On Top Of The World

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Norwegians say they are born with skis on their feet. No wonder the rest of the world has a hard time catching them. Without fuss and fanfare, the sparsely populated Scandinavian country has won more Winter Olympic medals — 240 before arriving at Salt Lake City — than any other competitor, and that includes the Alpine powerhouses of Austria and Switzerland, and the huge teams from the U.S. and Germany.

The statistics are remarkable. At Salt Lake City the U.S. (pop. 284 million) had its most successful Games ever, pulling in more than 30 medals. Europe's second-most populous country, Germany (pop. 83 million) topped the table with a record medal haul. Norway (pop. 4.5 million) quietly skied off with more than 20 medals, half of them gold.

While American fans were cheering the exploits of skating star Sarah Hughes and short track skater Apolo Anton Ohno and Germans acclaimed their lugers and speedskaters, Norway provided the Man of the 2002 Olympics: biathlete Ole Einar Bjorndalen. After taking gold in the three individual biathlon disciplines, 12.5-km pursuit, 10-km sprint and 20 km, he anchored the men's 4x7.5-km relay for Norway's first-ever gold in that event. Biathlon, a combination of cross-country skiing and target shooting, says biathlete Frode Andresen, "is the two disciplines that meet in hell, because it is at one extreme mental and at the other extreme physical." Only two other athletes, both speed skaters, have won four gold medals at one Winter Olympics. American Erik Heiden took five in 1980 and Russia's Lydia Skoblikova won four in 1964. After the relay Bjorndalen was quietly matter-of-fact about his achievement. "I made four good races," he said, "and won four golds. I don't think about history. We just do our job."

Until Bjorndalen's record-breaking feats, the Norwegian team's star performer in Salt Lake City had been alpine skier Kjetil Andre Aamodt. By taking two gold medals Aamodt wrote himself into the record books with seven Olympic medals, more than any other alpine skier. He was favored to win the combined — one downhill run and two slaloms — and then went on to snatch the super-G from Austrian favorite Stephan Eberharter by .10 sec. The two victories were not a bad result for the 30-year-old, who is often referred to as "the veteran" even though he is, as he points out, "two years younger than Stephan." He had started on his Olympic medal collection with a gold and a bronze in Albertville in 1992 and added two silvers and a bronze at home in Lillehammer in 1994, all the while accumulating a stack of 10 world championship medals. "Winning all those medals is not something you plan to do," he pragmatically reflects. "It just happens." Other skiers don't see it quite that way. "If you're talking about ski racing and medals, you'd have to say he's the best athlete in the world," says American slalom specialist Bode Miller. "There's only a few guys in the history of the sport who stay at the top for that long."

Nipping at Aamodt's heels in the longevity and records department is Norway's other great alpine skier, 31-year-old Lasse Kjus. He won his first Olympic medal at Lillehammer and has two overall World Cup championships as well as a total of 15 Olympic and world championship medals. Despite struggling for the past few years with chronic sinus and bronchial problems, Kjus came to Salt Lake City expecting to win medals. In the men's downhill he made silver and won bronze in the giant slalom.

Even at their advanced ages, Aamodt and Kjus show no signs of retiring. Aamodt says he intends to compete in Turin in 2006, and Kjus feels he still has the ability and the drive to continue. He worries, though, about the next generation of Norwegian alpine skiers, noting that only Bjarne Solbakken, 24, shows that "he has the qualities to be a big event racer." Ruefully he adds, "It may be that some new guys are coming, but until then we old guys have to stay in there and get some results."

Future results for Norway could possibly come in the more extreme skiing events, following World Cup freestyle skiing moguls champion Kari Traa's gold medal. The success of their athletes at Salt Lake City is likely to make sports- mad Norwegians even more enthusiastic. Televised biathlon regularly pulls audiences of around 25% of the population, rising to an estimated 34% for the men's Olympic relay competition. "There's such a strong national feeling," says Aamodt. "I'm thankful that I come from a nation that so strongly supports winter sports." And

Norwegians will continue cheering record-breaking achievements by their natural-born skiers.