Skip to main content
Original Issue

A soaring week for the nervy Norse

The host nation won the FIS Nordics with an old-fashioned toughness and a flawless style

The thing sits up there in the hills above Oslo, right in King Olav's front yard, a towering, lonely, icy structure. It is as much a monument to Norwegian national spirit as the Plaza de Toros in Madrid is Spain's. Norway's Holmenkollen Hill is the daddy of all ski jumps, and any Nordic skier worth his wax knows that one day he has to go up there and hurl himself off that monster before he can consider his career complete. The jump is used only once each year, with great, shivering ceremony. The rest of the time people stand around and look at it and swallow a lot. The man who wins the Holmenkollen, who jumps the farthest with the most élan, is the best jumper in the world, no matter where the so-called world championships might be held. But this year, a vintage year for Norway, the FIS World Nordic Ski Championships and the Holmenkollen were combined in one big event, and all last week brave men were winging off big daddy in a stunning display of one-downmanship.

Anyone who thought the Holmenkollen events were staged merely to pick world Nordic champions was not looking closely at the true situation. Norway is a dark, cold country, and Oslo in winter is the foggiest, loneliest city in the world. The snow never seems to stop falling and all day long men with shovels attack it. Every available truck in town carries loads of it from the streets to dump into the fjord. Each night a storm blows up and dumps it back on the city. Oslo in February has a tired, gray look, and the Norwegians need the Holmenkollen for reassurance. So once a year Norway invites the rest of the world to town to reestablish the stern fact that, swinging discothèques and moon shots notwithstanding, there is a lot to be said for the old-fashioned, rugged Norse way of life. The Holmenkollen is the Norwegian's bridge to national pride.

By last Sunday night, after athletes of 21 countries had had a crack at the hill and at the long, tortuous cross-country courses nearby, the Norwegians had once again reestablished their reputation as the highest-flying and hardest-skiing people in the world. They had won the world championships—and they had won the Holmenkollen.

Nordic skiing is just the opposite of double-chair lifts and meet-you-at-the-lodge-for-drinks skiing. It is a grim, bereft business of jumping and racing through the north woods as if the wolves were on your heels. Cross-country skiers wear lightweight, thin hickory boards strapped to their toes, and knickers and knee socks and pained looks. The postures of cross-country skiing are ungraceful, as different from wedeling down a hill as harness racing is from the Kentucky Derby. But the Norwegians invented the game, and they came by the thousands last week to the Holmenkollen meet to chant "Hiyuh, hiyuh," in unison, forming long, snakelike rows through which the skiers ran, moving like ghosts through thickly falling snow.

There is little wonder that Norwegians ski so well: they began jumping 200 years ago, and archeologists recently found a 4,000-year-old rock carving in northern Norway depicting primitive skiers, wearing what appear to be stretch sealskins.

In recent years, other European nations have been coming up in the sport. The Finns and the Swedes have always been Norway's most serious Nordic rivals, and now Russia has found that Nordic skiing is right up its alley. The Germans, both East and West, are also strong, and even in the U.S. the Nordic program is undergoing a startling boomlet.

The nation that unseats Norway from its Nordic throne, however, faces a formidable task. For one thing, it has to compete with the Norwegian spirit. Consider the case of King Olav, who, at 62, probably can whip any king in the house. In the early years of his reign, some Norwegians tended to look upon him as a sort of monarch-come-lately because he had been born in Great Britain and did not arrive in Norway until he was 2 years old. But in 1922 and 1923, when he was still crown prince, Olav entered the competition and went off the Holmenkollen himself. He jumped 113 feet, which did not win him any medals but served to establish a certain amount of royal fortitude.

And from those days onward, noted one oldtimer last week, Olav was adopted by the country and has been greatly loved. Such is life in rugged Norway. Would Lyndon Johnson drive in the Indianapolis 500?

