"I thought I would take a year off and just jump," he says, "and I would see if it happened. Well, it happened; I found my true life."
In 1966 Wirkola turned the jumping world upside down, winning the Norwegian championship, which is tougher, in its way, than any other, and the two gold medals in the world meet. For one year he held the world jumping distance record at 479 feet, which does not particularly interest him since form and floating are the real rewards. And last year he cocked his jumping cap down on the bridge of his nose and took on the Germans and Austrians in their traditional "jumping week" events. Wirkola won three of the four on the program—and the title. In the pre-Olympic competition at St. Nizier, outside Grenoble, he won the 90-meter jump easily and chose not to enter the lesser jump.
And now he faces the prospect of the 1968 events. In that regard, jumpers are not like Norway's cross-country runners, who tend to be modest and kick at the snow a lot, heads down, when they talk.
"You have got to believe in yourself," Wirkola says flatly, in the clear tone of a true believer. "I would like to win two gold medals at Grenoble: the 70-meter and the 90-meter jumps. I would think that Reinhold Bachler of Austria would win a silver—he is my biggest threat—and there are at least five who could get bronze medals."
Wirkola unquestionably believes he can do it. It shows up in his walk and manner, and in a crowd he gives off the fire of a champion. In a way, Bjorn is like Eggen, the only other man on the team who clearly wants more than one gold medal.
Eggen wants three, in the 50, the 15 and the one he figures to pick up as a member of the Golden Quartet. He will start in all four events and take on all comers, including Ellefsaeter, who expects to attack in a couple of events, and Martinsen, who insists he is now old and strong enough to go 50 himself. Gronningen, the fourth member of the quartet, will enter all events and perhaps win a silver or a bronze.
"It is," says Eggen, "the tradition, like the bears, remember? It is a way of life with us in Norway. What else is there to do here in the winter?"
So the Golden Quartet and the rest of the team assemble in Oslo, and it seems as though all 470,000 residents know them; then the jumpers come to town, walking in their special, down-from-the-hills swagger, caps pulled down over their eyes, and there is the feeling of fierce pride all through the cold air. Wirkola comes on like a transistorized Joe Namath; he gives off an aurora borealis of glittering hardness. "There is Bjorn Wirkola," everybody says. "There is the Little Bear!"
And up behind the National Theater, at the head of Karl Johan's Gate (street), is the biggest fan of them all, King Olav V, onetime jumper (in 1923), present-day cross-country skier and fulltime Nordic buff. King Olav skis every Saturday on the miles of trails around the city. On a good day there are 100,000 people out there. Everyone meets on the trails, nodding courteously: the King, the Golden Quartet, the commoners, Coach Jensen—everybody.
King Olav's royal bodyguard skis with him in a sort of Secret Serviceman role. But halfway through the evening he has fallen more than a block behind, puffing badly.