The thing sits up there in the hills above Oslo, right in King Olav's front yard, a towering, lonely, icy structure. It is as much a monument to Norwegian national spirit as the Plaza de Toros in Madrid is Spain's. Norway's Holmenkollen Hill is the daddy of all ski jumps, and any Nordic skier worth his wax knows that one day he has to go up there and hurl himself off that monster before he can consider his career complete. The jump is used only once each year, with great, shivering ceremony. The rest of the time people stand around and look at it and swallow a lot. The man who wins the Holmenkollen, who jumps the farthest with the most �lan, is the best jumper in the world, no matter where the so-called world championships might be held. But this year, a vintage year for Norway, the FIS World Nordic Ski Championships and the Holmenkollen were combined in one big event, and all last week brave men were winging off big daddy in a stunning display of one-downmanship.
Anyone who thought the Holmenkollen events were staged merely to pick world Nordic champions was not looking closely at the true situation. Norway is a dark, cold country, and Oslo in winter is the foggiest, loneliest city in the world. The snow never seems to stop falling and all day long men with shovels attack it. Every available truck in town carries loads of it from the streets to dump into the fjord. Each night a storm blows up and dumps it back on the city. Oslo in February has a tired, gray look, and the Norwegians need the Holmenkollen for reassurance. So once a year Norway invites the rest of the world to town to reestablish the stern fact that, swinging discoth�ques and moon shots notwithstanding, there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned, rugged Norse way of life. The Holmenkollen is the Norwegian's bridge to national pride.
By last Sunday night, after athletes of 21 countries had had a crack at the hill and at the long, tortuous cross-country courses nearby, the Norwegians had once again reestablished their reputation as the highest-flying and hardest-skiing people in the world. They had won the world championships—and they had won the Holmenkollen.
Nordic skiing is just the opposite of double-chair lifts and meet-you-at-the-lodge-for-drinks skiing. It is a grim, bereft business of jumping and racing through the north woods as if the wolves were on your heels. Cross-country skiers wear lightweight, thin hickory boards strapped to their toes, and knickers and knee socks and pained looks. The postures of cross-country skiing are ungraceful, as different from wedeling down a hill as harness racing is from the Kentucky Derby. But the Norwegians invented the game, and they came by the thousands last week to the Holmenkollen meet to chant "Hiyuh, hiyuh," in unison, forming long, snakelike rows through which the skiers ran, moving like ghosts through thickly falling snow.
There is little wonder that Norwegians ski so well: they began jumping 200 years ago, and archeologists recently found a 4,000-year-old rock carving in northern Norway depicting primitive skiers, wearing what appear to be stretch sealskins.
In recent years, other European nations have been coming up in the sport. The Finns and the Swedes have always been Norway's most serious Nordic rivals, and now Russia has found that Nordic skiing is right up its alley. The Germans, both East and West, are also strong, and even in the U.S. the Nordic program is undergoing a startling boomlet.
The nation that unseats Norway from its Nordic throne, however, faces a formidable task. For one thing, it has to compete with the Norwegian spirit. Consider the case of King Olav, who, at 62, probably can whip any king in the house. In the early years of his reign, some Norwegians tended to look upon him as a sort of monarch-come-lately because he had been born in Great Britain and did not arrive in Norway until he was 2 years old. But in 1922 and 1923, when he was still crown prince, Olav entered the competition and went off the Holmenkollen himself. He jumped 113 feet, which did not win him any medals but served to establish a certain amount of royal fortitude.
And from those days onward, noted one oldtimer last week, Olav was adopted by the country and has been greatly loved. Such is life in rugged Norway. Would Lyndon Johnson drive in the Indianapolis 500?
As the events began last week, King Olav acted as chairman of the championships, marching daily to his royal box with his parka hood up against the gathering snow and an unfiltered cigarette in the middle of his mouth. At the cross-country events the royal box consisted of a few planks nailed together and covered with bunting. The inside was done in wall-to-wall snow. At one point it grew so cold that the uniformed honor guardsmen, unable to hold their frosty trumpets to their lips, pretended to play the national anthem while the music sounded over the loudspeakers via tape recorder.
The Norwegians got off to a slow start. Before the men's 30-kilometer cross-country race, 65 runners stood impatiently through the opening rites, then powered off over a course that took them across the hills, under and over rickety bridges and through backyard mazes to end up back at the foot of the big jumping hill. Finnish skiers were first and second, a West German was third, a Swede fourth. A Russian was fifth, and Italy had moved a man into the sixth position. The U.S.'s Mike Gallagher, a 24-year-old from Rutland, Vt., was 33rd.