SI Vault
 
The Lion In Winter
William Oscar Johnson
February 07, 1994
In a few short years Norway has come roaring back as a Winter Olympic power
Decrease font Decrease font
Enlarge font Enlarge font
February 07, 1994

The Lion In Winter

In a few short years Norway has come roaring back as a Winter Olympic power

View CoverRead All Articles View This Issue
1 2 3

Then, just six months after the Calgary Games, the International Olympic Committee declared that the host for the 1994 Winter Games would be...Lillehammer (pop. 22,500). Many Norwegians couldn't believe it, and some didn't want to believe it. While it was tremendously satisfying to whip Sweden's bunderhinder—Ostersund, a mountain town in northern Sweden, was the other finalist to host the Games—many of them asked, What if we can't handle it? Worse, What if we come up with no gold at our own Olympics? Even worse, What if the Swedes win more medals than we do? Norway mobilized as if for war.

"The Norwegian Olympic Committee moved in and took full responsibility for all sports," says Alf Henning Fredstad, sports editor of Verdens Gang, Norway's largest newspaper. "There was more money for everyone. New ideas were tried. We have everything organized, a plan in place, a system, a timetable."

The Norwegian Olympic Committee, aided by sponsors like SAS for the cross-country team and Bergesen, a shipping agency, for the Alpine team, put up roughly S100 million to underwrite the athletes' every need. Finn Aamodt, a technical-events coach for the Alpine team, says, "With Lillehammer coming up, money was no object anymore. If we said we wanted to go to New Zealand, and the leadership said it was too expensive, then we'd say, 'We won't get results at Lillehammer,' and they'd say, 'O.K., go to New Zealand.' "

Says Inge Braaten, coach of the men's cross-country team, "The money bought us the chance to do original things and not just copy what Sweden or Russia had done in the past."

The windfall also allowed the Norwegians to hire coaches who had excellent records with other national teams. Dieter Bartsch coached the Austrian Alpine team until he had a falling-out with his federation in 1989. He had offers from France, Italy and the U.S., but Norway got him. His new charges adore him. Atle Skaardal, runner-up in the downhill at the 1993 world championships, says, "Dieter Bartsch knows what you need to hear, and he is very good at finding exactly the right words. Without Dieter Bartsch I would be a racer finishing between 10th and 20th place. He has taught me so many things. He has made me believe that I am a winning racer."

Norwegians are quick to point out that they are not using their largesse to construct a rigid Chinese-or East German-style system of factories to turn athletes into robots. In general, potentially elite Norwegian athletes do not undergo intense grooming until they are in their early teens. Then the best of them are invited to training camps, at which they work under the country's best coaches. Sports schools are available for older teenagers.

Norwegians, though, are proud to tell you that no more than half of the country's recent medal-winning athletes have attended these institutions; the rest prefer schools in which a varied education is offered. "Norwegian ideology in sport is to keep the human being at the center of the system," says Fredstad. "We strive to make our elite sportsmen versatile athletes instead of picking them as babies to specialize as discus throwers or downhill racers."

Although the new programs to build winners for Lillehammer were humming along before the start of the '92 Games, expectations for Albertville were modest. Amazingly, however, Norway brought home more gold medals than it ever had before. Two Alpine skiers won golds—the first Alpine medals of any color since Eriksen's gold 40 years earlier. Kjetil André Aamodt, Finn's 22-year-old son, won the Super G; Finn Christian Jagge, 25, won the slalom; and two others were bronze medalists.

Norwegians also swept all five men's cross-country events, an unprecedented feat. Vegard Ulvang, 30, won the 10K and the 30K, while Bjorn Daehlie, 26, won the pursuit and the 50K. Ulvang, Daehlie and two teammates won the 4x 10K relay, with the clownish Daehlie skiing backward (shades of Axel Paulsen!) over the finish line. All told, Norway claimed nine golds, two more than its haul at the Oslo Games.

Had money been a significant factor? Says Daehlie, "Because the money became available, it was possible to train at high altitude in Italy and to have physical-training experts and all the other extra things. The competitions at Albertville were at almost 1,900 meters, and training at altitude made a big difference—maybe three, four minutes in a long race."

Continue Story
1 2 3