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What is all this nonsense about racing downhill on skis? Anything that lasts—what—one little minute, two minutes?—is strictly for sissies. What really counts, they tell you in Norway, is slogging through the trees, over the rocks and into the hills. What also counts is jumping recklessly off high platforms and holding yourself up in the sky by grabbing the seat of your pants. Anything less is for callow kids and girls.
Norway ought to know. Norwegians ski across their country, not down it, and they figure around Oslo that a ski lift is probably a stiff drink after a day in the woods. Norwegians are tough. Nordic skiing is tough. But the two go together—and there go a goodly share of the gold medals that will be won in the 1968 Olympics.
A lot of this special hardness can be explained with the bear story. In the old, old days, Norsemen used to have a high old time rousting out hibernating bears, beating the very Winnie the Pooh out of them with long, stout poles and cooking them up for dinner. Got to be a sort of thing a man did while skiing.
What happens, of course, is that you do this sort of thing two or three times each winter, and pretty soon the kids get to doing it for laughs every Saturday night and then their kids. And next thing you know, in a generation beyond that, you have spawned a mean, coldly tough crew of blue-eyed bashers. They all get together and call themselves the Norwegian Nordic Ski Team.
The 1968 collection of Norway Olympians is the fiercest ever assembled in that cold, bumpy and rockbound country.
They look it. They are proud, aloof men, each one tightly wired together with several miles of sinew, with the shoulders and arms of linebackers and the spindly legs of 10,000-meter runners. All wear bone-white, slightly blotchy looks, as if they scrub with Brillo pads. All wear those fine, hooked Nordic noses and a clear air of confidence—which figures. There are 11 world champions among them, a couple of almost-champions, and there are so many more stacked up around the fjords that their coach, Oddmund Jensen, has one 18-year-old hidden off in his farm system who he admits is "the best I have ever seen." But the kid still can't make the traveling squad.
Collectively, they're overpowering. Most of them have unpronounceable names that crackle on the cold air and hang there ominously, full of trick vowels and consonants. Try Ole Ellefsaeter. Wrong. The first name is rolled off the tongue until it sounds like "Yule." Gjermund Eggen is relatively easy to say. But Odd Martinsen's first name rhymes with "ode," and about the time the Olympic announcer struggles through something like, "Here comes Harald Gronningen now," old Harald will be almost halfway to Lyon.
Anyway, the legend about those bears was confirmed by Ole Ellefsaeter, toughest man on the squad and perhaps the premier man in the world today over 50 kilometers—which is 31 miles of churning over hill and tree. He told it a few weeks ago in a roadside cafe somewhere near Heidal, Norway, 4,000 miles from the nearest Howard Johnson.
He sat with his giant's shoulders hunched over a plate containing a gluey mixture of reindeer patties and thick gravy, mashed potatoes, carrots and something suspiciously like creamed buckshot. He stared shyly into his food and talked through an interpreter. He summed up the story with a moral of his own.
"The non-Nordic nations—and the U.S.," he said, "have too high the standard of living and too soft the life for our game. Too much indoors and too much the television.