Brother disappears, but Norway hero's expedition to excel goes on WINTER OLYMPICS

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

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- It is a story that haunts a country, that haunts a man.

Last Oct. 13, Ketil Ulvang, the oldest brother of a national sports hero, went out for a training run across a low mountain outside Kirkenes, 250 miles north of the Arctic Circle, eight miles from Russia.

There was a chill wind followed by a blizzard. Ketil Ulvang never returned home and presumably was buried under the snow.

Now, it is the eve of the Winter Olympics and Vegard Ulvang prepares to win a gold medal in the sport that defines the tradition of a country, the 50-kilometer cross country classical race.

Yesterday, he shows up for a news conference. He is asked about his training, about his recent condemnation of the International Olympic Committee and its leader, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

And finally, he is asked about his older brother.

He gasps for air. He hides his eyes. Finally, the hero weeps.

"I don't hope it has affected my training much," he says. "It was a great tragedy and we miss him a lot. And it's true, I will return in springtime, as soon as the snow is gone, and try to find him."

Cameras flash. Reporters gasp.

For the 4.3 million Norwegians, the emotional moment is sure to remain a focal point of these Olympics.

Ulvang is the Michael Jordan of Norway, the country's greatest sports star, a hero to millions. He is so big, SAS named a jet after him, "Vegard Viking."

His hair is brown, his face is full, his eyes are filled with mischief.

Ulvang is 30 years old, a winner of three Olympic gold medals in 1992, a man who earns $700,000 a year for pushing himself through driving snowstorms on skis.

But Ulvang's popularity cannot be measured by medals or money.

He is a man who represents what Norwegians hold dear, a fierce, stoic independence.

While American stars may go golfing during the off-season, Ulvang goes on missions to challenge his physical and emotional skills.

His expeditions across the globe are legend. He climbed the highest peaks on three continents, rode horseback through Mongolia and skied across Greenland.

"It's a part of my life," he said. "I do it first of all because I enjoy it. I live very north in Norway. We have a lot of space and wilderness. That is the most important reason for my traveling all over the world. It is important for me to do something more than race."

As a racer, he is without peer. American television networks call him "The Terminator," a name Ulvang loathes "because I am against violence."

In a country whose politics often resemble a giant Berkeley, Ulvang is a free-speech leader on skis.

He braved bullets to visit Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina. He condemned the policies of the IOC and the past diplomatic career of Samaranch.

On Wednesday, he suggested Samaranch is not fit to lead the Olympic movement.

And yesterday, he held a 15-minute summit with the IOC leader and issued a statement of apology.

"I am a champion for democratic institutions and the right to express your own opinions," he wrote.

Later, he said he had invited Samaranch to dine with him in the athletes' village.

"We had a very, very friendly meeting, ya," Ulvang said.

In Norway, the meeting between an athlete and an administrator is worthy of headlines.

But here, the bigger story is the fate of Ulvang's older brother, his best friend, his constant partner on his expeditions around the world.

When Ketil Ulvang disappeared, police tracked through the wilderness for four days. When they could not find him, they called off the search. Hundreds of volunteers joined Vegard Ulvang and his family for 12 more days, skiing through forests, searching for the body.

Still, they could not find Ketil.

So Norway mourns.

They are getting ready to hold the biggest sporting party on ice and snow in the country's history.

Saturday, at the base of a ski jump, a hero, a national symbol, Vegard Ulvang, will recite the Olympic Oath on behalf of all the athletes.

Next week, he will begin to race. And on the final day of the Olympics he will take up the challenge of the 50-kilometer classical event, cementing a partnership with his fans and his country.

Cross country skiing and Norway, he said, "is a love affair."

"It is our national sport," he said. "Ya, you will see."

A nation waits. An athlete weeps.

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