Dæhlie's race had been two laps around the five-kilometer course at the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium. This is the most popular Olympic site, 31,000 seats sold out for every race, estimates of 100,000 people lining the course for each event. Nine tenths of the crowd is Norwegian, people who have all skied cross-country sometime in their lives, many of whom use skis as their means of daily transportation, most of whom are fans of cross-country skiing and cross-country skiers. There are so many Norwegian flags, the familiar red banners with the blue-and-white crosses, being held aloft by the crowd that from a distance the course looks as if it were a white ribbon stretched between two red ribbons winding through the pine trees and the snow.
"All those people, what can you say about them?" Dæhlie said. "Everywhere you go, there is noise. A roar. You can't hear anything. We had to work out a thing on our team...someone had to stand with a piece of white paper with the times, so we could know how we were doing. You couldn't hear the public-address system."
"It gives you another gear," Fred Børre Lundberg, Norway's gold medal winner in the Nordic combined, said. "The people, they earn part of the medal for you."
Hundreds of people are camping for the entire Olympics in the woods surrounding the cross-country venue. They live in tents in the single-digit cold, entire families eating freeze-dried reindeer bits or cooking meals outdoors, melting snow for water, calling home on mobile phones. A constant is the cross-country skis. That is how you tell if people are inside their tents. You check to see if the skis are outside.
"It's quite natural for us to sleep in caves and in small huts," said a 22-year-old spectator named Alexander Nordahl. "It's part of our culture. It's also something we learn, survival, during one year of mandatory military service. We camp out here, and then we cheer."
What could be a better setting for someone to have the race of his life in? Dæhlie rolled through this tunnel of adoration. He worried that he might have started too fast, encouraged by the crowd, but he churned to the end. When he finished, he Hung himself onto the snow, exhausted. He then had to wait for teammate Vegard Ulvang and rival and friend Vladimir Smirnov of Kazakhstan to finish. Ulvang, suffering from an injured left hip, faltered early, but Smirnov was still a contender until the final straightaway. As the late times flashed, however, it became apparent that Smirnov had no chance and would finish second. Dæhlie cried with happiness.
"Seier'n er var," the crowd sang. It was the Norwegian song of these Olympics. "Seier'n er var. Vi har vinni, seier'n er var."
"We won the gold," the rough translation went. "We won the gold. We are the champions, we won the gold."
Dæhlie entered the Norwegian press conference in the auditorium at the Main Press Center carrying a tray containing maybe 30 small brandy snifters, each filled with an inch of dark-red liquid. This was the room in which Nancy and Tonya each had undergone her grand inquisition, but the atmosphere was quite different this time. Dæhlie distributed the snifters to the members of the Norwegian press.