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  • Lillehammer: Olympic Style Without Equal


    02/20/19

    (ATR) I have never been so cold in my life as I was at the opening ceremony of the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway.

    As the sun set over the ski jump stadium, I found my seat in the press section. Just like every other one of the 40,000 places, it was formed out of stone and covered by a hard dome of ice. For me - a novice at this spectacle - adrenaline and curiosity offset most of the outrageous agony of subzero weather for the next five hours.

    For someone who never felt the sting of Arctic air, this was a baptism by ice. Quite a contrast to my Summer Olympic christening two years before in balmy Barcelona.

    As I would discover in winter Olympics to follow, Lillehammer marked a special moment on the timeline of the Games. The 1994 Winter Olympics combined the elements that comprise this event in a manner that may be impossible to achieve again.

    Start with the weather. Ever since 1994, in one way or another, every host city has been bugged by warm weather. Three years ago they delivered again on a smaller scale with the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games. Lillehammer wasn’t as crowded as it was in ’94, but the deep-freeze was still the rule for thermometers. The Norwegians seem to have the help of the gods for reliable Winter Olympic weather.

    Then there was the atmosphere generated by the Olympic crowds. The now fabled Storgata was a river of parkas all day long. At night the restaurants and bars were packed. Pin traders set up tables along the pedestrian way. A town of just over 20,000, Lillehammer was a charmer compared to subsequent host cities with more than a million residents.
    The Storgata was filled last weekend. (Alexander Eriksson BR Finn)

    For Norway in winter sport, Lillehammer marked the start of a Winter Olympic juggernaut. Finishing with 26 medals in 1994 put them at second behind the U.S. But since then, Norway has remained near the top of the medals table. At the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, Norway was in first [place with 39 medals.

    Twenty-five years ago, the competition was fantastic. Speedskater Johann Koss thrilled the hometown crowds with three gold medals. The figure skating drama between Tonya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan dominated headlines.

    Lillehammer are the first Olympics I remember with a distinct tilt toward legacy. The main press center where I worked out of the cold was destined to become university space. Other venues, such as the Viking Ship venue for speedskating or Hakons Hall, the site for hockey, are still in use today. Cabins used for media housing in the woods outside town were sold and moved to new locations around the country.
    Born on the day of opening ceremony in 1994, Kristin Dahl Sørensen Dimitrova lit the flame for the anniversary. (Alexander Eriksson BR Finn)

    The legacy of Lillehammer was rekindled in the past week with the series of events marking the 25th anniversary. The Storgata was bustling again. The cauldron was re-lit by a young woman born on the day of opening ceremony, Feb. 12. She is named Kristin, after one of the 1994 mascots.The King and Queen of Norway were on hand in the freezing weather to cheer the flame, just as they did in 1994.

    Experts met to talk about the impact of the Olympics on Lillehammer. The city is still not much larger than it was 25 years ago. But it is a thriving and happy place, and the Olympics are credited with boosting image and infrastructure in both the town and the surrounding region.

    Despite the fond memories that Norwegians may have about hosting in 1994, public opinion is still not in favor of bringing the Games back. A recent poll says only about one third are in favor and just as many are undecided. Norway’s prime minister says more than half the country must be in favor before a project goes forward.

    With the size of the Winter Olympics nearly doubling in the 25 years since Lillehammer, opinions are divided about whether the small town can handle the event by itself. Conventional wisdom seems to dictate that capital city Oslo needs to be paired with Lillehammer, a combination that was raised four years ago. But opinion and government support fell apart when it came time to propose a formal bid to the IOC.

    The King and Queen of Norway with Norwegian NOC president Tom Tvedt. (Alexander Eriksson BR Finn)
    Olympic backers in Norway, such as retired IOC member and Lillehammer '94 CEO Gerhard Heiberg, have hopes that 2030 could be the opportunity for another Games in Norway. But with either Stockholm or Milan as the choice for the IOC in 2026, Norway may have to wait another turn or two in the continental rotation of the Winter Olympics -- like for 2034 or 2038.

    That kind of timing means it will be up to a new generation, many of them born after 1994, to decide on whether to bid for the Winter Games. Polling data shows that Norwegians under 30 are the largest single group in favor of hosting the Olympics. Perhaps that is a good sign for a future bid.

    And even though it may take a few years for the Olympics to return to Norway and Lillehammer, I am certain ice and snow will be abundant. But 1994 it will not be. All of us who were there 25 years ago can count ourselves as blessed. An Olympics like Lillehammer will never be again.

    Written by Ed Hula. For general comments or questions, click here.

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