No Native Son A Letter from Lillehammer

February 27, 1994|By MIKE PRESTON

Lillehammer, Norway. -- I've had my picture taken here more than Dan Jansen.

Wherever I go, lights flash and cameras roll. Kids stare in awe, but I won't give autographs.

It's hard for an African-American to fit in here in Norway.

It's even worse when you're a 6-foot-2, 279-pound African-American, a former college football player.

People stare. People point. They laugh at me.

I stare back. I point. I laugh, too, even though it's at my own jokes.

My wife warned me about this. She was a foreign exchange student from Franklin High, living in Finland in the late 1970s.

She said the entire crowd would stop and look when she walked into a mall. Or drivers would nearly wreck their cars, rubbernecking as she walked down a country road.

I listened, but I knew things would be different. That was 1976. This is 1994. Communism has faded and the Cold War is over. We're in the era of the New World Order.

But as soon as I got off the plane in Norway, it started. Janitors would drop mops and people would stop eating as I walked by.

Then, as I was about to leave customs, I noticed a crowd outside. My thoughts shot back to the words of my friend Mike Littwin before I left.

"When you get there, those people are going to turn you into an exhibition," Littwin said. "They are going to study you. They are going to take your blood. You will become a specimen."

I rushed through the crowd as several camera flashes went off. Ah, maybe they thought I was a member of the Jamaican bobsled team.

But that was just the beginning. Often in the press area, Norwegian TV cameras scan the room. Those lenses frequently end up on me, for about 45 seconds.

On Tuesday, I had the assignment of writing about Lysgardsbakkene Ski-Jumping Arena. Marvelous ice sculptures stood near the entrance, so I went over to copy down the names. When I looked up, it was like a Fourth of July celebration.

At least 15 people were shooting pictures. Not of the statues, but of me.

Give the Norwegians credit. They try to be discreet, but they aren't. They act as if they're shooting something behind or around you, then, wham, you're a Kodak moment.

I thought maybe I was paranoid until I spoke with Pedro Figueroa. He is from New York and works for CBS. He has covered the past two Winter Olympics.

Figueroa is also black.

In this land of blond hair and blue eyes, you welcome the sight of another black person. OK, I'll be honest. I'm ecstatic to see another black person. I don't just shake their hands, I hug and kiss them, darn near mug them with affection.

"The trip has been very positive," said Mr. Figueroa. "But I've noticed those cameras focusing in on me during the events. It's like we're making history or something.

"What was really unusual was that I had a ticket to figure skating, and my seats were next to two other black people. On the opposite side were three more black people. The capacity of that stadium is 6,500, and all the black people were sitting in one section. Cameras were rolling. I laughed because I didn't know if it was coincidence, fate or what."

Figueroa is only 5-7 and weighs 165 pounds.

"I can melt in somewhat," said Figueroa. "Obviously, you stick out."

Thanks.

I go to a store, and the cashier rubs my hand instead of immediately taking the money.

Norwegian children are simply overwhelmed. One day, 10 youngsters were running in a single line holding hands. All 10 spotted me. The first five kept running. The second five hit the brakes and fell over each other on the ice.

On that same day, I was covering a downhill race. It was about 6 below. I put on a ski mask. My wife had told me not to.

The first two rows of Section A stopped cheering and started pointing at me.

I pointed back.

They laughed.

I didn't.

But at least I was warm.

You can tell that Norwegians don't see blacks often. They still call us "Negroes."

"It is just so rare to see a Negro here," said Guro Rugstad Jenssen, 20, a Norway native and college student who lives in Baerum, a community outside Oslo.

"There are some Negroes in the country, but they're pretty scattered. Basically, we only see Negroes on TV or in entertainment, like Bill Cosby or Eddie Murphy."

Great.

I'm thousands of miles away from home and the best-known representative of my race is Eddie Murphy.

Ms. Jenssen, though, says she knows how I feel. She once lived in Japan, and the Japanese often rubbed her blond hair and teased her.

"No fun," she says. "It can wear you down."

Last Tuesday, as I walked down the main street in Lillehammer, an old lady stared me down to within almost six inches of my face while I was souvenir shopping. Her head was turned slightly, and her expression said, "Oh, poor guy, what happened?"

When I said "boo," she jumped.

This is all pretty harmless, and I have no fear except to fall on the ice and have it be the lead story on local television.

"Big Negro falls hard, film at 11," a Norwegian broadcaster will probably say.

I'd been through something similar at the 1992 Summer Games in Barcelona, but not to this degree.

In Barcelona, I had on shorts and was sitting next to an old man on a train. He reached over, grabbed my thigh, and yelled, "grande, grande."

Then he smiled.

I had no clue until a colleague translated the word for me later.

Most Olympic reporters, when they go out socially, hide the credential that is hung around their neck. They want to be accepted.

Me, I wear mine at all times. At least I want the Norwegians to know I'm here for a reason, not by choice.

And I don't plan to return.

Mike Preston is a sportswriter for The Baltimore Sun.

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