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 Look back at the 1994 Winter Games.
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  For Norway's Koss: 3 Events, 3 World Records

By Johnette Howard
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, February 21, 1994; Page A1

 Johann Olav Koss (left), known as "the boss," won the 10,000 meters and his third gold medal — all in world-record times. (John McDonnell/The Post)
HAMAR, Norway, Feb. 20 — The other 10,000-meter racers spoke of the feeling that their legs were about to "explode" as they vainly chased him. But by the end, the incredible end, the only hint of his own exertion was the tiny bit of sweat that had seeped through the forehead of his hooded racing suit. Norwegian speed skating sensation Johann Olav Koss, known as "the boss," had come into today's race carrying some ever-so-faint doubts about whether he could pull out his third world-record performance in his third Olympic race.

But when his curtain-closing event was through, the buzz wasn't about the three gold medals now clanking on his chest. Experts who follow every stop on the speed skating circuit and count the sport among their national pastimes were asking, "Has Koss just authored the greatest speed skating race of all time?"

Koss's fellow Norwegians — not bothering to wait for the overnight returns — announced on the spot today that they will commission a bronze statue of Koss that will go inside the skating oval here, next to an existing one of Hjalmar Andersen, Norway's speed skating legend from the 1952 Oslo Games.

"I am very honored," Koss said, his eyebrows jerking up in surprise, "but for myself, I would like to wait 50 years for it. ... I don't know yet if I really know what it is I have done."

Historically speaking, Koss's performance here didn't eclipse American Eric Heiden's all-time best five-medal haul at the 1980 Games. (As Koss said today, he simply doesn't have the sprinter's speed to drop down and win the 500- or 1,000- meter events as Heiden did.)

But for the 25 laps that Koss circled Hamar's Olympic Hall track today, his times never climbed as high as 33 seconds and never went below 32. In speed skating parlance, that's known as a "flat" race. But another name for it would be a masterpiece.

To pull off such an effort, everything must work in harmonic convergence — everything from a skater's conditioning to his perfect technique to his mind-set to his skates to his ability to control his jangling nerves. As Holland's Bart Veldkamp watched Koss's race unfold today, he said he couldn't help but feel awestruck. The gold-medal reign he'd begun at the Albertville Olympics two years ago was about to end and he didn't care.

"When you see someone skate like [Koss did today] you say, 'Yeah, that's the way it's supposed to be,' " Veldkamp said.

"I think that is a time that will stand 30 years."

Koss's mark of 13 minutes 30.55 seconds obliterated his three-year-old world record of 13:43.54. By Lap 22 — with three to go — Koss had actually overtaken the other man in his heat, Frank Dittrich of Germany. And Dittrich was good enough to finish sixth.

To understand how fast Koss was going, listen to how surprising silver-medalist Kjell Storelid, also of Norway, put it in perspective: "For me to match that [time], I would have had to skate my 10K-lap times today as fast as I skated them in the 5,000."

Storelid finished 32.70 seconds behind Koss at 13:49.25, and made the capacity crowd of 12,000 nearly delirious when he passed Dutch star Rintje Ritsma with four laps to go. When Storelid's time vaulted him into second place, the Norwegian-dominated crowd — overjoyed at the unexpected 1-2 finish — began to sing "Seier'n er var! Seier'n er var!" (Victory is Ours!)

Veldkamp held on for the bronze in 13.56.73, and afterward uttered the best line of the day when asked how he was handling his failure to repeat as gold medalist.

"I am the best in the world," Veldkamp declared.


"If you don't count Norwegian skaters."

Even Koss broke up laughing at that.

Though he said he normally doesn't read newspapers the day of his races, Koss said he had seen a graphic in one of the Norwegian newspapers today that charted what split times a 10,000-meter racer would need to finish in 13:32 — more than a second slower than Koss actually went today. And, Koss insisted: "I just laughed. I could not imagine it was possible to skate that fast."

But once he hit his home ice here in Hamar, something happened. The confidence he gained from knowing how well he skated his first two races came rushing back. (In the 5,000, held last Sunday, Koss lopped nearly eight seconds off his previous world record. Walking around Lillehammer that day, you could actually hear the cheers go up around town when Koss crossed the finish line because everywhere you go — banks, stores, restaurants — there's a TV tuned to the Games. Skating three days later in the 1,500 — a race Ritsma, then his countryman Falko Zandstra, were favored to win — Koss again grabbed the gold and smashed Ritsma's world record by .31 seconds.)

There was also the burning incentive that he had to do better than his silver-medal finish in the 10,000 at the '92 Games. Back then, Koss had experienced pancreas trouble and spent time in the hospital three weeks before the Games. Though he still won a gold in the 5,000, the thought of not winning the 10,000 too — his world-record event — stung. Knowing the Games were coming next to Norway, Koss vowed to himself it would be different here.

"I was thinking of this for two, dating back even three years now," Koss said. "When you have the Olympics in your home country, it is very special. Though of course I felt the pressure for myself. ... The Olympics have been my main goal the whole time, in my inner mind. I have never felt such a motivation from the inside to just race, race as good as possible."

He was more than good. What he got today was a race for all time, and thousands of his countrymen singing "Victory is Ours!" because of him. In the span of a week Koss has become Norway's sensation of the Games, surpassing even beloved cross-country skier Bjorn Daehlie (who received friends and served them cherry brandy after his gold- and silver-medal wins). As good as Daehlie has been, Koss has gone unthreatened as well as unsurpassed. That's why even the arch rival Dutch speed skating team leader presented Koss with one of the golden mementos they were saving for any Dutch skater who won an event here.

Koss saw to it that it didn't happen. But, as Veldkamp hinted, how can you hold it against someone who skates so perfectly, so strong?

"I just had to glide," Koss said. "It felt very easy."

At the word easy, Veldkamp just shook his head. When Koss added that he's skated 30 seconds slower and felt worse than he did today, Veldkamp dropped his head to the table and comically pounded his fists.

Someone asked Veldcamp if he'll keep skating through the next world championships — as Koss might — and Veldkamp, with a weary look, said, "I don't even know where they are." Told immediately that they will be held right here in Hamar's Viking Ship, where the statue of Koss will someday sit, Veldkamp jokingly shot back, "Then I quit!"

© Copyright 1994 The Washington Post

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