20 years since Lillehammer OL

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The relatively quiet town of Lillehammer, which hosted the Olympics (OL) in 1994,  celebrated the 20th anniversary of its glory days over the weekend, just as a new troop of Norwegian athletes were gearing up for the next OL that starts in Sochi, Russia later this week. Amidst all the criticism over the lavish spending and even corruption that can surround an OL, the citizens of Lillehammer still seem glad they hosted a Winter Games that was famously called “the best ever.”

Lillehammer was the site of the Winter Olympics 20 years ago this month, and residents recalled their glory days on the eve of the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com

Lillehammer was the site of the Winter Olympics 20 years ago this month, and residents recalled their glory days on the eve of the upcoming Olympics in Sochi. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com

One Lillehammer resident who literally grew up amidst all the pre-Olympic hype equated the entire OL experience to being a member of a sect.

“It was a clear, fine autumn day (in September 1988) when I remember our class being interrupted by the principal, who came running in and yelled ‘We got OL,'” Olav Brostrup Müller told newspaper Dagsavisen. “Everyone ran downtown. I view it like the day when peace came to Norway (in 1945). Everyone realized this was something really big.”

Müller, now an author and journalist who left Lillehammer but later returned, lives with his wife and two children in what used to be part of Lillehammer’s Olympic Village. Gold-medal-winning cross country skiers Vegard Ulvang and Gjørn Dæhlie lived there during the 1994 Olympics, he said, and now some other top OL contenders have been living there as well, including ski jumper Tom Hilde and biathlon star Tarjei Bø, even though Bø just moved.

Here's what the tower built in Lillehammer for the Olympic torch looks like today, with a costumed participant from the Opening Ceremonies standing by. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com/Esben Haakenstad

Here’s what the tower built in Lillehammer for the Olympic torch looks like today, with a costumed participant from the Opening Ceremonies standing by. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com/Esben Haakenstad

Müller was 10 when Lillehammer won the Olympics and 16 when they actually began. “February 12 (1994) lay before us like a magic date when everything would happen,” Müller recalls. “I have compared it to being part of a sect.”

There’s little research on how or whether Lillehammer has actually benefited from hosting the Olympics 20 years ago, and Müller isn’t sure his hometown has gotten better. “OL was an enormous possibility for Lillehammer, a possibility that the city got a lot out of,” he muses. “But when you move out to the provinces, you quickly see small Norwegian towns under pressure. Lillehammer is no exception. There isn’t optimism here like there was before OL.”

One lasting remnant from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is the bobsled run, which still attracts tourists. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com/Asmund Hanslien

One lasting remnant from the 1994 Winter Olympics in Lillehammer is the bobsled run, which still attracts tourists. PHOTO: Lillehammer.com/Asmund Hanslien

He and others recall that the Olympics was supposed to provide a huge lift for the entire region, with Lillehammer as “a locomotive” to get development going. “That hasn’t happened,” Müller said. “Nearly half the population of both Oppland and Hedmark counties are on welfare. Gudbrandsdalen (the valley where the downhill skiing events were held) has lost the most population in all of Norway. There’s no place where you find more bankruptcies and debt than in inland Norway. The lift that both Lillehammer and (Norway’s international gateway airport at) Gardermoen were supposed to give hasn’t come.”

That’s something that those trying to mount another Winter Olympics in Oslo in 2022 don’t mention, yet neither Müller nor many others think they’d have been better off without the Olympics. Audun Tron, who was mayor of Lillehammer during the Olympics, claims the town’s young people received unique possibilities, and the town ended up attracting more visitors and, not least, students. He thinks local residents also learned how to offer better service when faced with so many international and national guests. City officials could confirm that hardly anyone got sick during the three weeks when OL was underway, and not a single person died. “I don’t think that’s a coincidence,” Øivind Pedersen of Lillehammer Kommune told Dagsavisen. “It must have something to do with looking forward to something.”

Cecilie Holm Modegård, who was one of the mascots at the 1994 Winter Olympics, is now a doctor, has two children and still lives in Lillehammer. Her best memory was getting a hug from Olympic star Vladimir Smirnov, who won the men’s 50-kilometer race at the time.

Folks turned out on the streets of Lillehammer again during the weekend, many wearing old official OL clothing and costumes from February 1994. Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) reported that the mood was festive, and memories were shared. Norwegian athletes won lots of gold medals and now folks think they will again in Sochi.

Those Winter Games, expected cost more than NOK 300 billion compared to the NOK 8.5 billion spent on Lillehammer, are greatly exceeding their original budget of NOK 70 billion, but so did Lillehammer’s. The original budget for the 1994 Winter Olympics was NOK 1.7 billion, according to International Olympic Committee member Gerhard Heiberg, so the rate of the budget overrun itself is nearly the same. Oslo’s proposed Winter Olympics in 2022 have a budget of around NOK 30 billion, meaning they may cost NOK 150 billion if the overruns like those at Lillehammer and Sochi crop up again.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund