"Pay dirt for us is about six years away," said Al Merrill, the U.S. coach. "Our Nordic fortunes are increasing slowly. But they are increasing."
At midweek, with 21 medals down and nine to go, Russia was in first place with two gold, two silver, one bronze medal and a scattering of fifth and sixth places, but the medals had all come from the women's cross-country events. Norway was in second place with three gold medals, one silver and one bronze.
Then, over the knoll from Holmenkollen, on a hill called Midtstuen, the jumpers started showing their stuff as the buildup began for the big event. A Norwegian, Bjorn Wirkola—putting together leaps of 260 feet and 255 feet—won the special jumping event and became the handicappers' favorite for Sunday's big show.
Wirkola, who moves inside a circle of beautiful blondes and shouting children bearing autograph books, has a special, glittering toughness about him. He comes off the edge of the jump outstretched, the tips of his skis almost against his nose, hands pressed against the sides of his legs, an arrogant posture for a man falling through space. On the morning of the special jump he drank three glasses of milk and ate two Norwegian cheese sandwiches, and anyone who has ever eaten a Norwegian cheese sandwich can appreciate Wirkola's courage. But before Norway's special version of the flying wing had a chance to show his real capabilities on the Holmenkollen itself, his nation had produced another candidate for consecration.
Twenty-four-year old Gjermund Eggen, who had won the 15-kilometer race and then anchored the winning four-by-10 relay with that event's fastest time, now took on the Nordic world at 50 kilometers. It is a savage, grinding event, Nordic racing's contribution to outdoor masochism. In 3 hours 3 minutes and 4.7 seconds he beat them all, leaving behind a trail of sturdy racers bent double with pain. Finland was second, third and fifth, Norway's Ole Ellefsaeter was fourth. No one has ever won three gold medals out of five cross-country events at the Holmenkollen. The fact that Eggen was a native son put the town on its ear.
"I have been training since July for this," Eggen said Saturday after it was all over. "If all my races so far this season were added together," he said, "the distance would add up to 3,500 kilometers." This, Norwegian statisticians figured, is the distance from Oslo to Gibraltar.
Then it was Wirkola's turn again.
To Northlanders, supposed to be stoic, unemotional people, the perfect jump is the frigid zone's equivalent of the perfect pass at a bullfight. They know its every nuance, and the sight of a bold man flying over the brow of a hill—45 feet above the ground—will bring a collective "Ahh," that would not take much translation to become an "Ol�."
There is a language that goes with jumping, spoken only by purists and Nordic insiders. But it is sufficient to say a man is judged first on how far he jumps, and second on how beautifully he does it. Nothing else, purists aside, matters. In fact, from the top of the tower everything else quickly loses importance.
From 136 feet up, the Holmenkollen inrun drops straight down in a glazed, shining, 42� track. The view from the top is stunning: King Olav's winter home to one side, the Oslo valley to the other, and straight ahead, the upturned faces of thousands of bone-chilled critics.