Lillehammer is ready for show and snow, with 100 days to go

November 04, 1993|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Carved inside a mountain is a spare hockey rink that can double as a bomb shelter.

The speed skating hall with the roof shaped like the hull of a viking ship is so large that it could accommodate two simultaneous football games.

And bits of the boulders placed at the base of the ski jump are being transformed into the most valuable medals of all:

Olympic gold, silver and bronze.

With 100 days to go before the start of the 1994 Winter Olympics, Feb. 12-27, the residents, workers and organizers of the Lillehammer Games are ready to play host to the world's best athletes on ice and snow.

Construction cranes have come down. Temporary housing has gone up. Even most of the main athletic venues have been built and tested. The muddy, frantic atmosphere that characterizes most Olympic cities just before the Games is nowhere to be found in this town of 23,000 that lies 110 miles north of Oslo.

"Now, we wait for the weather," said Petter Ronningen, deputy managing director of the local organizing committee. "We look for the snow."

With the Olympic calendar shifted to alternating Summer and Winter Games every two years, Lillehammer is the bonus event, coming two years after the Winter Olympics of Albertville, France.

In a sense, the Olympics are returning to a more traditional winter setting, after stops in a western Canadian oil boom town in 1988 (Calgary, Alberta) and a French crossroads in 1992 (Albertville).

Here, the big events aren't just sport -- they're ways of life. Cross-country skiing and ski jumping are the draws, and figure skating is relegated to a secondary status, a necessary extravagance to appease the American television public.

Now, if only they could truck in the real mountains.

The Alps, this isn't. Lillehammer is surrounded by mountains that are about as grand as the Poconos.

Minus the heart-shaped tubs.

Somehow, from this gently rolling, yet frigid terrain, organizers have managed to build a men's downhill course with enough bumps, curves and drops to satisfy the most speed-obsessed skier.

And in this cross-country ski heaven, trails snake through a forest of spruces and firs before leading the competitors to a stadium that will be packed with 40,000 spectators.

The hottest sporting ticket in Norway is for the men's 4 x 10-kilometer team relay championship. It's a sellout, the equivalent of a Norwegian Super Bowl. And a waiting list stretches some 180,000 names long.

"We are very serious about our skiing," said Ronningen.

Apparently, the men and women of Lillehammer are very serious about staging the best Winter Games of a generation. They were looking for a way to lift themselves from the twin shadows of the business bustle of Oslo and the offshore oil economy.

Enter the Olympics.

Lillehammer is farming country. And tourist country. It's also a place of myth and legend. Trolls were once said to live in the hills overlooking the town. There is a skier in Lillehammer's coat of arms. And the town's most famous native is Thor Bjorkland, inventor of the cheese slicer.

Local organizers began plotting their bid in January 1982, and had to overcome two obstacles -- size and location. Only Lake Placid, N.Y. (1932 and 1980), was a smaller host city. Lillehammer was bidding to become the most northern Olympic site as well.

And yes, they do have sunlight in winter. Eight hours a day, seven days a week.

Lillehammer lost out to Albertville in the race for the 1992 Games. But it came back strong in 1988, when it was awarded the 1994 Olympics.

All of this doesn't come cheap, of course. The Games will cost $2 billion to stage, with the money divided nearly equally for construction of venues in six towns within a 36-mile radius of Lillehammer and improvements to the regional infrastructure. A surplus of $357 million is anticipated.

Still, the road from Oslo to the Olympics is a two-lane blacktop.

"This area has been lifted into a position 30 to 40 years in the future," Ronningen said.

After all the talk about improved roads, rail beds and telecommunications facilities, the success or failure of an Olympic organizing effort comes down to one thing -- venues.

And they are spectacular.

The ski jump -- site of the opening and closing ceremonies -- is built into a mountain and leads to a fortress-like amphitheater made of rock and overlooking Lillehammer. In the nearby town of Hunderfossen is the bobsled-luge run, constructed with such care that contractors faced $7,000 fines for each tree they cut down unnecessarily.

And then there is the 5,000-seat underground hockey rink in Gjovik, which will be the site of only a smattering of games. Workers burrowed and blasted through rock for months, fashioning a cave before laying in the pipes for a rink.

The whole thing is bombproof.

"If somebody comes knocking, we just close the door, and we can have a hockey game," said venue chief Tore Bjorke.

"One geologist was asked about the safety of the structure," he added. "He thought one minute and said: 'This venue will be so safe, ice hockey players can play without helmets.' "

As impressive as the underground arena is, though, it is the indoor speed skating hall in Hamar that is likely to symbolize the Games.

Here is the melding of old and new Norway, the hull of a viking ship constructed of wood beams from 30,000 trees encasing a sheet of ice.

The building has 2,000 seats and an area large enough for 10,000 spectators to stand.

In Norway, real fans don't sit.

They are waiting for the Olympics. A hundred days to go. And they are ready.

WINTER GAMES

Where: Lillehammer, Norway

When: Feb. 12-27

Participants: 2,000 athletes from 80 countries are expected at the Games.

TV: CBS will provide 120 hours of broadcast coverage.

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