Ya, behind scenes Norway is medal winner, too WINTER OLYMPICS

February 27, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- What you didn't see on television. . .

The Samis, the indigenous people of northern Norway, Sweden and Finland, have set up a cultural theme park at the shore where Lillehammer meets Lake Mjosa. You can sit in one of their tents, eat their food, hear their music, take a ride in a sled pulled by a reindeer and walk among Samis dressed in traditional garb and tall hats.

An American reporter took the plunge the other day and reached into his wallet to pay the fee -- approximately $20 -- to get inside.

"How much exactly?" the reporter asked.

Before he could answer, the Sami man handling the money was interrupted by a high-pitched noise.

The reporter wondered what it was. Perhaps the sound of a Sami musical instrument? Perhaps a sound coming from a Sami kitchen? What part of the indigenous experience was this?

"Excuse me one moment, please," said the Sami man, reaching into the pocket of his traditional garb and pulling out a cellular phone.

*

There is a gambling parlor next to the hockey arena. It is a bright, cheery place, run by the Norwegian government, where you can bet legally on Olympic events.

Could there be a more vivid example of the cultural differences that exist in this world?

There isn't a sports executive in the United States who wouldn't start hyperventilating and suing (faster than you can say Pete Rose) if a legal bookie showed up next door taking bets on their games. Imagine the ruckus if one set up shop across the street from Camden Yards.

The NBA is so paranoid that it recently threatened to take away an expansion franchise from Toronto until the Ontario state government agreed to drop NBA games from its sports lottery game.

Norwegians aren't so cynical. They don't care about the potential conflicts and problems raised by gambling. They see it as a fun, little diversion.

"We don't see the ethical problem," a member of the Lillehammer organizing committee said last week when told that some Olympic athletes had bet on events "for fun."

Damon Runyon wouldn't have lasted long here. The parlors are the antithesis of the traditional smoke-filled room; there's nothing even remotely illicit about them. They are operated by the state lottery agency, Norsk Tipping. Mothers and grandmothers work the counter in bright sweaters. There's no one named Vic hanging around reading the newspaper.

Of course, seeing as most of the Norwegian bettors are putting their money on Bjorn Dahlie, Vegard Ulvang and the other Norwegian Olympians, the state government basically is rooting against its country's athletes. Fewer Norwegian wins means fewer win bets.

When I mentioned this to the polite young man behind the counter the other day, he put his fingers to his lips and spoke in an exaggerated whisper. "We don't talk about that," he said, smiling.

*

Pizza is pizza is pizza, and Norwegians make it well, with a thick crust and plenty of cheese and toppings. There's only one difference between the Norwegian pizza experience and that in the rest of the world:

Ketchup.

Big time ketchup.

When the pizza comes to a table of Norwegians, everyone grabs the Heinz and dumps a thick glob across the top of their slice.

Isn't that special?

*

Sweden and Norway are the Hatfields and McCoys of Scandinavia.

Sweden ruled Norway until 1905 and therefore thinks of itself as more sophisticated and important. Norwegians, as you might imagine, resent this terribly. It is an unending source of joy to them that they, not the Swedes, are the ones cleaning up athletically, artistically and economically at these Games.

It's not hard to find this antagonism bubbling just below the happy face of the Olympics. All you have to do is ask a Norwegian: Know any good Swede jokes? And vice versa.

They're always happy to oblige.

For instance: "How can you recognize the Norwegians among the workers on the North Sea oil platforms? Easy, they're the ones throwing bread to the helicopters."

And: "How many Swedes does it take to pop popcorn? Eighteen. One to hold the skillet and 17 to shake the stove."

*

Lost in all the Skategate nonsense was the big ruckus that unfolded at the freestyle skiing venue this year.

Well, sort of a big ruckus.

The aerialists wore armbands protesting the lack of ballet.

I couldn't help wondering what Howard Cosell's take would have been.

Athletes whose "sport" consisted of skiing off a ramp and gyrating in the air were complaining about the Olympic fathers saying no to a "sport" in which the athletes do a Baryshnikov on skis.

Personally, I think they should do away with all of the freestyle events. They are comic-book sports given legitimacy by the International Olympic Committee only because it can make more TV money if it expands the Games to cover three weekends -- and it needs something (anything!) to fill the schedule.

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