There was no mistaking the smell that emanated from a room of the cottage in Les Saisies. It was the aroma of fried potatoes, so dear to the Russian soul. At the stove was Lyubov Egorova, a cross-country skier for the Unified Team who would win three gold medals, more than any other woman at the Games. Egorova, 25, would win golds in the 15-km, the pursuit and the 4 x 5-km relay, and silvers in the 5-km and the 30-km races. "When you have eaten omelets and fish for breakfast every day for two weeks, you can't enjoy it anymore, "she told a visitor. "So we went to the store and bought food, and now we make what we like."
Then she sat on a bed for an interview.
You're pretty isolated, surrounded by snow and fir trees. Do you like it here?
I would love it if the Olympic spirit were more evident in Les Saisies. But I don't feel it. Probably it's because we can't follow the other events. We don't have a television in our room. Our coach [Alexander Grushin] has one in his apartment, but we couldn't afford another one.
Do you have any contact with athletes from other countries?
Not much. I don't know English or French. At school I was taught Dutch, but as a kid you don't care about foreign languages. It's a pity I was so silly when I was young. My husband, Igor [Sysoev], said to me, "If you can't say something, just smile. That will work." He loves my smile.
How does it feel to be the top female gold medal winner at the Olympics?
It feels great, but some time has to pass for me to realize what has happened.
Where did you prepare for the Games?
We spent 12 days in Austria, training at the same altitude as we have here. Before that we were in Norway.
Wouldn't it have been more convenient to train at home?
There is no longer any suitable place. Until recently we had two training sites, in Raubichi and in Otopi. But we can't use them. Our team is mostly Russian, but Raubichi is in Byelorussia and Otopi is in Estonia, which are now foreign countries.
They don't allow you to train there?
They want us to pay currency. The same thing happens everywhere. For example, Estonians had to pay entrance fees in U.S. dollars in St. Petersburg to compete in cross-country ski races.
Your team seems to be privileged, since it trains so much in the West. How come?
We are not privileged, but we are sponsored by Ringnes, the Norwegian beer company. Sponsors with currency—that's the only way for our sport to survive. The country has little money to spend on us. There are too many other problems.
How much does the country pay you for your medals here?
Three thousand dollars per gold medal, $2,000 for each silver and $1,000 for a bronze. It's a modest sum compared with what some other countries pay, but with the situation in Russia, I don't complain.
If you could ask Russian officials for anything for yourself, what would you ask for?
I would love to have my own apartment in St. Petersburg. I moved there five years ago from Tomsk, where my parents still live. Since that time the local officials have kept promising me a place to live. I got married three years ago and last year applied for a two-room apartment. I've been going from one official to another to solve this apartment problem, but to no avail. My friends thought it would be easier after my victory in the 30-km at last year's world championships. But the top St. Petersburg sports chief said we would talk seriously after I got Olympic gold.
What are the conditions you live in now?
We live with my in-laws in a three-room apartment. There isn't enough room for my sports equipment, so I have to store it at the apartments of other relatives.
When will you be in St. Petersburg again?
Not before April.
So you won't be seeing Igor until then?
Igor will meet me in Moscow after the Games. We'll have one day to ourselves.
You haven't had much time to experience life as a married woman.
That's true. I'm always traveling, and Igor is always working at a factory. We miss each other a lot.
Have you spoken to him since you've been in Albertville?
Yes. He didn't care about the medals I won as much as he did about seeing me as quickly as possible. I would love to leave early, but we have one ticket for the team.
Would you consider interrupting your career to have a baby?
I love babies, but I can't make any predictions, especially in this unpredictable time. Also, my coach thinks I should compete in the '94 Olympics. I feel I'm in good form, and the taste for victory is there. So let it come as it comes.
Egorova exulted after helping the Unified Team win the 4 x 5-km cross-country relay.
Natalya Bykanova writes about sports for Ogonyok, a Moscow weekly newsmagazine.