Norwegian Koss is the boss with 5,000-meter world mark LILLEHAMMER 94

February 14, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR NORWAY — HAMAR, Norway -- As Norway's Johann Olav Koss hurtled through the turns, keeping low and body level, a nation's pulse throbbed with each foot that sliced through the ice.

Four-tenths of a second off the world-record mark after Lap 9. Two-tenths after 10. Six-hundredths of a second off the pace going into the final lap.

Then, finally, a world record. And the gold.

Koss, a medical student nursing a bad knee, gave the host country of Norway its first gold medal of the 1994 Winter Olympics with a world-record time of 6 minutes, 34.96 seconds in the 5,000-meter speed skating race, bettering his old mark of 6:35.53.

The Norwegian-dominated crowd cheered on its Olympic hero through the final three laps, and the 25-year-old star showed his appreciation by clenching his fist and bowing to crowd as he received his medal.

Koss beat his nearest competition, countryman Kjell Storelid, by nearly seven seconds. Storelid finished in 6:42.68. Koss did every lap under 32 seconds.

"This was great, the best thing that's ever happened to me," said Koss, who says his favorite hobby is riding tamed elk. "I was glad to do it in front of the home audience."

It was a touching scene at the Olympic Hall, a 10,000-seat capacity arena nicknamed the "Viking Ship" because of its hull-shaped roof and abnormal number of wooden beams.

The home fans did the wave, chanted "Johann" and waved tiny Norwegian flags as their tall, slenderly built countryman broke his previous best, which he set on Dec. 4, 1993.

Koss, who has set the five previous world records in the race, was escorted to the podium by a marching band and the royal guard. One of the spectators was Norway Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Another 200,000 Norwegians were on a ticket waiting list for the race.

"It was an honor to get this at home," said Koss. "I was not very confident before the race, but gained it as the race went along."

Koss' time was 4.27,56 after 3,400 meters. His last three lap times were 31.65, 31.63 and 31.76. Each time he finished a lap, he said he got a shot of adrenalin from the crowd, which knew he was nearing the mark.

"Koss skated so fast, and when he is in shape, we can't beat him,' said Rintje Ritsma of the Netherlands, who finished third in 6:43.94.

It was personal and national vindication for Koss and Norway. Koss has a reputation for sometimes being too uptight in races, and also was struggling with muscle problems in his knee.

But Koss, who consulted two psychologists about the injury, showed great endurance.

"I had a tough time since the European championships up until today," he said. "After struggling with poor results and a bad knee, it is wonderful to win."

The Norwegians also had gone through some tough times. Norway's 66-member team brought back only four medals -- three silvers and a bronze -- from the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta.

Norway lost its claim of being the 'world capital of winter sports" and speed skating seemed to go down with the fall of Norwegian hero Geir Karsland in the 10,000-meter race in Calgary.

But six months after Calgary, the International Olympic Committee declared Lillehammer as host city for the 1994 Games, and sponsors put up $100 million to take care of the

athletes' every need.

Trainer Hans Trygve Kristiansen was hired to re-build the speed skating team, and he liked what he saw in Koss, a one-time soccer player whose first pair of skates were for playing ice hockey.

Koss responded by wining a silver medal in the 10,000 meters and a gold in the 1,500 meters at the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.

Storelid's performance yesterday also showed how strong the Norwegians have become in the longer races.

Ritsma, who raced after Koss and Storelid, made a strong bid with a better time than Koss after seven laps, but Koss' pace was too tough, much to the delight of the Norway fans.

"My legs were buring toward the end," said Ritsma.

"When Johann is in good shape," Ritsma added, "he is so very fast that you can't beat him here."

The fans couldn't take anyone beating their hero, who now might be as popular as Stein Eriksen, Norway's one-time giant slalom master.

And Koss isn't done.

"We have the right team at the right time and the right attitude," he said. "We are going for gold."

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