Background image: The Norwegian town of Lillehammer, population 26,000, on Lake Mjøsa hosted the Winter Olympics just two years after Albertville, France. That moved the winter competions out of the same four-year cycle as the Summer Olympics to give them more visibility and lessen the stress on the International Olympic Committee to manage two Olympics in the same year.
1994 Lillehammer Winter Olympics
By my third Winter Olympics I had learned that host towns often fail to
live up to the winter wonderland image you get from TV coverage. There
are plenty of places where there is no snow. It rained on speedskating in
Albertville and was 65 degrees in downtown Calgary the last few days of
the Olympics there.
But Lillehammer was the place that Disney artists drew in "Frozen."
Even though the temperature was below zero nearly every night, I always
walked the half-mile back to the media housing village in the town of
Hamar, where I stayed because of my focus on figure skating, or waited
outside in the Main Press Center parking lot for my bus home when I
worked in Lillehammer.
It’s never been too cold to keep me from standing beneath the
shimmering luminescent curtains of green and blue that hung nightly in
the Norwegian sky – the aurora borealis (I later enjoyed watching the
northern lights in Canada when I covered hockey or the 1996 World
Figure Skating Championships in Edmonton, Alberta).
No debate: Of the six Olympics I worked, Lillehammer was the best
setting, had the friendliest local people and the widest range of stories I
wrote. Many of my colleagues at those Olympics who remain in the
game still agree.
It was also the place where being the figure skating expert in the
newsroom lost its sequin encrusted veneer.
I thank Tonya Harding, Nancy Kerrigan and a billy club for that.
DETROIT – In the second assault against a prominent female athlete in less than a year, Olympic bronze medalist Nancy Kerrigan was injured Thursday by a man who attacked her with a crowbar and then fled from a practice rink where she was preparing for the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. ...
The Olympics in February were going to be ordinary – at least by Olympic standards – and then this happened in January. I hadn’t been in the Joe Louis Arena press room very long that morning when a Detroit police officer and figure skating officials arrived to make the quick, informal announcement that Kerrigan had been clubbed in the knee at the adjacent practice rink in Cobo Hall. After a flurry of questions from the reporters there, we all got on our phones to make calls. Everyone, including me, was talking about the attack as a repeat of a fan attack on tennis player Monica Seles the previous year. I don’t remember which reporter uttered the words, but they were: “Sounds like something [skating rival] Tonya Harding would do.” Within days her bodyguard and her ex-husband would be linked to the attack. The greatest joke in figure skating history was becoming fact.
LILLEHAMMER, Norway – The clerk at the electrical supply store in Hamar, where the Olympic figure- and speed-skating competitions will be held, was explaining the value of Norwegian coins and pointed to the smallest, a 50-ore half-crown piece worth about seven cents.
“You can't buy much with a half-crown," she said. "Maybe a Swede."
Had Gerhard Heiberg overheard the remark, he would have winced. The fervent wish of the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee president is that the Winter Games, which open today, will brighten his fellow Norwegians' dour faces and replace their defensiveness with a new acceptance of the outside world. ...
Some months before going to Lillehammer, I got a phone call from a retired San Jose State University professor. Did I know who Gerhard Heiberg was? Sure, he was the head of the Lillehammer Olympic committee. “Well he was a student at State,” the professor said. “I thought you should know.” I immediately began asking him questions and continued to call as the Olympics approached while I researched Heiberg’s background. Pete Zidnak, who still corresponded with Heiberg, agreed to help me get an interview. As soon as I got to Lillehammer, Heiberg invited me into his office, which was modest but had a great view of frozen Lake Mjøsa on which the Olympic town was located. Just two days before a ski jumper leaped with the Olympic torch into the opening ceremony, we sat and talked as if he had nothing else on his schedule. I thanked him for the interview and for the Coke.
… In the thickly wooded hills above Lillehammer, scattered along the tangle of cross-country trails leading to the Birkebeineren Ski Stadium, they are waiting for him in tents, shrouded in sleeping bags and huddled around campfires.
Walking a trail under piercing bright stars and boughs of fir trees laden with the snow of the century, you can hear the muffled voices of Vegard Ulvang's fellow Norwegians in the distance. The murmur of Bokmaal, Norway's common spoken language, sounds like an amalgam of the yoordi-woordi-poordi sing-song of Swedish and Germanic percussion.
The mercury is retreating into its bulb; eventually it reached 18 below zero on this night before Monday's 30-kilometer freestyle race for men. …
Every Olympics calls for a story that introduces the reader to the people and culture of the place where the Games are held. For Lillehammer, I spent a sub-zero night in the woods with cross-country ski fans who were camped along the trails where the Olympic races would be held.
HAMAR, Norway – Tonya Harding arrived Wednesday at the Winter Olympics, and the Games no longer are the same.
After two suspicious telephone calls in recent days from the United States to the Olympic Amphitheater, site of the figure skating, and then the ridiculously hilarious media stakeout that greeted Harding, officials announced a quadrupling of security forces for today's practices. These sessions will be the first in which Harding and Nancy Kerrigan skate together. …
It was an American soap opera on worldwide television. All of us covering the Tonya-Nancy story knew it, and we knew how comic it was. But it was also a tale about just how coveted an Olympic medal is and just how hard figure skaters were willing to fight for it.
LILLEHAMMER, Norway – Her credibility was challenged from the opening question, and by the end of Tonya Harding's first Olympic news conference, the national figure skating association was disputing her on yet another point.
The Pentagon calls midnight press conferences. So does FEMA. But the U.S. Olympic Committee? Never has so much been communicated by so many people saying so little.
HAMAR, Norway – So now, along with Liston-Clay in Lewiston, Maine, and Ali-Foreman in Kinshasa, Zaire, Harding-Kerrigan puts Hamar, Norway, on the list of the world's out-of-the-way burgs to have hosted a heavyweight title bout.
But in Wednesday's battle, unlike the other two – and unlike in Detroit last month – self-inflicted blows decided the outcome.
Who would have thought that after a month of criminal investigations, lawsuits and confessions, an Olympic figure skating compeitition might be decided on the ice? This collection of stories doesn’t contain much “game coverage,” but this was no ordinary game.
HAMAR, Norway – They stood toe loop to toe loop and traded Lutz for Lutz. Then it was Salchow against Salchow.
The difference between Nancy Kerrigan and Oksana Baiul was minuscule, and what that difference was is debatable. The decision could have turned on technical difficulty, or perhaps it was a matter of taste.
It may have been politics.
Or it may have come down to an instinctive, impromptu decision by an incredibly composed 16-year-old Ukrainian to ad-lib a jump amid the most pressure-laden moment of these Winter Olympics.
After weeks of Tonya-Nancy news, a skater few Americans had ever heard of made off the gold medal. Kerrigan, who won the silver, went home disappointed. Within a month, Harding would plead guilty to conspiracy and get three years’ probation. Later the U.S. Figure Skating Association would strip her of the national championship she won in Detroit and ban her from competition for life. But on this night, women figure skaters in a rink that held fewer than 10,000 people in a tiny Norwegian town would be seen on nearly half of all American TV sets in use, a rating that has never been reached by any program since.