LILLEHAMMER, Norway — Let’s say you want a little peace and quiet at the XVII Tonya-Nancy Olympics, maybe a quaint little outdoorsy event, so you choose the Five-Kilometer Women’s Cross-Country Ski Race, Classical (not to be confused with the Five-Kilometer Women’s Cross-Country Ski Race, Jazz or Pop). This would only prove that you are a STUPID AMERICAN LIKE ME.
Seeking quiet at a Norwegian cross-country race is like going to the Indy 500 for a nap. Cross-country skiing is a national pastime here, along with eating salmon and wiping slush from your boots. Just as American fathers play catch with their sons, Norwegian fathers take their children to the woods, put them on skis and give them a push. Ten years later, the kids come back, preferably with a job.
This, by the way — send ’em out, hope they return — pretty much sums up the Five-Kilometer Ski Race, Classical. (In case you’re wondering, “classical” refers to the parallel style of skiing, “freestyle” means you use the skating style, and “American” means you hail a cab.)
Wait. Did I mention the traffic?
It was like the Long Island Expressway on a Friday afternoon. There were more buses converging on the ski venue they call Birkebeineren (translation:
“Let’s All Freeze to Death”) than on Bat Day at Tiger Stadium. We’re talking thousands and thousands of people! For a women’s cross-country ski race? An event that doesn’t have someone yelling, “Why me? Why now?”
Actually, that’s not true. I yelled those very words. “WHY ME? WHY NOW!” But it did no good. All around, cross-country fans were tailgating, cooking salmon burgers and throwing skis to one another in nice tight spirals. Our bus was in a traffic jam the size of Woodstock.
(By the way, if Woodstock had been held in Norway, Country Joe and the Fish would have done “I-Feel-Like- I’m-Fixin’-To-Defrost Rag,” with the lyrics, “Gimme an F! Gimme an R! Gimme an E-E-Z-I-N-G!”)
Speaking of songs . . . Welcome to Norwegian Bandstand
The Norwegians sing all kinds of songs before a cross- country ski race, some of which feature more than one chord. The songs have a happy beat, so the locals can dance and keep the blood circulating, lest their feet snap off like frozen pretzels. As near as I can tell, the Official Dance of Norway consists of leaping from one foot to the other, while waving your arms over your head. This is — and I don’t think it’s accidental — exactly what you’d do if a plane were flying overhead and you wanted desperately to be rescued.
Think about it.
Which brings to mind the actual event, the Five Kilometer — or 5K, as tax accountants like to call it — with the announcer introducing the athletes as if introducing John, Paul, George and Ringo. Not that it matters. Having been here a week, I realize now the entire Norwegian language is actually a single sentence, which they repeat over and over:
“Higa hooga heega, finshtuk? Stenzy!”
(Have you tried Mrs. Paul’s fish sticks? Tasty!)
Meanwhile, as the announcer wails, the countless Norwegian spectators, who paid good money for these tickets but would never think of asking for something as luxurious as a seat — sing and dance to a new Olympic tune. I had it translated. Here goes:
We sing a good old song
Then we jump up and down
We’re gonna use our rocking foot
to hang on a new dance.
Lennon and McCartney, they’re not.
But never fear, for soon it is time for the first racer. The crowd roars, a beep is sounded, and Skier No. 1 pulls herself across the snow and, after seven dramatic seconds, disappears into the woods! Then there’s another beep, and Skier No. 2 takes off, presumably to find Skier No. 1 before she is eaten by a moose. He’s smitten with her mittens
This goes on for 62 skiers, so the first ones are coming back before the last ones go out. What they do out in the woods in anybody’s guess, although according to local authorities — i.e., the one person I asked — they could be . . . getting married! That’s right! Norwegians so enjoy cross-country skiing that everybody does it, including couples on a date.
“It is a good way to get away from mother and father,” says Sissel, our Norwegian photo assistant. “It is very romantic. You are out in nature and you take oranges and sandwiches and you can smell your wet gloves. . . .”
You had me until the glove part, Sissel.
Meanwhile, back at the ski venue, Norwegian fans are downright giddy, getting to watch the first 100 yards AND the last 100 yards of a three-mile race — while standing in snow! Could life get any better? I don’t think so.
In fact, there was a waiting list of 200,000 for tickets to these Olympic cross-country races. This begs the question: 1) Why are we not sending medical aid to Norway? and 2) Couldn’t they have closed the list at, say, 150,000? What are the odds of 200,000 Norwegians calling in sick at the same time?
I would like to answer that, as I would like to tell you who won the race. But I figured with 62 skiers in the woods, it would take at least a week to determine whether any of them had clubbed another in the knee. As I left, the crowd was dancing to a song by Country Joe and the Salmon, and, I believe
— but don’t quote me on this — smelling each others’ gloves.