There was a daily ritual in Lillehammer during the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. At the small ski resort of Hafjell, just a few clicks north of the village, each day in late afternoon the chairlifts would fill with cross country skiers. At the same time, it was one of the more convenient ways for us to reach our cabin at Hafjelltoppen. So each day we would join the ranks of nordic enthusiasts, each carrying a small backpack with a sleeping blanket and chunks of firewood as they headed for the ridgeline and skied the 15 kilometers to the Olympic cross country ski trails where tens of thousands of Norwegians camped overnight along the trails to have a good vantage point for the races the next day. Such was the spirit of the Norwegian people and an Olympics that truly celebrated the culture of a nation.
I remember the day in 1987, working at the USSA office in Colorado Springs, when I heard the news that Lillehammer was named as the site of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games. I was dumbfounded, at first, that this tiny Norwegian village of around 20,000 people and just a few small hotels could stage an Olympics.
While working at Telemark Lodge in northern Wisconsin, we adopted Lillehammer as a sister city for our respective Birkebeiner cross country ski races. I knew the town and its leaders, and had been there many times. It was a wonderful small village, but an Olympic city?
There are infinite ways to measure success. But by every measure, Lillehammer played host to the greatest Winter Games of all time. It wasn’t just the organization. It was the ski heritage of the nation that warmed your heart.
It began with a brilliant Opening Ceremony with a torch delivered by ski jumper. It was the lines of spectators hiking across a frozen lake to the finish area in Kvitfjell. Or the estimated 100,000 spectators who lined the trails for the men’s relay, then filtered downhill to the jump stadium. These were hardy, knowledgeable fans with a sense of history.
Our U.S. Ski Team came into the Games with hopes and some level of modest success. But a preview story in Sports Illustrated trashed the team, calling them the “Uncle Sam’s lead footed snowplow brigade.” It took one day to prove writer E.M. Swift wrong – very wrong!
It was a brilliant, crisp, bluebird day as Tommy Moe knifed his way down the mountain at Kvitfjell to win the men’s downhill and earn a redemptive SI cover. Then it was Picabo Street with downhill silver, Moe with super G silver on his birthday and Diann Roffe starting number one in super G and taking the title. Add to that moguls silver from Liz McIntyre and it was a pretty successful Games for the USA.
The tiny town welcomed the world with temporary hotels and a well-publicized environmental awareness program during the Games. It utilized fast trains to Oslo to move tens of thousands of fans each day. From the upside down Viking ship speed skating venue in Hamar to the ski jumps and cross country trails of Lillehammer, to the slopes of Hafjell and Kvitfjell, it was a sensational Olympic Winter Games.
My memories are still vivid with our little cabin in Hafjelltoppen, where they had figured out that water temperature where you couldn’t say it was cold, but it was sure never hot. It was the crowds on the tiny Main Street of Lillehammer and shopkeepers who got to know you and welcome you personally to their town.
Yes, it was cold – bitter cold every single morning. But the people of Lillehammer warmed your heart.