than Vegard."
But all the Ibsens, Griegs and Olafs will, at least temporarily, vanish into obscurity in the adoring eyes of 4.3 million Norwegians if Ulvang wins a gold medal next month. And if he ends up with more than one—say, he gets three golds and a silver, as he did in the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville—Norwegian history will have to be recast to include a new hero whose reputation approaches not only those of writers and kings, but also those of Norway's legendary Viking warriors and arctic explorers.
The 30-year-old Ulvang is the epitome of the Norwegian dream in which rugged individualism overcomes a hostile climate. When he is not skiing, he lives a life of high-risk adventure that few men have ever been fit enough or brave enough to try.
He has crossed Greenland on skis, climbed the highest mountain peaks on three continents, traversed Outer Mongolia on a horse, canoed in Whitewater rivers of Siberia and braved the bullets of Sarajevo to bring financial aid and moral encouragement to that blood-soaked former Olympic city. With Ketil and a friend he has skied Alaska's treacherous Mount Denali (a.k.a. McKinley); on that trip—in an agonizingly ironic episode—he rescued his brother after Ketil plunged through thin ice on an arctic lake.
In sum, Ulvang is at work on a life only a legend could live, and the epic quality of it elevates him above mortals who happen to win Olympic gold. This includes teammate Bjørn Daehli, 26, who also came home from Albertville with three golds and a silver and may do even better in Lillehammer than Ulvang. It includes his longtime nemesis and traveling companion in Siberia and Mongolia, Vladimir Smirnov, 29, the former Soviet competitor now skiing for his native Kazakhstan, who took two silvers and a bronze in 1988, followed last year by two silvers and a bronze at the world championships in Falun, Sweden.
"Vegard is a little bit more special than some of us," Daehli says. Pierre Gay-Perret, a Chamonix-trained mountain guide who introduced Ulvang to climbing on France's Mont Blanc in 1989, and made both the trans-Greenland trek and the Mount Denali ascent, speaks with awe of his friend: "He is always interested in everything, not only sports. He can speak to the king, he can speak to newspapermen. He lives in flat country, yet he has the mountaineer's foot. It is difficult to find any man with so many interests. His parents did this for him, I think."