As the events began last week, King Olav acted as chairman of the championships, marching daily to his royal box with his parka hood up against the gathering snow and an unfiltered cigarette in the middle of his mouth. At the cross-country events the royal box consisted of a few planks nailed together and covered with bunting. The inside was done in wall-to-wall snow. At one point it grew so cold that the uniformed honor guardsmen, unable to hold their frosty trumpets to their lips, pretended to play the national anthem while the music sounded over the loudspeakers via tape recorder.

The Norwegians got off to a slow start. Before the men's 30-kilometer cross-country race, 65 runners stood impatiently through the opening rites, then powered off over a course that took them across the hills, under and over rickety bridges and through backyard mazes to end up back at the foot of the big jumping hill. Finnish skiers were first and second, a West German was third, a Swede fourth. A Russian was fifth, and Italy had moved a man into the sixth position. The U.S.'s Mike Gallagher, a 24-year-old from Rutland, Vt., was 33rd.

"Pay dirt for us is about six years away," said Al Merrill, the U.S. coach. "Our Nordic fortunes are increasing slowly. But they are increasing."

At midweek, with 21 medals down and nine to go, Russia was in first place with two gold, two silver, one bronze medal and a scattering of fifth and sixth places, but the medals had all come from the women's cross-country events. Norway was in second place with three gold medals, one silver and one bronze.

Then, over the knoll from Holmenkollen, on a hill called Midtstuen, the jumpers started showing their stuff as the buildup began for the big event. A Norwegian, Bjorn Wirkola—putting together leaps of 260 feet and 255 feet—won the special jumping event and became the handicappers' favorite for Sunday's big show.

Wirkola, who moves inside a circle of beautiful blondes and shouting children bearing autograph books, has a special, glittering toughness about him. He comes off the edge of the jump outstretched, the tips of his skis almost against his nose, hands pressed against the sides of his legs, an arrogant posture for a man falling through space. On the morning of the special jump he drank three glasses of milk and ate two Norwegian cheese sandwiches, and anyone who has ever eaten a Norwegian cheese sandwich can appreciate Wirkola's courage. But before Norway's special version of the flying wing had a chance to show his real capabilities on the Holmenkollen itself, his nation had produced another candidate for consecration.

Twenty-four-year old Gjermund Eggen, who had won the 15-kilometer race and then anchored the winning four-by-10 relay with that event's fastest time, now took on the Nordic world at 50 kilometers. It is a savage, grinding event, Nordic racing's contribution to outdoor masochism. In 3 hours 3 minutes and 4.7 seconds he beat them all, leaving behind a trail of sturdy racers bent double with pain. Finland was second, third and fifth, Norway's Ole Ellefsaeter was fourth. No one has ever won three gold medals out of five cross-country events at the Holmenkollen. The fact that Eggen was a native son put the town on its ear.

"I have been training since July for this," Eggen said Saturday after it was all over. "If all my races so far this season were added together," he said, "the distance would add up to 3,500 kilometers." This, Norwegian statisticians figured, is the distance from Oslo to Gibraltar.

Then it was Wirkola's turn again.

To Northlanders, supposed to be stoic, unemotional people, the perfect jump is the frigid zone's equivalent of the perfect pass at a bullfight. They know its every nuance, and the sight of a bold man flying over the brow of a hill—45 feet above the ground—will bring a collective "Ahh," that would not take much translation to become an "Olé."

There is a language that goes with jumping, spoken only by purists and Nordic insiders. But it is sufficient to say a man is judged first on how far he jumps, and second on how beautifully he does it. Nothing else, purists aside, matters. In fact, from the top of the tower everything else quickly loses importance.

From 136 feet up, the Holmenkollen inrun drops straight down in a glazed, shining, 42° track. The view from the top is stunning: King Olav's winter home to one side, the Oslo valley to the other, and straight ahead, the upturned faces of thousands of bone-chilled critics.

"You feel, sometimes," murmured Wirkola, "like you are going to jump into the crowd."

"This," said American Jumper John Balfanz, "is the World Series, that's what it is, the World Series."

