An Olympics of memories and heroes LILLEHAMMER '94

February 27, 1994|By Bill Glauber | Bill Glauber,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- These are the Winter Olympics you do not want to end. They are Games where good overshadows evil, where athletes act as heroes and where dreams really do come true.

These are the Games of Dan Jansen winning one last race, Oksana Baiul smiling through the tears, Johann Olav Koss racing into history.

They are about an Israeli skater named Michael Shmerkin wearing a yarmulke during the Opening Ceremonies; Bosnian bobsledders fleeing the siege of Sarajevo to make a few bumpy rides down an icy trail; an aerial daredevil from Uzbekistan named Lina Cherjazova winning her country's first gold medal as rock music echoed down a mountainside.

Tonight, however, at the base of a ski jump overlooking this town north of Oslo, the Games will come to an inevitable close when the Olympic flame is extinguished.

But the memories will linger.

Each Olympics has a certain feel. In summer, there is a scope and sweep that is too big to handle in one heady gulp. But in winter, there is an enforced intimacy, an ability to simply walk out the door, reach out and touch the Games.

These are the real Winter Olympics, held in grand settings, staged before enormous crowds who love their sports on ice and snow.

Norway leads the medal count heading into today's 16th and final day of competition. And when the most eagerly awaited race of all concludes, the men's 50-kilometer cross-country classic, it will likely be a Norwegian who emerges from the woods first and wins the gold.

And that is as it should be, for this country has produced an extraordinary range of athletes, men and women for whom sports is not merely a living, but a way of trekking through life.

For Norway, the greatest athlete of all is a brawny speed skater named Johann Olav Koss.

He won three gold medals. He set three world records. He gave away all his medal bonuses to Olympic Aid, a project to spread the ideals of the Games throughout the world.

But when the Olympic organizers promised to build him a statue inside the Viking Ship speed skating hall, this strong man cried, and asked that they wait another 50 years before carving his likeness in granite.

Such is the stuff of legend.

For the world, the moment of the Games may have occurred Friday night, when a little skater, Ms. Baiul, ignored the three-stitch wound in her right leg and the pain in her back to create a little magic.

She won the women's figure skating gold in a split decision over American Nancy Kerrigan. The verdict may be disputed for years, but the face of the 16-year-old champion will remain for all time.

She wept and smiled all at once.

For America, the Games are about heroes and myths.

Ms. Kerrigan, seven weeks after being attacked in Detroit, won the silver medal, while her rival, Tonya Harding, fell to eighth.

Tommy Moe, a ruddy-cheeked 23-year-old skier from Alaska, stunned himself and the world, winning the downhill.

Bonnie Blair, America's greatest female Olympian ever, boosted her gold-medal collection to five, skating a victory lap with an American flag in her right hand and a Go Bonnie Gold cap on her head, a tribute to the 60 relatives and friends who made one last journey to the Olympics to see her race.

Finally, she cried on a victory podium and said, "This is something I would not have dreamed of."

There were other scenes of incomprehensible triumphs. Of skier Diann Roffe-Steinrotter coming full circle in a career that began as a teen-ager with a world championship triumph and ended with a bold and golden run in the super G.

"It's a miracle," she said.

And it was.

There was Picabo Street, a skier whose parents came right from the 1960s and landed at the Winter Olympics. She won a silver in the women's downhill and her parents, Dee and Stubby, waved an American flag, the one a friend gave them 12 years ago with a promise that they would bring it to Picabo's Olympics.

"My parents were there to pick me up if I made a mistake -- or ran into a brick wall," Ms. Street said.

Kristen Talbot did not win in speed skating, but it did not matter. Seven weeks ago, she donated her bone marrow to her brother Jason, who suffers from aplastic anemia.

"I'm no hero," she said.

But she is.

The Olympics aren't just about winning. They are about grand failures, too.

Skating's professionals took on the amateurs in the first open Olympic competition and showed that the sport belongs to the young, with strong legs and steel nerves.

After he skated into sixth place in the men's final, Brian Boitano said, "I didn't have the hunger. In the middle of the program, I thought, 'I really don't care if I win a medal.' "

But there was one man who cared, cared a lot about finally winning a medal.

Dan Jansen came to his final speed skating race, haunted by failure that began in the 1988 Games at Calgary, Canada, when he fell twice after the death of his sister, Jane.

He said he didn't need a piece of gold to complete his life, yet he pursued the goal with stoic determination. So when he roared around a final turn in the 1,000-meter final, the crowd screaming, the finish approaching, he raced still faster to a medal, to the gold.

He cried on the medal stand and waved a salute, "For Jane," he said. Then he made the crowd weep with delight, carrying his 9-month-old daughter, Jane, on a victory lap turned victory waltz.

L "I am just so, so relieved right now," he said. "It's over."

The Olympics give us justice. Give us beauty.

They even give us the unlikeliest thing of all:

A happy ending.

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