Friendly, enthusiastic people of Norway give gold-medal performance LILLEHAMMER 94

February 28, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- You saw it on television. You know who won.

Nancy Kerrigan won. Even thought she didn't win a gold medal, she still got to go to Disney World and claim her fortune.

Oksana Baiul won. Hopefully, her next 16 years will be as happy as her first 16 were sad.

Bonnie Blair and Dan Jansen won. As usual, and finally.

CBS won -- not that it deserved to. (If there is any justice, the network should not only pay Tonya Harding's legal bills, but also give her a job. She was good to them. Plenty good. Bette Davis Jr. put the life in Skategate.)

But the biggest winner of the Olympic Games of Lillehammer didn't win a medal.

The big winner was the people of Norway.

The citizens of this small country did what France, Canada, Yugoslavia and the United States couldn't do before them.

They pitched a perfect Games.

From the quality of the venues to the friendliness of the volunteers to the organization of the games to the enormous, enthusiastic crowds that lined the ski courses, not a false step was made.

Reports out of Oslo claimed that everyday life was going on as usual, but that was hard to believe. Sometimes it seemed as if each and every one of the 4.3 million Norwegians either was driving a bus, cleaning a path in the snow, making someone else's bed, lining the Birkebeineren cross country course -- or winning a gold medal.

But then, these Games were indeed a national commitment. It isn't much of an exaggeration to say that everyone pitched in. Schools closed for two weeks so every bus would be available to move visitors. Businesses were encouraged to give special leave time to employees who wished to serve as Games volunteers. The stock market sharks stopped and applauded when Koss the Boss skated.

From the day the games were awarded to this upscale village of 23,000 people, Norwegians were determined to do the Winter Olympics better than they'd ever been done before.

They can exhale today. They can rest. They did it.

The lesson is that it pays to care, really care. Doing the Games right was vitally important to Norway in a way it could never be important to, say, France. The culturally rich French felt they had nothing to prove, and it showed at times in the antiseptic Games of Albertville. Small, upwardly mobile Norway had a more purposeful agenda. It wanted to introduce itself to the world.

It made for a moving introduction.

What I will remember from Lillehammer is the sight of 100,000 cheering ski fans crawling all over a mountain for three hours and leaving not so much as a gum wrapper behind.

What I will remember is the way the national government stepped in immediately as soon as reports circulated that price-gouging was getting out of hand, and stopped it cold.

What I will remember is the fans at the ski jump venue cheering for athletes from every country (except the German who gave them an obscene salute).

What I will remember is the grandmothers and babies among the cross country crowds, the fact that entire families were there together.

What I will remember is a country whose people relish the outdoors, thrive in it; made you feel guilty for spending your life chained to your cubicles at the office and home.

People so relentlessly pleasant that they didn't even boo Tonya. (And if ever someone deserved booing, it was Tonya on Friday night. Half of the other skaters came from countries where they were lucky to get a hot meal for dinner, and Tonya needed a favor because she couldn't get her laces tied. My guess is that the judges chose to let her start over because they just didn't want to deal with it anymore.)

Ordinarily, at the end of an Olympics you find American journalists rattling their tin cups on the bars, cursing every local custom. This time, they're standing around shaking their heads, saying, "I can't believe people still live like this." Courteous, decent.

Skategate was the seed that sprouted record TV ratings worldwide -- up 300 percent on Eurosport, the European ESPN -- and it succeeded in delivering a memorable competition. But there was more to the ratings phenomenon. There had to be. Tonya and Nancy's Excellent Adventure wasn't on that much.

No, there were other factors, and foremost among them was the unquantifiable fact that these Games just felt right, in person and in your living room. They were the first real Winter Olympics in years. They were cold and snow-capped. They were cheered by a country that cared. They had fiber.

What I will remember is waking up the day before Nancy and Tonya skated for the first time and finding myself immersed in the single best event of the Games, the men's 40-kilometer cross country relay. Maybe you saw it. Teams of skiers from Italy, Norway and Finland raced together for 24 miles, never separated by more than a couple of feet.

The huge, flag-waving crowd never stopped roaring and singing. The skiers dug into the snow, their sweat turning to icicles on their chins. Italy won in the final few meters, an upset. I finished watching and sat down to write about Tonya and Nancy. And felt embarrassed.

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