The runner starts down across 300 feet of ice with his knees doubled against his chest, hands out in front of him with the wrists limp. At the lip of the jump, if his timing is perfect, he uncoils. In just the proper position, his body becomes an airfoil against the wind.

The jumper who can float the longest, who does not panic at the dizzy height and speed and break his position, is the man who wins the Holmenkollen. At 60 miles an hour, following the curve of the hill, it is not easy.

"The first 15 meters or so, you float and it is wonderful," said Wirkola. "Then you start down, down, down. If one can hold the position as he is falling, one jumps far."

When the big day came, there were 90,000 people there, cold, red-nosed, hot-eyed, waiting at the foot of big daddy for Wirkola to show the world how to jump.

There was freezing rain, a fog that hung gray over the tower and, in the middle of the event, a surprise snowstorm. At one point, the announcer's voice came eerily out of the mist, saying, "From the top we can't see how many you are. But perhaps we can listen to you," and the answering roar could have been heard in Greenland.

Going into the day's show, Norway had moved into the lead in medals and points: four gold, two silver and one bronze, compared with Russia's three gold, two silver and one bronze. In third place was Finland with one gold, three silver and two bronze medals.

And in the space of Sunday afternoon, in the worst weather of the year, the heart of Scandinavia was there at the foot of that jump.

There were threats to Norway from all sides: Russia's Valeri Emeljanov came winging off the hill, daring and flat, and landed at 254 feet. Finland's Niilo Halonen reached 262 feet. Then another Russian jumped 264 feet, Norway's Christoffer Selbekk floated down at 262 feet, and the flying World Series was on.

Japan made a strong bid: Takashi Fujisawa jumped 262. West Germany's Wolfgang Happle came down at 268, East German Peter Lesser topped them all with 278. Then came Wirkola.

With the crowd yelling, "Hiyuh, Bjorn," Wirkola materialized out of the mist in a perfect, trancelike pose, his arms locked against his sides, floating on and on as though the fog were holding him off the ground. In the second that he landed, the show was over. Norway and the world had seen one of the best jumps it is likely ever to see: Wirkola had gone 277 feet, with perfect form. As he skated to a sliding stop, he looked around calmly, the only absolutely cool figure inside a circle of bedlam.

So perfect was Wirkola's jump that three of the judges awarded him 19.5 points for style (20 points is perfect and only two jumpers have gotten 20 points in 30 years), and the other two judges each gave him 19.

There were, in substance, two high spots of the day: Wirkola's first jump and Wirkola's second jump.

Within minutes after he had jumped, the snows came—so thickly that they blotted out the hill, the tower and the crowds. Officials suspended the meet, hoping for the storm to let up, and the announcer led the crowd in community singing, pleading with them not to go away. It was one of the season's more absurd gestures. That crowd could not have been driven away with fire hoses.

With a six-point edge over his nearest competitor, with the gold medal a virtual cinch and the snow hanging dangerously heavy, all Wirkola had to do, actually, was pull off a passable jump. But once again he came wafting down, holding an unbroken, beautiful, flying stance—257 feet, and 102.2 more points.

When it was all over Wirkola had won everything in sight, including a widening circle of blondes and enough free cheese sandwiches to last him until spring. Japan's Fujisawa was second, Sweden's Kjell Sjoberg was third. A Russian was sixth. American's John Balfanz had placed 16th.

Cold and drenched with heavy snow, the crowd began pouring off the big hill back to Oslo, and the announcer's voice came from somewhere out of the storm. "We will shoot fireworks down the bill," it said. Nobody stayed to watch them. They had already seen, on a historic Sunday afternoon in Norway, all the fireworks any country can stand in one cold winter.


CHIN TO SKI TIPS, arms al sides, Bjorn Wirkola jumped 277 feet to win Holmenkollen title.


GOLD MEDAL COLLECTOR Gjermund Eggen won three cross-country events, including the grueling 50-kilometer, more than brightening the long, grim winter for Norwegians everywhere.