3rd gold lands in lap of the Boss Norway's Koss smashes mark in 10,000

February 21, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

HAMAR, Norway -- The thighs are what you notice first. They look like sides of beef. They are a rippling mass of muscle covered by red Lycra, always churning, powering the man around the ice like he's a Volkswagen on steel blades.

But to discover the strength of Johann Olav Koss, peer at his face, Nordic and serene, never showing pain, never even showing a drop of sweat.

Koss is the captain of the Viking ship, the athlete of the Winter Olympics.

Yesterday, this 25-year-old Norwegian national hero added to his legend by winning his third gold medal and setting his third world record.

He won the men's 10,000-meter speed skating gold in 13 minutes, 30.55 seconds, obliterating by nearly 13 seconds the world record he previously set.

He took an entire country and a sport for a ride, turning 10,000 meters of agony into ecstasy.

This was Koss against himself. Koss against the clock. Twenty-five laps of grinding, gorgeous skating. In a sport where the difference between first and fourth is usually the blink of an eye, Koss lowered the record a lap at a time, a half-second at a time.

And the crowd -- 10,600 of the most knowledgeable speed skating fans -- roared with every split time, waved red, white and blue Norwegian flags, and finally broke into joyous song.

"Seiren ein vaar," they sang. "The victory is ours."

And Koss pumped his fists and glided on a victory lap, finally strapping a cellular phone pack on his back to give interviews with Norwegian national television.

"I felt the force," he said.

He was still out there on the ice, still talking when his Dutch rival, the reigning Olympic champion, Bart Veldkamp, staggered at the finish and nearly collapsed after claiming a bronze.

"Even before I skated, I didn't have a chance," Veldkamp said.

And there was Koss during the last race, shouting instructions to his teammate, Kjell Storelid, urging him to the silver, and then, with the crowd roaring louder, carrying on an interview with the exhausted skater.

Storelid's finishing time was nearly 19 seconds slower than Koss'.

"Koss put the world record to shame, and he put the field to shame," said Eric Heiden, the sport's last great star, who won five golds at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"What he did was like the Chicago Bulls winning three titles, and then winning three more," Heiden said.

American skater Andy Gabel was more succinct.

"Koss," he said, "is God."

He is a symbol of Norway, independent, polite, filled with pride.

Koss is a medical student whose parents are physicians. He once climbed the Himalayas to discover if altitude training would help his skating. (It didn't.) He visited Eritrea in Africa as part of the Olympic Aid project, a fund-raising campaign to transform Olympic ideals into a campaign of peace.

And he is donating his Olympic bonuses -- some $30,000 a medal -- to the Olympic Aid project, asking each Norwegian to contribute to the fund. Last night, Norway's prime minister announced the government would contribute $1 million to the fund in honor of Koss' three gold medals.

"I am really supporting Olympic Aid and the global ideals," he said. "It is fantastic to skate here and have this enormous opportunity to talk with people."

In Norway, Koss is beloved.

"Every place he goes, people know him," Heiden said. "It will be worse, now. He will be stuck in his house for awhile."

Koss won at 1,500 meters. At 5,000. And, finally, at 10,000. He more than made up for a subpar showing two years ago in Albertville, France, when he came in a favorite for three Olympic golds and left with one gold and a silver.

"I really wanted to know, when I was finished, that I had done my best," he said.

Clearly, he had.

His Olympic performance had his friends and rivals in awe.

"He trains like an animal," U.S. coach Peter Mueller said. "He is a wild man."

"The guy is like clockwork," Heiden said. "Everyone thinks the 10,000 is a sleeper of a race. But it isn't. There is drama in it."

On this day, the drama was in watching Koss claim a record for the ages.

"I think that it is a time that will stand for at least 30 years," Veldkamp said.

By the end of the afternoon, Koss was embarrassed by all the attention, the three gold medals dangling from his neck, the prize of a gold butterfly from the Dutch national team, the adulation of the crowd.

But when he was told that the government will build a statue for him and place it in the great speed skating hall at Hamar, he began to cry.

"I'm very honored for that," he said. "But myself, I want to wait 50 years for it. Maybe they can give the money for the statue to Olympic Aid."

Some day in the next century, another man may claim his record. But no one can duplicate the greatness that is Koss, speed skating's Big Boss.

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