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HOT TIMES IN A NORTHERN CLIME
Kenny Moore
July 07, 1986
Since it opened in 1922, Bislett Stadium in Oslo has been the site of an astonishing number of world records in both track and field and speed skating. What is there about the place that lifts athletes in two sports to such stellar performances? Part of the answer can be discovered in the Norwegian people themselves
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July 07, 1986

Hot Times In A Northern Clime

Since it opened in 1922, Bislett Stadium in Oslo has been the site of an astonishing number of world records in both track and field and speed skating. What is there about the place that lifts athletes in two sports to such stellar performances? Part of the answer can be discovered in the Norwegian people themselves

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Kvalheim, who ran for Oregon in the late '60s, at one time held six Norwegian distance records, from the 1,500 to the 5,000. Then his younger brother, Knut, broke all six. In a speech before the European speed skating championships early this year, Arne Kvalheim announced the city's plans to tear down the homestretch stands at Bislett and replace them with modern facilities. "But we won't wreck its intimacy," he said later. "It is a conscious policy to have no more than 20,000. That smashes people together and gets them aroused."

Kvalheim, who loves to credit the aroma of the adjoining brewery for his running well at Bislett, is not willing to call the stadium's throng a perfect crowd. "When Steve Scott ran 3:47.69 and just missed the world record in the mile in 1982, people cheered during the race, but when they heard the time, they just stopped cold, disappointed."

So they are spoiled, but in the manner of connoisseurs. "There are other places," says Braeim, the writer for Dagbladet, "where the athletes feel near the spectators, where they are like family together. Stockholm's Olympic Stadium from 1912. Hayward Field in Eugene, Oregon. London's old White City Stadium, which has been torn down. But the rest feel too plastic, too big. Moscow's Lenin Stadium is hopeless. You can't shout from one end to the other." And in L.A.'s Coliseum you can, but not many Angelenos care to, not at a track meet.

It is inescapable. Bislett has its records because of its crowd. It has its crowd because of Oslo. Three-quarters of the city's 175 square miles is forest, field or park. "We are a small capital of 450,000," says Braeim. "It is cozy, rather old-fashioned, rather peasantlike. Oslo people are known as stubborn, practical and in some ways very conservative. The feeling is, 'We have it good, so why take chances with that?' We have a good social system and no poverty for that reason, favorable climate. The oil that has made us rich in the last years is offshore, out of sight."

Braeim's sense is that all this is related to the atmosphere at Bislett. "It makes it easy for the athletes. They are under no uncomfortable pressure. No guards follow them around. It's so casual that they feel free to do well."

It's not really to the point, but a visitor finds Oslo citizens decidedly unpleasant-like. A peasant would disapprove of the lightly wrapped, free-swinging majesty of Oslo's summertime girls. This is the city of Grieg and Munch and Vigeland, of Ibsen. Norwegians have long led a hardy life. It seems safe to say that when things got easier, their appreciation of difficult attainment simply, well, endured.

When you go to a performance of Cats in Old Norwegian, the crowd responds to its delights with rhythmic clapping. This is not a particularly expressive ovation. It doesn't leap and ebb the way anarchic applause does. It holds a pace.

When rioting prisoners bang their cups on the bars, and heavy-metal bands or children at their most infuriating scream and pound, and do it in unison, it seems humankind's most potent aural attack. Whether it frightens or thrills or maddens, it always seizes. The Oslo crowd possesses all that power but employs with it a kind of transparent goodness.

They cheer. It's a perfect word. Cheer up, the crowd screams. You suffer for a reason. Cheers! Here's to you, good fellow. You're our toast. Smell the aquavit. "When I ran my best 3,000," says Waitz of her 1976 Bislett record, "I felt the people almost running with me. They knew what I was going through." The crowd suspended some of her timidity and sense of going it alone and made her brave.

"The crowds in the stadium are always the same people," says Ida Fossum T√łnnessen, Oslo's director of parks and athletics, "and they bring their children up to understand how it works."

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