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Original Issue

Once upon a Time...

The Lillehammer Games, says the disbelieving author, were simply too good to be true

The snow never melted, not one quarter of one inch. The snow never turned colors during 16 days of constant activity, the landscape remaining a uniform white. There was no new snow, not after the first day, when it spun out of the skies onto the heads of dancing trolls at the opening ceremonies of the XVII Winter Olympics. There was no rain or sleet or hail. The sun hung above the mountaintops virtually every day, and the air was so cold and pure it made your teeth hurt.

"Something is fishy here," I said. "Something is just not right."

The people were apple-cheeked and handsome, nuclear families bundled in Scandinavian wool sweaters, everyone carrying a fat knapsack with a Norwegian flag sticking out of the back. There were few rooms to rent in the small town of Lillehammer (pop. 23,000), and none of those few were available, but that didn't seem to matter. The people arrived anyway, by bus and train, no one seeming to mind the cold, everyone tromp-tromping through the snow to faraway events. Some of the people returned home at day's end, another three-or four-hour bus trip into the middle of the night. Some stayed overnight, camping in the woods. Everyone seemed to sing and laugh a lot.

"Where are the Americans?" I said. "I have been to the Olympics before, and I never have been to one where the dominant group on the street wasn't some star-spangled expense-account herd, everyone complaining about the prices or the weather. Where are these people this time? Fishy."

The language was indecipherable. A million people seemed to be named Bjorn, which was spelled B-j-nosmoking-r-n. What was the deal with these strange letters? What was the deal with extra letters? A word like cosmetics probably would be written as kk√òssmettikks in Norwegian. Everyone seemed to talk in this indecipherable language, but when they were asked a question in English, a curious change took place. The bathroom? Why, it's right around that corner. Everyone also seemed to know English. And they spoke it with a smile.

"How can this be?" I said. "Very fishy."

The Games, a longtime struggle between East and West, with medal counts as important as missile counts to the U.S. and to members of the dread Eastern bloc, were so much different this time. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany removed the aura of sport as international combat. Here, sport was sport. The competitors were people rather than representatives of a "way of life" or products of subsidized "athletic factories."

Each story seemed to be individual and sweet. Even the tabloid figure skating duel between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding wound up in a sweet way, with 16-year-old Oksana Baiul outskating both of them, overcoming a small lifetime of big troubles. Who could argue that she wasn't the best? Who could be mad that she came from Ukraine, an enemy when it was part of the Soviet Union? She sobbed for 16-year-old joy, and everyone sobbed with her. U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen won a gold medal in his last chance. Sweet. Norway's Johann Olav Koss won three speed skating medals and turned over his winnings from the Norwegian government to charity. Twenty-nine-year-old Vladimir Smirnov of Kazakhstan, skiing in an Olympic event for the last time after competing in three Games under three different flags, won the 50K cross-country race on the final day. Canada, the country that loves hockey as if it were a national religion, finally won...well, it could have won gold if it had survived the shoot-out.

The host country was engulfed by sweetness. When had any small country ever made such big noises? With its 26 medals topping the overall medal count, Norway became a North Sea athletic colossus. Every night seemed to feature another Norwegian standing on a victory stand as the backpackers sang their national anthem. What could be sweeter than that?

"The scenery is perfect, the people are perfect, the stories are perfect," I said. "How can this be? Very fishy. What gives?"

The answer, finally, came on a bus ride back to Lillehammer from the short-track speed skating event in Hamar on the next-to-last night of the Games. The trip was made in darkness for an hour, traveling the road along the far side of Lake Mj‚àö‚àèsa, but suddenly the ski jumps could be spotted at the Olympic Stadium. They were illuminated, two grand slashes of light on the dark countryside ahead. All of a sudden an explosion broke above them. And another. And another. Fireworks. Fireworks?

"Aha," I said. "That's it."

Not fishy at all. The buildings are constructed of gingerbread. The snow is really ice cream. The king of Norway is named Hansel and the queen is named Gretel, and the only way to reach this country is to fall through a wide rabbit hole or to be swept away by a cyclone. The capital is Oz, not Oslo.

You read it here first. The XVII Winter Olympics did not exist. Norway did not exist. These were the fairy-tale Games, drawn from the imagination, staged in the pages of a children's book. They could not exist. Reality cannot be this good.