Lillehammer’s games still a source of pride
Memories of Olympics past
I remember the Lillehammer chill; the streets cloaked in a coat of frosty snow. Local rucksacks sprouted Norwegian flags trumpeting national pride in an understated manner.
I went to see the ice dancing, pairs event. I know—not the Norwegian winter sport of choice. But I love the artistry, the elegance, and how two talents together can create something more than two alone.
I didn’t only come for the competition; I truly wanted to immerse myself in the Olympic fever, to see how this international phenomenon would be articulated in Norway. The first thing that struck me was how the Norwegian sense of social consciousness and responsibility was implemented into the experience, not just for the visitors but also for the inhabitants.
With an ear to those who felt the cost of holding the Olympics exorbitant and wasteful, there was attention paid as to how the new buildings, which needed to be constructed for specific Olympic uses, (a prerequisite for those holding the event), would be used after the event was over. Norway’s Olympic Village (accommodations for the contestants) was built in the style of local Gudbrandsdal farms and later repurposed as student housing for the Lillehammer University College.
Håkons Hall, built for hockey games, was constructed by digging into the ground, so it would not be so imposing. A Valhalla for sport lovers, it now has space for training, a health spa, a climbing wall, and golf simulators. It includes courts for handball, badminton, volleyball, and football. It has also held the Eurovision singing contest and conventions. And the striking Hamar Olympic Hall designed to replicate an upside down Viking ship, created for speed-skating tournaments, has since held the Speedway Grand Prix, concerts starring Beyoncé and Andrea Bocelli, and the Gathering—a computer party.
Cleverly, the organizers used the Olympics as an opportunity to expand Lillehammer’s existing art museum, choosing the architectural firm Snøhetta, a newbie of just six years old at the time. Today, the firm is world renowned for its design ability and attention to detail, from the intricate man-made beehives found on the roof of Oslo’s Food Market to the monumental World Trade Center Memorial Museum. Snøhetta clad the exterior of its addition in warm wooden curves, harking back to the main material used in the innate Nordic traditions of ship and structure construction. The work has been nicknamed the grand piano because of its curved shape. The purpose of expansion was multifold. First, one of the Olympic Committee’s requirements for host locations is to have venues for cultural activities related to the event. It would also soften the original museum’s brutal style and bring art to the town’s market square, which the museum abuts. Of course, the expansion remains to this day, and the art museum hosts a fine collection.
One of the most visionary decisions—and least sexy—made by the organizers touched every attendee at the games: all food containers were made from plant materials, and were thus biodegradable. So even the environmental costs were considered to ameliorate the impact on the surrounding communities.
The cultural climate and tone unique to this country was most enjoyable. One day, I escaped the cold to have a memorable meal in a wooden cabin with a blazing fire, constructed for the event. Rømmegrøt, aquavit, and smoked trout warmed me from head to toe.
The Sámi were well represented, displaying their tents, crafts, and brilliant clothing. They would answer questions, educating many about a culture that is rarely encountered outside this part of the world.
Norwegian traditions were also highlighted. The textile handicrafts were especially prevalent, and the tourists gobbled them up. I don’t believe so many Norwegian sweaters have ever been sold in one month’s time. But, more than that, younger Norwegians who had turned their backs on bunads and the like as being too old fashioned were now taking a second look. The Lillehammer Olympics created a renaissance—gjenfødelse—rebirth for Norwegian crafts and craftsmanship, as can only happen when an outsider sees, appreciates, and points out the values of your own culture.
While at the airport, one could not help but notice that all the TVs were tuned to the Olympic games, of course. I watched as the Norwegians won yet another gold. One of the airline staff shouted in delight but quickly became self-conscious of his pride. He quickly apologized to me. I responded, “No need. You should be proud.”
The feeling of joyful exuberance and pride could not be contained, not even when in conflict with the long-held social more of janteloven. Why should it? The little country of Norway came in second only to the huge country of Russia in the number of medals won—26 in all, with 10 gold, 11 silver, and five bronze. This small area near Lillehammer was able to seamlessly manage a substantial increase in population, share their culture with the world, respect the communities holding the event, and do it all with understated, authentic Norwegian flavor.
This article originally appeared in the Feb. 9, 2018, issue of The Norwegian American. To subscribe, visit SUBSCRIBE or call us at (206) 784-4617.