Let the Vinterleker Begin!

May 2, 2004
Outside Magazine
Outside magazine, February 1994

Let the Vinterleker Begin!

Thank Thor they're back. An armchair Olympian's guide to the Winter Games
By Alex Heard

No point denying it: as a concept, the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics have sounded a little off-key, like a brass bell slapped with a flabby cod. You've heard the sour notes, maybe even voiced a few as you frantically mashed your channel changer to escape the CBS Sports promo barrage. Didn't we just do this, a mere luge-run ago on the geologic clock? Isn't the new every-two-years-an-Olympics! business just a coarse excuse for additional orgies of marketing? Isn't Norway a whaling "outlaw" state, thumbing its nose at the world by again roaming the seas to Flay Willy?

Yes. But it's time to forget all that and accentuate the joyous--to hoist a mug of glug, to thrill to the fact that these Olympics will take place in a region of Norway known as Troll Park, to lace up those reindeer-skin booties for the collective elf-dance that the Winter Games deserve. No, demand. Why? Because the Olympics are like Christmas: a nifty holiday whose star attractions, in this case the athletes, shouldn't be blamed for the hype demons that shriek nearby.

As always, these Games will offer plenty to excite a serious sports fan, even "homers" made pouty by the eternal, grim reality that the United States is a Winter Olympics naïf. Thanks to the scant two-year gap since the Albertville Games, this year's dramas will feature much that is familiar. (Maybe too much. For the first time, professional figure skaters will be allowed to compete, setting the stage, should both thoroughbreds qualify, for another fiery axel-off between America's Brian Boitano and Canada's Christopher Bowman.) Starring in the marquee events on the slopes is--who else?--Alberto Tomba, who hopes to spit-polish his immortality by mining gold in the slalom and giant slalom. Hurtling across his path will be contenders from the usual suspect nations--Switzerland, Austria--along with a hard-charging native son: Norway's Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who dominated the 1993 World Cup circuit in slalom, giant slalom, and Super G. But in Lillehammer, as perhaps nowhere else, cross-country skiing will preen at center stage. By late fall the waiting list for tickets to the men's 4x10-kilometer relay, in which Norway is favored, was 182,000 names deep.

For the American bodysuits, many unhappy endings are inevitable. (Biathlon? Cross-country? Men's slalom? Nei, nei, and nei.) But there are glimmers. Alpine skiers Julie Parisien (slalom and giant slalom) and Picabo Street (downhill) will pace an exceptionally talented women's squad. Speed skater Bonnie Blair is back for a last oval gasp and could become the top female gold-medal winner in U.S. Olympic history if she wins both the 500- and 1,000-meter events. The U.S. hockey team again looks like a hard-striving understudy, but our guys are legitimate contenders in the four-man bobsled and singles luge. And what of perennial Great Yank Hope AJ Kitt? He left us crying in our snack trays when he finished ninth in Albertville, but we predict that this year it will all come together. Sort of. Bet on him to take seventh in the downhill, eating white dust left by Switzerland's Urs Lehmann and Franz Heinzer.

As for our hosts, it's time to cut the Norwegians some slack. Yeah, we still believe that Lillehammer's attempt to mount a "green Olympics" didn't quite pan out. But Norway did try, which is typical of this scrappy little workhorse country. Check the geopolitical résumé. Aside from a few smudges (rampaging Vikings, Sonja Henie), Norway has spent most of its gross national energy on being industrious, likable, and cozy. Just ask the army of American sports reporters who roamed Lillehammer on judgmental pre-Games inspection tours and came home swollen with hospitality and cooing like infants swaddled in Dale of Norway sweaters. Perhaps they were spun by clever handlers? Not likely. Norway's public relations skills seem to be clumsy at best. What other nation would boast about being the home of the cheese slicer?

In this spirit--a leap of faith onto the bandwagon of Norwayness--it's a delight to present our Olympic preview, organized in keeping with the five "Genuine Values" of the Lillehammer Games: Joy, Naturalness, Fair Play, Closeness, and Participation. Nebbishy? Conceded. And so what? The Olympic sites--exotic-sounding places like the Gjøvik Olympic Cavern Hall and the Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena, tucked throughout the picturesque Valley of Gudbrandsdalen--are physically close enough to give these Games a sense of community that was in short supply at Albertville, where the prevailing style, Euro-Mondo Aloof, left cold clutchprints on the heart. Hence, we'll say it loud and proud, our mittened fists pumping the air. Do not try to resist the beckoning call of those nordic Loreleis with the blond, braided buns. Give in, little fan, to those swelling emotions that are destined to send salty, icy beads down your rosy cheeks. Norwo Fever. Catch it!

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