How Lillehammer set the standard
Once upon a time, we didn't head into the Winter Olympics hearing about black widow suicide bombers.
Once upon a time, the Olympic Games didn't require 40,000-person security forces forming a Ring of Steel against terrorists, missile defense systems near the venues and navy ships from multiple countries deployed offshore. Once upon a time, Olympic construction costs did not reach $50 billion and the Winter Games were held not in a large city with a subtropical climate and palm trees but rather a northern town with icicles and snowdrifts.
Once upon a time, the Winter Olympics came to Lillehammer, Norway. Those 1994 Olympics first captured our attention with a riveting figure skating soap opera and then our hearts and imagination with a virtual storybook of human achievement that made us all feel faster, higher, stronger. For 17 glorious days, the Lillehammer Games layered tale upon tale so magical, inspiring and heartwarming, they were deserving of Disney animation and music.
"The whole experience, not just my experience, but the whole Winter Games themselves in that specific city, were as good as they can be," American speedskater Dan Jansen says. "Just because the people were so proud to host the Games. Winter sports are a way of life there, and it really showed in the way they put the Games on and the attitudes of the people.
"I don't want to say they were better than any other, but the way a lot of those stories unfolded, it was certainly hard to compare any Games after that, with all those stories in one Olympics. Every story [every Olympics] is important, but it all just seemed to come together."
The 1994 Games likely were the greatest Winter Olympics ever. And 20 years later, those Games still retain that feeling of an animated fairy tale. Call this one, "Frozen ... in Time."
Forecast: Bright sunshine with frequent magic
What made the Lillehammer Games so wonderful? Begin with the weather.
"The atmosphere there was just amazing," says Todd Lodwick, a six-time Olympian in Nordic combined who also will be the U.S. flag bearer in Friday's opening ceremonies in Sochi. "There was no snow, and then all of a sudden, three days before the Games, it just dumped -- 2 meters -- and then it stopped. And then it was pristine blue skies and cold every day."
Indeed, the snow stopped falling around the opening ceremonies and the skies remained clear until the end. And when it did snow again, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss recalls, "It was only snowing in flakes that looked like they were fake on TV."
Not that it wasn't cold. It often was very cold, so much so that one afternoon, the ink in my pen froze at the luge track. (Memo: Always bring pencils.)
Four-time Olympian Bonnie Blair says, "I heard there were more broken bones by non-athletes in Lillehammer than at any other Olympic Games because people were wiping out on the ice. It really was a Winter Olympics."
Fortunately, when anyone fell, there was someone to help him up because the Norwegian hosts were also incredibly friendly.
When a Norwegian reporter asked Blair before the Olympics whether her family would be coming to Lillehammer, the skater said she wasn't sure because of the considerable expense. The reporter quoted her, and the next day he received offers from enough local residents to provide lodging for 60 of Blair's relatives and friends.
Back in those pre-Atlanta bomber, pre-9/11 days, security was less intrusive. When my girlfriend/now wife arrived in Lillehammer midway through the 1994 Olympics, she was able to walk into the media village without being asked for a credential. When she reached the housing desk, the receptionist simply gave her the key to my room.
The Norwegians were so welcoming that Jansen says they rushed up to his relatives to hug and congratulate them on his victory in the 1,000 meters -- without even knowing they were related to the skater.
But wait. I'm getting ahead of myself. There was another story in Lillehammer.
The ice charades
Despite the constant blue skies, figure skater Brian Boitano says he felt a gray cloud over the Games because of the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan soap opera.
"It was the weirdest Olympics I have ever been to," the three-time Olympian says. "It was just an odd thing, like there was a dark cloud over that whole Olympics. It was a real negative vibe there. And the athletes didn't understand. We were in the athletes' village, and we were over the Tonya and Nancy thing already. Nancy was feeling better and we were happy she was competing and it was looking good, and we were like, 'Why are people here from the National Enquirer?'"
