Winter sports any time of year: Lillehammer’s Olympics legacy lives on
Emily C. Skaftun
The Norwegian American
I haven’t been to Norway in the winter yet. It always seemed to me that summer was the time to visit northern countries, while the light is plentiful and the temperatures are, if not warm, at least temperate.
But this summer’s visit to Lillehammer gave me an inkling that I just might be doing it wrong. Norway is synonymous with winter sports and no place more so than Lillehammer, host of the 1994 Olympic Winter Games.
Much has been written about how unlike many host cities, Lillehammer managed to reuse the infrastructure and buildings made for the games.
The International Broadcasting Center became the campus for Lillehammer University College. The Main Press Center was converted to a business park. Only part of the athlete accommodation was built for permanent use, and those units were sold as regular housing after the Games. The rest was built as mobile units and sold to other parts of the country. Similarly, the media accommodation was built as a mix of permanent and temporary housing, with the latter being sold as cottages after the Games were completed.
The most obvious of the facilities built, of course, is Lysgårdsbakken, the ski jumps. They can be seen from most of the town, lit up at night. From the top you can see the whole town and beyond, over the northern end of Lake Mjøsa and into the hills on the other side. How you get there is your choice—the locals use the 954 steps running to the left of the jumps for their weekly exercise, jogging up from town and all the way to the top! But you can also ride the ski lift, which while not as strenuous affords yet another opportunity to admire the view.
The jumps are, of course, also used year-round by those practicing their jumps. Year round? I asked if special skis were needed for that, or if they wet the hills down to accommodate summer jumps. Little did I know that regular skis work just fine in any weather.
Even the bobsleigh and luge tracks are still in use as a tourist activity. Any weekend of the year, (and all week during the summer months) you can stop by Hunderfossen and take a high-speed trip down the track—on wheels in the summer and on the ice in winter. I had the chance to try out the summer version, and it is fast! For safety, you are given a helmet and then smashed into the four-passenger car as tight as you’ll fit. Hold on tight!
All in all, my summertime (such as it was) visit made me long to come back in the winter for a little skiing. The Lillehammer area is home to over 2,000 kilometers of prepared cross-country ski trails. In my mind this means you could basically ski right out of whatever home or hotel you were staying in and head in any direction. But I could be wrong.
If Nordic skiing isn’t your thing, the nearby Hafjell and Kvitfjell resorts were the hosts of the Alpine skiing events in 1994, and they are still immensely popular with locals, travelers, and world-class athletes alike. Kvitfjell is a regular stop on the World Cup circuit.
But perhaps the most inviting thing about a winter visit to Lillehammer is the thing that the Olympics had no part in creating—its cozy atmosphere. The town’s gågate is a perfectly charming walking street in the summer, but imagining it blanketed in snow and twinkling with Christmas lights takes it to a whole other level. Sheep skins thrown over benches in sidewalk cafés are lovely, but piled up inside those same cafés, with a roaring fire in a stone fireplace, steaming mugs of coffee or bowls of soup on hand—isn’t that what Norway is all about?
Even Maihaugen, Lillehammer’s open-air folk museum, warrants a return visit in winter. Aside from the fact that its Olympic Museum is about 90% a museum of winter sports—what a surprise, right?—late each November the site hosts a Julemarked (Christmas market) with songs and music, sleigh rides, Christmas cookies, crafts for sale, and Jul celebrated in period-appropriate ways throughout the historical buildings. It’s always the first weekend in advent, so plan your next winter trip to Lillehammer accordingly.
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 21, 2016, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.