Locals are jumping over these Games LILLEHAMMER '94

February 23, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- It was the flavor and spirit of the Winter Olympics in one day at Lysgardsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena.

A crowd of 35,000 -- 5,000 more than capacity -- jammed its way in here yesterday.

Those without seats straddled along the slopes, carrying logs and steel beams for makeshift bleachers, or building personal hills on which to stand.

Yodelers sang, rock bands played, cowbells rang and the Norwegians danced. Oh, did they dance.

"We've got to work on The Wave," said Frank Rasmussen, 28, from Bergen, Norway. "There are only two places to be if you're a Norwegian today. You are either here or at cross country skiing. It's like our holiday. I prefer to be here because I'm a little romantic."

The entire city of Lillehammer and its snowy, mountainous landscape outlined by spruces and firs can be seen from the top of the arena. The Olympic torch burns here, and the Olympic rings are planted in the ice. The two ski jumping hills share a common amphitheater, giving the arena the shape of a teardrop.

As it nears time for the event, a long line of spectators can been seen for miles climbing up the hill past the ice sculptures near the bottom.

Scalpers hustle customers, and vendors sell a 12-ounce cup of coffee for $1.75. Most of the spectators are Norwegians, because skiing is their national pastime and this is their home.

Inside the arena, of course, is the competition. Outside -- far, far away -- are Nancy and Tonya.

"This is what Norway and the Olympics are about, not scandals," said Kjetil Sand, 26, from Stavanger, Norway.

"You should see this place at night, the lights of the city surrounded by wilderness and the frozen lake," he said, standing atop the arena. "This place has captured a country's strength and passion."

But on this day, Germany took the gold medal in the 120-meter team event, as Jens Weissflog flew 444 feet, 6 inches on his last jump to win for his four-man team.

Weissflog's jump put so much pressure on Japan's Masahiko Harada that he took off too quickly, and managed only 319-9 on his last jump, squandering a huge lead and Japan's chance for its first gold medal of the Games.

Austria was third. Norway was fourth, as Espen Bredesen failed to clear 130 meters in either jump, landing 124.5 and 127.

Fourth place is not very popular for Norwegian teams.

"We are Norwegian; we expect the gold," said Heidi Hvarstad, from Finnmark, 200 miles from Lillehammer.

Over the centuries, the Norwegians have invented speed skates, skis, ski jumps, ski poles, ski races and heel-clamped ski bindings.

Norway likes to call itself the "cradle of skiing," and once Lillehammer was awarded the 1994 Games, a few months after the 1988 Olympics in Calgary, Alberta, ended, sponsors gave roughly $100 million to the Norwegian Olympic Committee to help showcase their athletes for these games. They love skiing, and they expect winners.

About 10,000 Norwegians brought little heaters to the jump arena because they came so early.

Nearly 100,000 others were out at 3 a.m., preparing for a cross country race.

"They are crazy," said Jan Ivar Smavik, a Norwegian policeman. "They will behave themselves for the most part. The drinking won't start until they go home."

"There's an old saying in Norway that we're are born to ski," said Bjorn Ivan Gran, 24, from Trondheim, Norway. "We learn to ski at 3 or 4 years old. It is not just a sport for us; it is a way of life.

"When we don't win gold medals, a lot of people are unhappy. How can we lose? We live in these conditions all the time."

Just walk outside the arena. There's Lillehammer off in the distance to the left and rugged, craggy landscape left by the Ice Age to the right. It's nothing but rolling hills and snow-covered mountain tops.

"Sometimes, it's breathtaking when you walk out," Smavik said.

It's a hustlers' paradise when you walk in. Scalping is big business, and it's legal.

One man, who did not want to be identified, was buying tickets valued at $150 for $100 and selling them for $200.

He hangs out at the skiing because there's always big crowds. But the biggest money is at the women's figure skating.

"It's the biggest show in the United States and here," the scalper said. "This is peanuts compared to what I will make [today]."

,3 A ticket today for Nancy-Tonya could get as much as $500. On Friday, a ticket could go as high as $700 (face value is between $37 and $90).

And speaking of peanuts, a bag costs about $3.25. Hot dogs are $3. A small cup of soda, $2.50. A plate of ham, potatoes and gravy, $10.

At least there's entertainment at the bottom. There are nearly 50 ice statues, strong enough for kids to climb.

"This is the perfect venue," Rasmussen said. "It is centrally located. It gives you cosmetic beauty. It gives the world competition and us passion. It is in the sprit of the Olympics."

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