All 'cross country, the sport fires up Norway

February 17, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Understand, Paul Hannes actually chose to camp out in the woods for a week in 20-below temperatures.

"I saved up vacation time for this," he said yesterday as happily as a senator on a boondoggle trip to the Caribbean.

I was trapped. I had to ask him the question. There was just no way around it.

"Why are you doing this?" I asked the engineer from outside Oslo. "Tell me, please."

A burly, fortyish man with wire-rim glasses, a precise manner and the customary apple-red cheeks, he looked at me as though it was the most ridiculous question ever posed.

"The skiing," he said, waving a hand behind him, at the Olympic cross country skiing course. "Everyone wants to see the cross country skiing."

Some more than others, of course. Thus the presence of hundreds of campers on a snowy hillside in the middle of the Olympic course at Birkebeineren, some intending to stay for the entire two weeks of the Games.

They're big fans.

But not a whole lot bigger than anyone else in Norway.

As far as people here are concerned, you can have your Tonya and Nancy. Tonya, schmonya. Norwegians much prefer to see skiers disappear into the woods for hours. Now that's entertainment!

In every other port of the civilized world, cross country skiing is the sleeping pill of sports. Even at the Olympics, attendance is limited to immediate family. Nothing against the skiers, who are in phenomenal condition. But their sport is, ah, just a little shy on action.

They start skiing. And they keep skiing. And that's about it. It's worth an instant replay if the leader stops to readjust his goggles.

But just as there is one place in the world where people drive on the wrong side of the road (Britain), and one place in the world where people wear their underwear on the outside (San Marcos in "Bananas"), there is one place in the world where people go blotto over cross country skiing.

Hallo, Norge. (Hello, Norway.)

Cross country and biathlon tickets were the first to go at these Games. They were sold out in the blink of a moose's eye, long before the tickets to figure skating and hockey. At last count, the waiting list for cross country numbered some 200,000.

OK, so let's fast forward to the Games. Try to picture this. It is 10 in the morning and 15 below zero. Sixty thousand people are gathered on a mountainside above Lillehammer. Some are stuffed into the little stadium at the starting/finish line. They are singing and stomping. The others are out on the course, lining both sides.

The competition begins. The first pair of skiers take off into the woods. A shattering din rises from the crowd. The skiers return occasionally, when completing laps on the course. The crowd erupts at the posting of the split times, as if the scoreboard were a Dow Jones ticker. The noise doesn't stop until the last pair of skiers has de-booted.

"I have never heard such noise in all my life," said Finland's Marja-Liisa Kiresniemi, the 38-year-old bronze medalist in the women's 5-kilometer race. "Every step, people are urging you on. The people on the course are shouting your name."

Also shouting are the radio and TV play-by-play announcers in the press box. Yes, in Norway there is cross country skiing on radio. Heavy on the description, presumably. But hey, the guy hollers nonstop for two hours as though it's the bottom of the ninth in Game 7. He isn't cheating on his paycheck.

Such is the scene at every cross country race this year. It makes talking to the skiers tough. They're all in shock. Until now they've skied in a library, basically. Suddenly, they're all Joe Montana.

At the end of the day, after the medal ceremony, half the fans take off skiing themselves and the hillside empties out -- except for Paul Hannes, his buddies and the other campers, who never leave.

They're camped in large, green tents heated with wood-burning stoves. Many are students. They take turns loading wood into the fire in the middle of the night. Their tents are as cozy as your living room. There are dozens on the hillside.

"We do this all the time, camping, in winter and summer," Hannes said. "Taking part in the outdoor life is a Norwegian tradition."

He pointed to the sets of skis and poles by the front of his tent.

"Cross country skiing is a very popular thing for people to do," he said. "That's why it's so popular at the Games. That and the fact that Norwegians are going to do well."

It was late in the afternoon as we spoke, the sun dropping in a hurry, the radio predicting the temperature would hit 22 below that night. Frost had formed on Hannes' mustache. My beard was a black glacier.

"I will say, it's a little cold outside," Hannes said.

But there was good news: two races the next morning. A !B doubleheader!

"The people will start arriving at dawn, or before," Hannes said. "If you want a good view of the race, you have to get here very early."

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