Why not? Every other media outlet was covering the saga that began when Harding's ex-husband hired a man to break Kerrigan's knee at the U.S. Figure Skating Championships. By the time the Lillehammer Games began, the media frenzy was such that Nordic combined skier Ryan Heckman termed it the "People Magazine Olympics."
So many reporters stood outside waiting for Harding's arrival (did I mention it was cold?) that our newspaper's photographer went to a nearby house and rented a 12-foot stepladder so he could get a clear angle of the scene. When Harding and Kerrigan skated at a practice session, they prompted so many photos that silver medalist Elvis Stojko described the cameras snapping on auto-shoot as if it was machine gun fire.
"There was the tabloid aspect, but then there was also Oksana Baiul," Stojko says. "[Harding and Kerrigan] brought attention in a tabloid way, but there were enough stories -- real stories -- that once people paid attention, they realized there was a lot of great stuff here."
People were clearly swept up by the drama of the women's short program, drawing what was then the largest rating for any sporting event in American history. Only the final episode of "M*A*S*H," the last episode of "Roots" and the "Who Shot J.R." episode of "Dallas" had higher ratings.
When Harding's name was announced for her free skate routine two days later, she did not appear on the ice. The crowd waited while speculating, "What is Tonya up to this time?" Finally, she took the ice and began her skate. But then she stopped abruptly, skated up to the judges with tears running down her face, pointed to a broken lace on her skate and begged them to let her start over.
The judges relented -- she wasn't going to medal anyway -- and the competition continued. Harding skated poorly, but Kerrigan performed what appeared to be a golden routine and perfect ending to their soap opera.
Then Baiul provided an even better finale.
The Ukrainian skater was 16 years old, and virtually everyone close to her had died or abandoned her. She trained in such sparse conditions, she occasionally had to shovel snow from her rink.
She hadn't been attacked with a baton by a paid hit man, but she had been bloodied when a fellow skater collided with her during a practice session. Baiul recovered, and skated an extraordinary routine that elevated her over Kerrigan.
Baiul won the gold, Kerrigan took silver and Harding finished eighth. And the world media finally wrote about the skating story we should have been following the whole time.
Never ever, ever, ever give up ... never
Kerrigan might have gone home disappointed, but many Americans did not. Despite Sports Illustrated saying "all seven million Austrians and half the cows in Switzerland ski faster than the entire U.S. ski team," Tommy Moe won the downhill while Picabo Street took silver en route to a very successful career. Blair won two speedskating gold medals to become the most decorated U.S. Winter Olympian with six.
The most inspiring American story, however, was the one written over 10 years by the man who finally won his first medal after four Olympics.
Jansen competed at the 1984 Olympics, but he reached America's radar in the 1988 Calgary Games. His sister, Jane, was dying of leukemia, and he called her before one of his Calgary races, expressing his love, saying a final goodbye and dedicating his race to her.
He slipped and fell down in that race. He fell again in his next event. He didn't medal in 1992, either. He slipped and lost his first race in Lillehammer. Jansen had skated in eight Olympic races overall and didn't reach the podium in any of them.
Jansen was one of the world's greatest skaters, and he proved it every World Cup season. But Americans only cared about what he did at the Olympics and thus considered him a failure. What did that feel like? Did the Olympics turn into an ordeal?
"It's a good question, it's a fair question," Jansen says. "I wasn't bitter about it by any means, but that was pretty much the way it was. It almost still is. It's not a sport that Americans follow in non-Olympic years. I was aware of it. That's partly the way it was, but it was something I had accepted."
And then came the 1,000 in Lillehammer. This time, Jansen did not fall, he did not slip. He won, and set a world record.
With the arena lights dimmed, Jansen skated a celebratory lap as a spotlight followed him around the ice. He held a victory bouquet in one arm and his infant daughter, Jane, in the other. His daughter had an American flag stamped on her cheek, and at one point Jansen kissed it.
"It was one of the most special moments in my life," Jansen says of his victory. "I still relive it often, often speak about it. I think the fact that it's 20 years later shows it was more than just a speedskating race. There was more to it than that.
