How Lillehammer set the standard


Once upon a time, we didn't head into the Winter Olympics hearing about black widow suicide bombers.

Once upon a time, the Olympic Games didn't require 40,000-person security forces forming a Ring of Steel against terrorists, missile defense systems near the venues and navy ships from multiple countries deployed offshore. Once upon a time, Olympic construction costs did not reach $50 billion and the Winter Games were held not in a large city with a subtropical climate and palm trees but rather a northern town with icicles and snowdrifts.

Once upon a time, the Winter Olympics came to Lillehammer, Norway. Those 1994 Olympics first captured our attention with a riveting figure skating soap opera and then our hearts and imagination with a virtual storybook of human achievement that made us all feel faster, higher, stronger. For 17 glorious days, the Lillehammer Games layered tale upon tale so magical, inspiring and heartwarming, they were deserving of Disney animation and music.

"The whole experience, not just my experience, but the whole Winter Games themselves in that specific city, were as good as they can be," American speedskater Dan Jansen says. "Just because the people were so proud to host the Games. Winter sports are a way of life there, and it really showed in the way they put the Games on and the attitudes of the people.

"I don't want to say they were better than any other, but the way a lot of those stories unfolded, it was certainly hard to compare any Games after that, with all those stories in one Olympics. Every story [every Olympics] is important, but it all just seemed to come together."

The 1994 Games likely were the greatest Winter Olympics ever. And 20 years later, those Games still retain that feeling of an animated fairy tale. Call this one, "Frozen ... in Time."

Forecast: Bright sunshine with frequent magic

What made the Lillehammer Games so wonderful? Begin with the weather.

"The atmosphere there was just amazing," says Todd Lodwick, a six-time Olympian in Nordic combined who also will be the U.S. flag bearer in Friday's opening ceremonies in Sochi. "There was no snow, and then all of a sudden, three days before the Games, it just dumped -- 2 meters -- and then it stopped. And then it was pristine blue skies and cold every day."

Indeed, the snow stopped falling around the opening ceremonies and the skies remained clear until the end. And when it did snow again, Norwegian speedskater Johann Olav Koss recalls, "It was only snowing in flakes that looked like they were fake on TV."

Not that it wasn't cold. It often was very cold, so much so that one afternoon, the ink in my pen froze at the luge track. (Memo: Always bring pencils.)

Four-time Olympian Bonnie Blair says, "I heard there were more broken bones by non-athletes in Lillehammer than at any other Olympic Games because people were wiping out on the ice. It really was a Winter Olympics."

Fortunately, when anyone fell, there was someone to help him up because the Norwegian hosts were also incredibly friendly.

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