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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
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February 07, 1994

The Lion In Winter

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

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In winter every engineer on every train that makes the 110-mile trip over the single track between the city of Oslo and the village of Lillehammer carries a .308-caliber rifle in his locomotive. The weapon is used to shoot moose. Not healthy, running moose, but badly wounded moose that have floundered out of deep snow onto the track and been struck by a train. Usually the engineer performs a mercy killing beside the track, but sometimes the animal will fall across the rails and block traffic. If this happens, the engineer administers a proper coup de grace, and then the animal (which can weigh as much as 1,800 pounds) is hoisted into the air by a car with a winch attached to it and deposited off the track. So far this winter 78 moose have been hit by trains traveling between Oslo and Lillehammer.

During the XVII Winter Olympics, which begin in Lillehammer on Feb. 12, 100,000 train passengers a day will depend on someone keeping that single track clear of moose. To some degree the legacy of the Lillehammer Games will ride on those moose. Will these Olympics be remembered for smooth Scandinavian efficiency or for infuriating Lake Placid-like ineptitude?

Norwegians have been successfully fighting the crises of winter since the Stone Age. Indeed, Norway has probably done more than any other country to tame the old winter lion, turning all that savage weather into a sporting environment. Over the centuries Norwegians have invented speed skates, skis, ski jumps, ski poles, ski races and heel-clamped ski bindings, and given the world the words slalom, Telemark and Axel, the figure skating jump named after Axel Paulsen, who in the 1880s was world champion not only of figure skating but also of speed skating—both forward and backward. (Yes, backward speed skating was a competitive event then.)

Norway likes to advertise itself as "the cradle of skiing," and the validity of this claim is indisputable. A pictograph on a rock near RØdØy in far northern Norway depicts a human stick figure on a very long pair of skis. Carbon tests have shown the carving to be more than 4,000 years old—proving that Norwegians, unlike their moose, were smart enough to figure out a way to keep from floundering through snowbanks.

Norway also advertises itself as the "world capital of winter sports," but the validity of this claim is less certain, particularly in regard to the Olympics. Since the first Winter Games, in Chamonix in 1924, Norwegian teams have been on a dizzy roller-coaster ride, going from glorious triumph to abject defeat and back to triumph. They haven't won a gold medal in ski jumping for 30 years; a medal of any kind in figure skating since 1936; or any medals, ever, in hockey, bobsled or luge. What's more, the 1994 Games are only the second Winter Olympics to be staged in Norway (or any Scandinavian nation). The last time Norway was the world capital of winter sports was in 1952, when Oslo played host to the Games, and they were a major success.

The Oslo Games were the first Winter Olympics centered in a large city, and they drew 700,000 fans, including 150,000 for the 90-meter ski jump at Oslo's sacred old Holmenkollen Hill. That remains the largest crowd ever to gather for a single event in the Summer or Winter Olympics. All told, Norway racked up 16 medals to 11 for the runner-up U.S., nine for third-place Finland and—best of all for the Norwegians—only four, all bronze, for lOth-place Sweden, Norway's despised neighbor and onetime conqueror. In what was surely the Games' most surprising result, the giant slalom was won by the handsome gymnast and man-about-Oslo Stein Eriksen, who also took the silver in the slalom.

There was irony in Eriksen's victory, for the Norwegians openly scorned Alpine skiing in those days. In fact, they had exiled the Alpine races to Norfjell. a village 60 miles outside Skiing and Oslo. Worse, they were negligent in preparing the race courses, waiting until the hand in hand at morning of the women's downhill before removing a couple of dangerous tree stumps from the run.

Well aware of the place Alpine skiing held in the Norwegian psyche, Eriksen crossed the Olympic finish line and proceeded almost directly to the U.S., where he accepted a series of lucrative positions at various ski resorts. "No one was going to fill my platter in Norway for winning at Alpine skiing." he says. "Everyone thought it was a sport from another planet. However, Norwegians soon found out that in the U.S. I skied with movie stars and got paid for it, and they changed their minds."

With his charm and elegant skiing style still intact, Eriksen, at 69, remains a hero in his native land 40 years after moving to America. He will carry the Olympic flag at the Lillehammer opening ceremonies with seven other past and present Norwegian Olympians, including marathoner Grete Waitz.

Norway's seven gold medals in 1952 were the most it would win in one Winter Olympics for 40 years. Indeed, Norwegians totaled only 22 golds in the next nine Winter Games. The nadir was Calgary in 1988, when the 66-pcrson Olympic team brought back only four medals—three silvers and a bronze. The medal drought was partly due to the emergence of battalions of outstanding Nordic-sport competitors who appeared on the scene when the Soviet Union and East Germany began competing at the Games in 1956. Still, even the most fanatic Norwegian patriots agreed their country had lost any claim to being the "world capital of winter sports."

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