"The reactions I get from people when I speak is great. Not only were they proud, but they also learned a lot from my story, from my perseverance. It's pretty amazing that it still has that lasting effect 20 years later."
Safety concerns and worries over possible terrorist attacks are part of every Olympics now. But what happened after the 1984 Sarajevo Games was far worse than any horrors that worrisome visitors imagine for Sochi.
Ten years after hosting the Olympics, Yugoslavia was splintering and Sarajevo was under the longest siege in modern warfare. More than 10,000 people would be killed and 50,000 wounded when the Bosnian Serbs shelled the city during a nearly four-year siege. Just before the Lillehammer Games began, 68 residents were killed during a mortar attack on Sarajevo's public market. So many people had died in Sarajevo that the old Olympic skating arena was turned into a morgue, its wood seats used to make coffins.
"Now Sarajevo is the largest concentration camp in the world," the president of Bosnia and Herzegovina's Olympic Committee said at a news conference in Lillehammer.
When Blair paused to think about the siege during those weeks in Lillehammer, she wondered about the family who hosted her own family in Sarajevo. Was that family still there? Was that family even alive?
"It really was sad to know that they were using the 1984 ski jump as a missile launch," Blair says. "And that our rink was now a graveyard."
A moment of silence for Sarajevo was held during the Lillehammer Games. We all stood and waved thin, black flashlights that had been labeled "Remember Sarajevo." I still have mine.
The day after the Olympics opened, Bosnian bobsledder Nizar Zaciragic told me he enjoyed the opening ceremony, that it was terrific. "But yesterday, every single athlete was so empty. It was awful," he went on. "I felt so terrible. It was the worst feeling I have ever had. I felt, 'Should I be here? Is this right?' I thought of all the people suffering back home. They have nothing. No heat. No clothing. No food. I am here to help our battle against the fascists, but should I be here?
"I notice everything here, but I can't feel it. I was a young man before the war. I used to chase girls. I used to have fun. Now I just spend my time sitting in my room writing."
Zaciragic was part of Bosnia's four-man bobsled team that was made up of two Muslims, a Croat and a Serb. "In our small bobsled, we try to symbolize our country and show the world that we can and we must live together," Igor Boras told reporters that day.
They finished last, but the important thing is they were there.
A right to play
With apologies to Michael Phelps, Eric Heiden, Carl Lewis, Jesse Owens and even the 1980 U.S. hockey team, the greatest Olympic performance of all time -- the one that best symbolized every aspect of the Olympic ideals -- was by speedskater Johann Olav Koss in Lillehammer. He won three gold medals and set world records in each race. And that's not even what makes his performance so special.
Several months before the Games, Koss traveled to Eritrea with Olympic Aid, a charity providing help to war-torn countries. Eritrea had recently emerged from a 30-year war for independence from Ethiopia. The trip changed Koss' life.
"It gave me a purpose to skate for something," Koss says. "It gave me a much better perspective of using my own talent for the better. Because sometimes when you train, you're complaining about a lot of stuff and not feeling comfortable. Why are you doing this? But then I saw kids affected by war and how they would do anything to be in my position. I was more appreciative of the position I was in and the talent I was given and that I should do my best. Also, if I could inspire a child to be in sport, that would be incredible.
"I brought that experience to the Olympics, and it helped me become a better athlete and a better person."
After winning the 500-meter race, Koss decided that if he medaled in the 1,500 meters, he would donate his bonus money to charity, although he wasn't quite decided on which. Then, just before the 1,500, a journalist handed him an envelope. When Koss opened it, he found a letter from a 14-year-old speedskater trying to survive the siege of Sarajevo.
"Can you help me?" the skater wrote. "I'm sitting in a bunker. I can't train. I can't play. I can't be active. I would just love to have the opportunity to skate again."
"I had been thinking about what I can do for three days and then I get this letter," Koss says. "It was like, 'Wow.'"
