Ya, Harding is big story among Norwegians, too WINTER OLYMPICS

February 11, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- The Sami woman from Kautokeino, a town deep in the heart of the Arctic Circle, is sitting on reindeer fur inside a tent in an icy parking lot at the edge of the Winter Olympics.

A pot of coffee hangs suspended over a fire. Reindeer stew boils on a nearby stove.

The woman, Ellen Eira Rasdal, a descendant of nomadic herders, is asked: "So, have you heard of Tonya Harding?"

From the roaring flames she picks up an ash-covered stick, smashes it once against her right knee and says: "Ya."

News travels pretty fast at the end of the 20th century.

To say that Norway is transfixed by the tale of American figure skaters Harding and Nancy Kerrigan would be an understatement.

From the streets of Lillehammer, to the front pages of the nation's largest daily newspapers, the conversation and the headlines are dominated by the story of the attack on Kerrigan and the possible expulsion of Harding from the Olympics.

"Norwegians see this as a soap opera, American-style, like 'Dallas,' " said Trulls Daehli, sports columnist for Verdens Gang, the nation's largest circulation paper.

"When Norwegians see CNN covering this live, they feel the world news is coming to them," he said.

VG recently ran an exclusive interview with Kerrigan under the headline, "Galskap," or "Madness."

Dagbladet, the other major newspaper, countered with an article in which a Canadian film director suggested that Harding portray Sonja Henie in a new film.

"Norwegians do have some sympathy for Harding," said Tormud Brenna, chief of Dagbladet's Olympic bureau.

But it's not as if Norway is normally transfixed by figure skating. Here, skating means speed skating and Norway's fans usually flock to events involving men in Lycra, not women in tutus.

Fifty-eight years after Henie won her third Olympic gold medal, Norway doesn't even have one figure skater entered in the Games.

But two Americans -- and one attack -- have rekindled interest in the sport.

"If you ask me, I don't think that a story like this could hav happened in Norway," said Paul Simensen, a manager at the Intersport store on Lillehammer's main shopping street, the Storgata.

"First of all, we don't have any ice skaters," he said.

Norwegian athletes also are known for their camaraderie and sense of fair play. Cross country skiers Vegard Ulvang and Bjorn Daehlie, the nation's most famous and most highly paid athletes, room together some 200 days a year.

"America is different," Simensen said. "You have bad people. You have good people. It's not like that here."

Simensen also said he has compassion for Harding, who faces a U.S. Olympic Committee hearing over her skating status next week.

"As long as she is not convicted of a crime, it is hard to say that she cannot go," he said. "You have to have evidence. You have to have a trial. It is up to her if she wants to go."

Lisbeth Bernsten, a clerk in a bakery shop, agrees.

"I guess this is an American thing, what with the intrigue and all of that," he said. "And, of course, you have the potential of the courts being involved. You don't know if she is guilty. But if she is innocent and cannot skate, it would be sad."

Tommy Staltenberg, a police constable on loan for the Games from Stavanger, said he would not be surprised to see Harding implicated in the case.

But . . .

"She hasn't gone through court, yet," he said. "So, of course, she should skate."

Staltenberg said Norwegian crime usually is confined to car thefts and burglaries. He also said that carrying a metal baton, like the one allegedly used in the attack on Kerrigan, is illegal in Norway.

"This is a quiet part of the world," he said.

Ulf A. Bjordhaugh, a high school student selling pins along the main shopping street, said he doesn't care much for skating.

"Many people think it is like a form of art," he said. "Me, I like the beautiful girls. But I think Harding should skate. And I think Kerrigan wants to show that she can really win, even if Harding has done something to hurt her."

Even Rasdal, who lives 120 miles from the most northern city o the planet, has an opinion about the American skating caper.

"If it was Harding's husband who did it, then she should not be here," she said. "But I don't know who did it."

Would an incident like this ever happen among the Sami?

Rasdal shook her head from side to side and said: "I don't think so."

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