Bislett's low beige walls are not at once distinguishable from the neighboring Frydenlund brewery. Only the back-stretch stands are covered. The ends of the stadium have no seats, just standing-room terraces. A tile-roofed brick clubhouse mushrooming from the stands on the homestretch is the only touch of Scandinavian quaintness preserved from the '20s.
It is an Oslo city facility, always open. If on a quiet day you slip through a door at the end of the three-story clubhouse, you will find yourself in a stairwell. A shiny black bannister leads you up composition stone steps. You mount past photographs of Bislett's great runners and skaters. The latest races, the three world-record breakers of last July 27, come first: Norway's Ingrid Kristiansen lifts a cup after her 30:59.42 10,000. Britain's Steve Cram calmly waves at the finish of his 3:46.32 mile ("If you can't run well at Bislett," Cram said afterward, "you can't run well anybloodywhere"). And an absorbed Said Aouita of Morocco, with Sydney Maree of the U.S. just behind, pushes toward a new 5,000 record of 13:00.40. On the wall above Aouita, a tortured David Moorcroft of Britain, hard and brown and wild, sets the record in 1982 that Aouita barely broke, 13:00.41.
You climb through eras. After a look at Tomas Gustafson of Sweden skating the 10,000 in 14:23.59 (skaters go almost twice as fast as runners) in 1982, you come to the great displays of Britain's Sebastian Coe and Steve Ovett. Coe's first three runs at Bislett were world records. After his 1:42.33 800 in 1979, he puts his arms up in salute. His expression is heavy lidded, filled with what seems relief. A yard from the end of his 3:48.95 mile a couple of weeks later, he is jut jawed, trying to see the track over his chin. And the next year, on July 1, 1980, before the Moscow Olympics, he looks nothing but smug after winning a world-record 1,000 meters in 2:13.40.
A show of confidence was perhaps demanded, because his prime Moscow opponent, Ovett, took Coe's record in the mile that day, with 3:48.80. Ovett's grin during that mile is pure shark. His opponents must worry about their ribs and arms and necks should he fly into a feeding frenzy in the backstretch. If his separated, no doubt serrated, teeth were to be knocked out by an errant elbow, more seem ready to crowd into the gaps.
Above, John Walker of New Zealand concludes, in agonizing pain, his finest record. He will always be known as the first man under 3:50 for the mile, but at Bislett on June 30, 1976, he ran 2,000 meters in 4:51.45, the equal of reaching the mile in 3:54.4 then carrying on for a full extra lap at the same pace. Cram broke Walker's mark only last year, and only by a hundredth of a second.
A similarly unheralded record, one that still stands, is being set nearby, as Kenya's Henry Rono sprints down the stretch in his 7:32.1 3,000 meters on June 26, 1978. His singlet strap has started to slip over a shoulder. His brow shows the suffering. His mouth is open, and the gap in his lower teeth that marks him as a Nandi tribesman is clear. Yet his hands are open, his wrists as relaxed as if they were lying on a bedspread.
You move up the stairs to see, in startling red, Eric Heiden, who here amassed a record 162.973 points for the unprecedented combined skating distances of 500, 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 meters at the world championships of 1979.
"If you win the first three distances [the shortest], then you are the champion automatically," says Heiden now. "That's what I'd done in Sweden the year before, so then I'd just bagged the 10,000. Well, in Oslo in 1979 I won the first three again, but then I really went for the 10,000. I remember a mass of people being out on the ice on both sides, and people hanging out of the apartment buildings that look down on the stadium, and that wave of yelling following me. There is something good about knowing you can do that, can go way beyond winning. The '79 worlds were the most satisfying of all my meets."
Heiden seems in perfect company, because he is next to Ron Clarke, frozen in midrace, July 14, 1965. Clarke's expression is one of grave doubt. "When I ran hard," he said in London last February, "there usually was a point at which I didn't think I'd be able to finish."
After Clarke's great effort, Bislett slumped. It was eight years until the next record, New Zealand's 14:40.4 for the 6,000-meter relay in 1973. But during that time there were astonishments nonetheless. In 1972, when the U.S. Olympic team trained in Oslo, a man took a javelin in the abdomen, a javelin thrown 240 feet away by U.S. Olympian Bill Schmidt.