Townsfolk Patient in Midst of Circus
By Angus Phillips
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 13, 1994; Page D11
LILLEHAMMER, Norway, Feb. 12 The tidy order of this frigid town collapsed briefly as the world turned up for the XVII Winter Olympiad today. Roads were shut, buses ran late or not at all, taxi drivers tore at their hair while pin-sellers and ticket-scalpers plied their trades on snowy street corners, stamping their feet to stay warm.
Norwegians, used to winter's steely grip, soldiered on.
Per Erland Wold dressed his two tiny daughters in snowsuits, painted perfect Norwegian flags on their cheeks and headed downtown, bucking the flow of 35,000 headed to the ski jump for Opening Ceremonies. His mission: buy the family groceries. Life goes on. Was he excited to see the spotlight on his nation of 4 million?
"Yes I think so," said Wold with characteristic Norwegian reserve. His concern? "After the Games, it will be a vacuum."
That should be nothing new for Lillehammer, a snowbound valley town of 23,000 where, even on the Storgata, the busy main drag where cars are banned and pedestrians slide over the snow on push-sleds called "sparks," the shops shut nightly at 5 by law.
That policy caught visitors by surprise. "I couldn't believe it," said David Wallechinsky, author of "The Complete Book of the Winter Olympics," who got the bum's rush out of a souvenir shop at sunset the day he arrived.
Wallechinsky thought Norway would be like the last Olympic site, Albertville, France, where streets throbbed with activity every night. "But here we were, three days before the Olympics and everything shut down at 5. They were throwing people out on the street. It's obvious, the Norwegians just don't want their traditions changed."
In fact, local laws have been amended slightly so shops may stay open till 10, but only during the Games. That policy began today, and still the Storgata emptied at dusk. When the feeble winter sun sets, it's a brave tourist who stays out to celebrate.
These in fact are the first Olympics in a decade to take place in true, bitter winter. The French Alps and the Canadian plains in Calgary were balmy compared with Lillehammer, where daytime temperatures hover in the teens and the sharp-pitched roofs of wooden dwellings are decked with four feet of snow.
Thirty miles north at Kvitfjell, where men's downhill races open Sunday, the snow lay so deep last week removal teams hauled four tons off the mountain just to restore the contours of the run. "It's nice to see snow in the mountains for a change," said U.S. downhill prospect Tommy Moe, who hails from Alaska. "We've been skiing on rocks and mud too long."
But winter has its dark side. At night, the winds off Lake Mjosa pick up here and even the natives head for shelter.
The chill dampens nightlife, as do staggering costs. In Norway, it's $3 for a small glassfull of soda, a five-mile cab ride is $20 and a hamburger at a sidewalk stand is $7. It could be worse. Some merchants wanted to jack up prices 20 percent for the Games, but the government outlawed it.
Norwegians mind their kroners and so do tourists, once they've absorbed the exchange rate.
Against that austere backdrop, ticket scalpers here were struggling. One named Cap ("just C-A-P," he said, "I can't give my real name") was fresh in from New York and wondering how he'd recoup his costs. His Opening Ceremonies tickets were going for a mere 500 kroners, or $70, and event tickets were even less.
Thousands of tickets remain available for the less desirable events, according to Olympic officials, though Norwegians have gobbled up all seats for their favorites cross-country skiing and biathlon.
Pin trader Tony Vincent, a Rhode Islander who roams the globe buying and selling, unzipped the silver hood he'd fastened over his face for warmth to complain:
"In Barcelona, people had pin fever. We weren't even allowed to sell on the street, but they found you and whatever you asked, they paid. I'd open up my cases and have 200 to 300 people around me.
"Here, it's wide open. I can set up on the street, but people have been buying and selling pins here for the last four years. They want to haggle, and they don't have the fever."
Hans Osterud, who grew up in Numedal, 30 miles outside town, had something to sell on the Storgata too, and looked ready to wait out the iciest blast. He was bundled in a coat of 23 wild Norwegian fox furs, while perched on his shoulder was the stuffed head of a moose.
The head was for sale, said Osterud, because "I have too many." He'd shot five moose at his hunting camp, as well as all 23 of the foxes for his coat.
"Who needs five moose heads?" asked Osterud, who was asking $800 for his trophy.
But the crowds on the Storgata were rushing by and, before long, Osterud himself was trundling his moose head downhill, headed for shelter. Night was falling on Norway and the wind was picking up.
Most of Lillehammer was headed home to join the rest of the world watching the Winter Olympics in comfort, on TV.
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