Norwegian marathon star Grete Waitz, who died of cancer last month at the age of 57, wanted and received a simple and private funeral. That didn’t stop hundreds of dignitaries, sports luminaries and her fans from honouring her memory on Wednesday, at a special ceremony at her hometown stadium in Oslo, Bislett.
Norway’s Crown Prince Haakon, Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg, Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang and sports legends like skiing star Bjørn Dæhlie were on hand for the late afternoon memorial at the place where Waitz’ running career was rooted. A statue of her stands outside the stadium, and has been adorned with flowers since her untimely death on April 19.
She didn’t want a large funeral and her wishes were respected, even though the government paid her its highest tribute by offering to fund it as a state funeral. Instead, various athletics organizations and her last major effort to get people to exercise even when sick with cancer, Aktiv mot kreft, were allowed to organize the memorial.
The ceremony also attracted several international sports stars, including Waitz’s former competitors Rosa Mota and Joan Benoit Samuelson. Mary Wittenberg from New York Road Runners was also on hand, and stressed that Grete Waitz is the only athlete who ever has had her photo and story on the front page of the New York Times.
Waitz, who won the New York Marathon nine times, was remembered for her generosity, her modesty and her outstanding athletic talent. She was Norway’s best-known athlete on an international basis and her husband Jack, who also was her coach, thinks she would have been overwhelmed by the tributes paid to her at Bislett on Wednesday.
“She knew exactly how she wanted her funeral to be, and only reluctantly went along with the idea of a memorial at Bislett,” Jack Waitz told news bureau NTB. “She thought maybe 40 or 50 people from our old sports club Vidar would come.”
Instead both the country’s prime minister and the city’s mayor spoke, and Crown Prince Haakon attended. King Harald, a big sports fan, would probably also have wanted to come, but he’s off traveling on two state visits, to Slovenia and Croatia, this week.
Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg called Waitz “humble and unselfish,” a sports star who used her own success to inspire others. Skiing star Bente Martinsen Skari, who also won gold medals for her strength and swiftness on the ski trails, spoke of the role Waitz played for encouraging women athletes. Several major Norwegian entertainers also sang and played music while video clips of Waitz running captured highlights of her career.
“Grete was very modest, but she was also aware of her role and knew she could accomplish a lot with it,” her husband said. He was honoured himself with a service medal and diploma from the Norwegian athletics association (Norges Idrettsforbund) at the end of the memorial.
“I think Grete would have been very glad that I received this recognition,” he told NTB. “She was a person who was much happier giving than receiving.”
For more photos from the memorial, go to Aktiv mot kreft’s website (external link, in Norwegian).