In Lillehammer, it's a winter of content

February 12, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- We wore Hawaiian shirts at the 1988 Winter Olympics. Winter was trucked in. Eddie the Eagle sort of soared on man-made snow. The host city, Calgary, was a flat, skyscrapered metropolis. The mountains and real snow were 90 miles away.

Four years later, at the Games of Albertville, our boots were covered with mud. It wasn't cold enough for snow. Dan Jansen skated in an April shower. Kids played tennis on outdoor courts next to the ice skating arena. The Alps made for a classic backdrop, but the host city was a nondescript valley crossroads.

So, now, we come to Lillehammer. Have I told you about the 6-foot snowbank outside my front door?

Finally, for the first time in a decade, the Winter Olympics are not shaping up as a fraudulent sensory experience. Did you hear they're expecting 100,000 fans to show up for the 50-kilometer cross-country ski race?

Putting the Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is like putting the World Series in Cooperstown, or the NBA Finals on a blacktop in the Bronx. They're home. They're where they belong.

They're where winter means winter, where couples divorce over speed skating tickets; where, to paraphrase Dan Jenkins, cross-country skiing isn't a sport so much as the way you get to the 7-Eleven.

If not for the fact that I needed three planes, two buses and 21 hours to go door to door, I could almost swear I was somewhere in Florida at a Disney "Winter Olympics Experience" theme park. Sort of a Michael Eisner as Juan Antonio Samaranch thing. This place is that perfect as a setting.

Part of it is pure coincidence, of course. Lillehammer ordinarily doesn't get so much snow, the locals say. But they're getting dumped on in the only Olympic winter of their lives. They're having their "snow event" of the century.

There was a 54-inch base as of yesterday, the second highest on record here since 1890. And the drifts, well, they could play for the Knicks. You want to know about the one outside my front door? Six feet up. As far and wide as a football field. Crags on top. And you thought the big chill was a movie.

Frankly, I'm worried the thing might eat me one night as I make my way through the narrow path that some poor, luckless Olympic volunteer had to carve out of it.

The great white fields should melt by July, of course. July 1995, maybe. They certainly won't melt a drop during the Games, not when the temperature hasn't passed beyond 20 since the Vikings were livin' large. Or at least in months.

But let's not dismiss the perfection of the setting as meteorological happenstance. The Lillehammer theory was right all along. In Norway, the skiing and skating disciplines that provide the soul of the Winter Games aren't just temporary diversions from the big-leaguers of baseball or soccer or whatever, as they are everywhere else. Here, they are the big leagues.

Norway's current sporting hero is a cross-country skier, Vegard Ulvang. Its most famous athlete was a figure skater, Sonja Henie. Its Wrigley Field is a speed skating track in Herenveen.

Survivors themselves of long, cold, sunless winters, Norwegians are naturally taken with the boys and girls of winter sports. And not just their own. Speed skating is so popular here that Bonnie Blair can't leave her room without being trampled by an autograph herd. Back home, America's greatest female Winter Olympian has the recognition quotient of a backup second baseman.

Norway's national soccer team has qualified for the World Cup for the first time, but an Ulvang gold in the 50-kilometer would be the most celebrated accomplishment of the year, if not the decade. The race is so big that organizers are expecting thousands of fans to take them up on their offer to camp out on the course the night before. Sound like fun?

Of course, the popularity of these sports is no surprise. Over the centuries Norwegians have invented skis, ski races, ski jumps, speed skates and the words slalom and Axel. The International Olympic Committee came here in part because it figured Norwegians would treat the games they shaped with respect. They did.

Consider the speed skating venue. In Albertville, it was a temporary outdoor rink composed of aluminum bleachers, with all the atmosphere of an interstate highway. Here, it is a dramatic, shiny indoor rink shaped like the hull of a Viking ship. The fans are right on top of the ice.

"The atmosphere should be incredible, real different," said Jansen, competing in his fourth Games. "But then everything about these Olympics is different. The weather, the snow, the people. It has a real wintry feeling. And it's a great feeling."

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