LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The search for the Norwegian sporting soul begins and ends 110 miles to the south on a cloud-covered hill overlooking the capital city of Oslo.
There, next to a century-old red-brick hotel with a roof of spires, is a ribbon of concrete shaped like a banana, a place that is the Yankee Stadium of Norway, a ski jump called Holmenkollen.
Climb inside the belly of the tower, past a ski museum that is the nation's Cooperstown, and ascend metal steps that sway slightly in the breeze and lead to a platform.
The city to the left. Farmland to the right.
And below, a football field away, down a runway of ice and snow, is a pit of rock and gravel covered in snow.
For 102 years, men have climbed these hills, made their way up the steps, attached skis to their feet, and soared through the wind.
They jump for medals and glory. They jump for Norway.
Norwegian sports are about snow. About cold. Above all, they are about sailing free.
Saturday, in Lillehammer, a tiny town and a huge country will show themselves off to the world during the opening ceremonies of the 1994 Winter Olympics.
The facilities are the most elaborate ever constructed for a Winter Games, a billion-dollar array of venues tucked into the rolling hills of what Norwegians call the Troll Region.
There are arenas of glass, wood and rock, sort of giant Ikea warehouses without the furniture.
A speed skating hall in Hamar is shaped like the underside of a Viking ship.
A bobsled and luge run in Hunderfossen is wedged into the side of a mountain with such care that the construction company faced fines of $7,000 for each tree cut down unnecessarily.
A spare hockey arena in Gjovik is embedded in a mountain.
And on the streets of Lillehammer are manhole covers outlined with Olympic rings.
These are Norway's Games, an exhibition of a country's strength and passion for winter sports.
The names of Norway's stars don't roll easily off the tongue.
They are athletes such as Johann Olav Koss, The Big Boss Koss, a speed skater of rare power and intelligence. He wins Olympic medals. He studies for medical exams.
And there is Vegard Ulvang, a cross country skier of almost mythical strength, a man so popular that Norwegians tell visitors that he is the Michael Jordan of their country.
He has crossed Greenland on skis, climbed the highest peaks on three continents, traversed Mongolia on horseback. But he is a man in mourning, haunted by the disappearance of his older brother, Ketil, who went for a run one day last October and never came back.
After the Olympics, Ulvang will return to his home, Kirkenes, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, and continue the search for his brother's body.
For 16 days, though, Norway will be suspended in fantasy, captivated by the Olympics.
They take their sports very seriously here.
There is no Norwegian sports machine, but there is a dedication to perfection and winning, fueled by proceeds from a nationwide lottery.
An Olympic development program was created after Norway's 1988 Olympic debacle in Calgary, Alberta. Four medals, no golds, were simply not acceptable.
By 1992 in Albertville, France, the Norwegians were back on top with 20 medals.
This year, they could win 30.
But this is not a country of spectators who pore over statistics -- it is a nation of athletes engaged in daily exercise.
One in four of Norway's 4.3 million people are active members in the country's 12,000 sports clubs.
"When you are 3 years old, you begin to ski by going into the mountains with your family," said William Engseth, president of the Norwegian Sports Confederation. "I think that is the Norwegian style of life."
Summer is short, winter is long and the determination to play sports is fierce no matter what the weather.
They clear off snow-covered parking lots to kick soccer balls in the winter. They turn gymnasiums into giant team handball arenas.
But most of all, they ski, a tradition that goes back 4,000 years.
The cradle of modern skiing lies 120 miles to the west of Oslo in a village called Morgedal.
There, on a hill overlooking a lake is the tiny one-room cabin once owned by Sondre Norheim. In 1870, he first fashioned skis with bindings that afforded greater control in jumping and downhill turns.
Elvind Strondi, 73, Norheim's great-grandnephew, still lives on the land, more than a century after his famous ancestor left Norway for Minot, N.D.
"My home is this hill," Strondi said.
But he shares the home with thousands of visitors, who each year make a pilgrimage to the cabin, to see the modest beginnings of modern skiing.
If Morgedal is the cradle of skiing, then Kongsberg, a mining town 50 miles east toward Oslo, is the mecca of ski jumping.
From 1928 to 1952, the town produced six Olympic jumping medalists.
The bounty of this skiing greatness is housed in the town's museum, where trophies and cups and medals fill row upon row of cases.
The keeper of the Kongsberg flame is Petter Hugsted, a strapping, silver-haired 72-year-old grandfather.