Norwegians toast Smirnov with good cheer LILLEHAMMER 94

February 28, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- It was almost a fitting end to the 1994 Winter Olympic Games.

One hundred thirty thousand Norwegians jammed onto the hills at Birkebeineren Ski Stadium. They grilled hot dogs and drank unknown substances from flasks. They sang songs and painted their faces. They slid down hills without sleds.

They came in minus-13-degree weather to cheer their heroes, one old in Vegard Ulvang, one new in Bjorn Dahlie.

But when the 50-kilometer cross country ski race was finished, they cheered a new champion: gold-medal winner Vladimir Smirnov of Kazakhstan.

Smirnov won the race in 2 hours,7 minutes, 20.3 seconds. He was 1:21.6 ahead of silver medalist Mika Myllylae of Finland, and 1:28.7 in front of Norway's Sture Sivertsen, who won the bronze.

"It's not that I beat them," said Smirnov, 29, of Ulvang and Dahlie. "They were not in top form. It is a big surprise I got the gold medal. The people in Norway got behind me, and they brought me good luck."

Smirnov, a former Soviet who lives in Sweden, was humble about the victory, despite being mobbed by the Norwegian crowd after the race.

During these Olympics, he had been a bridesmaid to Dahlie, winning silver medals behind Dahlie in the 10K classical style and the 15K freestyle.

Smirnov has had a history of being No. 2 -- he's been second in five other major competitions. One of those was to Dahlie, who beat him by inches in the 15K freestyle in Falun, Sweden, last year.

But yesterday, Smirnov was not going to be denied. He led most of the way, taking the lead from Myllylae a few kilometers into the race.

Smirnov's previous best in the 50K was seventh.

"I got a cramp with 1K to go, but it was not much of a catastrophe," Smirnov said. "Very often I have had problems. This time I expected problems. After 40 kilometers, I realized I had none. Each race has its own secrets and surprises. The surprise was that the whole race went so well."

Smirnov got another surprise after the race. The president of Kazakhstan called to congratulate him. Kazakhstan is a tiny former Soviet republic on the southern border of Russia.

"I have never gotten a call from the president. This is great here with my friends [Norwegian fans]. They appreciate good skiing, no matter who wins."

Smirnov is good friends with Ulvang, and last year the two skied across Siberia together "just for something to do."

Ulvang, known here as "The Terminator," looked tired yesterday. He has been bothered by a sore hamstring and, according to Smirnov, by his brother's disappearance while running in a remote area near his family's Northern Norway home last fall.

Ulvang finished 10th in 2:10.40, far from the form that helped him win three gold medals and a silver in the 1992 Games in Albertville, France.

"He has problems that I don't care to talk about," Smirnov said.

Dahlie also has problems.

He missed two days of training last week because of fatigue and a sore throat. Dahlie still finished fourth, in 2:09:11.4.

If he had won a medal, Dahlie would have tied Swedish cross country legend Sixten Jernberg for all-time medals (nine) won by a man in Winter Olympics history.

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