Norwegian sports fans were mourning the death on Wednesday of legendary speed skater Hjalmar “Hjallis” Andersen, who won three gold medals during the Winter Olympics in Oslo in 1952. Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg claimed his death closed a “proud chapter” in Norway’s post-war history.
Known by his nickname of “Hjallis,” he was a source of great pride in a nation recovering from the ravages and occupation of World War II. He came from humble beginnings, son of a boatswain from Hammerfest in Northern Norway who grew up in Trondheim and debuted as a speed skater at the age of 23, the winter after the war ended.
He quickly started winning, was part of the reserve team in the Winter Olympics of 1948 and make his breakthrough at the European Championships the year after, when he set a world record in the 10,000-meter race and won an overall silver medal. He then won the Norwegian, European and World Championships in both 1951 and 1952 and then took his three gold medals at home in Norway at the 1952 Olympics, where he also was flag-bearer.
“I remember I sat glued to the radio during the Olympics in 1952,” Nils Arne Eggen, veteran football coach from Trondheim, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “He was the most popular athlete in Norway. He was good on the ice, a phenomenally nice guy with both feet planted firmly on the ground, and a first-class story-teller.”
Sports stars were all but lining up on Wednesday to pay tribute to Hjallis, who later coached the Norwegian speed skating team at the Winter Olympics in Squaw Valley, California in 1960 and was said to have made an enormous contribution to sports in general. Jan Egil Storholt, another skater from Trondheim who won gold at the Olympics in Innsbruck in 1976, said Hjallis “will be enormously missed in the sports world. Getting to be 90 years old was a good accomplishment, but this is still very sad.”
Hjallis had just celebrated his 90th birthday two weeks ago, on March 12, where he was described as being healthy and full of his normal enthusiasm, but he suffered what was called a “dramatic” fall at his home in Tønsberg on Monday. He was taken to Ullevål University Hospital in Oslo, where he died early Wednesday.
Håvard Bøkko, Norway’s top speed skater at present, said Hjallis was “a great inspiration” and hailed him as one of the greatest skaters in the history of the sport. “I met him several times, at competitions all over, and he was always so committed to the sport,” Bøkko told NRK.
“I believe Hjalmar Andersen was the most popular athlete that Norway has fostered,” said NRK’s skating commentator Ove Eriksen. “He cleaned house at the Norwegian, European and World Championships.” Eriksen recalled how in 1951, at the European Championships at Bislett Stadium in Oslo, Hjallis fell in the 10,000-meter race with a damaged skate. “He got permission to skate again, and it took a long time (before he got a new skate) but no one left the stadium, King Haakon didn’t leave, everyone waited for Hjallis to skate the 10,000 meters again. He did it, and he won, and became European Champion. A person like that wins as much popularity as it’s possible to get.”
Per Jorsett, longtime skating commentator for NRK who’s now approaching 93 himself, said that even though Hjallis’ skating triumphs were all but unbeatable, it was his good humour and compassion that was perhaps most memorable. “He was a completely special person,” Jorsett told NRK. “He was totally unique.”
Hjallis and another legendary athlete Knut “Kupper’n” Johannesen shared a special prize at the annual national athletic gala in January, and there are three statues of Hjallis in Norway. Hjallis’ death also brought condolences from Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg.
“With the death of Hjalmar Andersen, we close a proud chapter in Norwegian post-war history,” Stoltenberg wrote in a press release. “Hjallis was a legend on the ice, and an inspiration for a whole generation of Norwegians. His memory will always live in the hearts of the people.”
Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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