Koss won the 1,500, then announced in the postrace news conference that he was donating his entire bonus from Norway and sponsors (roughly $30,000) to Olympic Aid. The person overseeing the news conference suggested, "Why don't you challenge the Norwegian people to each donate 10 kroner [about $1.40]?" Yes, Koss replied, that's a great idea.
"And then the journalists in front of me started giving money," Koss recalls. "And it was like, 'OK, something big is happening here.'"
Sportswriters donating money at a news conference? Yeah, Koss had started something, all right. The Norwegian people eventually donated $18 million to Olympic Aid, and that wasn't the end of it. Not nearly.
After winning gold in the 10,000, Koss returned to Eritrea with sporting equipment for the children who had so inspired him. He continued to work with international charities over the coming years as well, but eventually grew frustrated with the approaches of many.
"I found that sport and play are not really taken seriously in international development," he says. "They're not used in international communities, and I thought, 'How is that possible?' I grew up in the most peaceful country in the world, and the No. 1 building block of our society is sport and play. Our ability to understand and respect rules and democracy, and our ability to respect one another, to try again harder, to strive for excellence -- all of that comes from sport.
"Here we are spending billions and billions of dollars for international development, but we're not using this extremely cheap, self-motivating and incredibly mobilizing tool where the needs are the most."
Koss changed that in 2000 by forming Right to Play, the humanitarian charity that uses sports to teach and develop children in war-torn and impoverished areas across the globe. The charity estimates it reaches 1 million children a week through its programs. Among its many sport ambassadors are Alex Ovechkin, Allyson Felix, Ronnie Lott, Julie Foudy, Mark Cavendish, Joey Cheek and Blair.
And it started with Koss' initial donation in Lillehammer.
"For a lot of us, when we're doing a lot of this skating, you're more spending money than getting money," Blair says. "So for Johann to take what he could use to start his life and get going from his winnings, and instead say, 'I'm going to do this' -- look at where that's gone. He's really taken something from nothing and made a life for himself and in turn has touched many, many lives across the world."
Back to the future (sigh)
After four Olympics and a then-U.S. winter record six medals, Blair says her trip to the podium in Lillehammer for her fifth and final gold was a moment of pride and sadness.
"I knew I would never do that again. I knew I would never be able to take all this in. I knew I wouldn't go on to the next Olympic Games," she says. "I was thinking, 'Will I ever hear the national anthem being played the way it is now?' Probably not. To me, it was like, this is it. It was over, kind of done.
"It was hard."
Blair's Olympic career wasn't the only thing that ended. The quaintness of Lillehammer is disappearing from the Winter Olympics. The host cities are now large, sometimes very large. More troubling, the weather is often decidedly non-winter. There were worries about whether there would be enough snow in the mountains above Sochi, but that is now almost a routine concern for the Winter Olympics. Four years ago, snow had to be transported to the ski venues above Vancouver, while cherry trees bloomed down in the city.
Despite all the fears heading into Sochi, Koss says the Russians will do a great job and that these Olympics will be pleasant and memorable -- and he means memorable in a good way. But he, too, has concerns about what has become of the Winter Olympics since Lillehammer.
"The one thing you can't continue is the cost of it," Koss says. "The IOC has said for a decade that they're going to reduce the cost of hosting the Olympics, but then they still only select countries that will spend tremendous amounts of money on it. I think they have to get serious about that."
Koss says it was a warning to the IOC when Sweden and other countries announced they were pulling out of future Olympics bidding because they could not afford to host the Games anymore.
"So you will have a very limited amount of places to go in the end," he says. "It might not be in the best interest of the Olympic spirit. It might be in the best interests of the dictator or the people trying to promote a certain view of life, but not necessarily to benefit the Olympic Games and the spirit of the Olympics."
The Games are becoming far too costly and far too big. Holding the Olympics in the same few cities every four years would save considerable money and angst. Weather and security concerns also could be limited by choosing the right city.
There is no indication that will ever happen, but if it did, let me nominate Lillehammer as the ideal location. As Jansen says of the greatest Winter Olympics we've seen, "It was a pretty magical time. For everything."
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