Gold Free Games
There will be 302 scheduled events at the Beijing Olympic Games this summer, resulting in the awarding of over 900 total medals. In the U.S. our focus is naturally on the events in which we’ve got a chance at making a good showing. This will lead to some scattered viewing: Sports Illustrated predicts we’ll depart China with over 120 medals in our weighty USA bags, including 45 golds. Although it shouldn’t, it’s hard for the sheer volume of probable success not to obscure the difficulty of winning an individual medal.
SI’s medal projections for smaller countries such as Uruguay are decidedly less shiny. In Uruguay’s specific case it is completely without luster: 0 silver, 0 bronze, 0 gold. Try to imagine the same prospects for the US and it’s unlikely you’ll conceptualize the notion; Americans have never watched an Olympic games without at least a solid hopeful. We’re fortunate enough to wonder instead if Michael Phelps will leave China with his rightful share of the bounty.
For the smaller countries often their entire hope for victory lies in an upset. No improbable upsets, no medals. More specifically no improbable upsets directly involving their country, no medals. In the summer of 1995 I touched down in Oslo, the capital of a country with perennially scant summer Olympic prospects (2008 SI Norway medal projection: 0 gold). I arrived just in time to experience through a small country lens the faint stirrings of what would become the unlikeliest of Olympic triumphs at the 1996 Games in Atlanta.
Oslo is not your ordinary place for an American to visit, but my reason for the trip was straightforward enough: get my 11-year old nephew Noel on a plane from the US, return him safely to his home in Norway, and if I converted on parts one and two of the deal I could stay and enjoy a weeklong visit. I pulled it off.
On the same day as we were arriving in Oslo, the 1995 Track and Field World Championships were getting underway in Gothenburg, Sweden. I was aware of them, as Michael Johnson at that time was compelling almost every American into at least a dilettante’s glance towards track and field as he tore up the record books in the 200 and 400 meters. Johnson was the most celebrated American sprinter since Carl Lewis and it was expected that in Gothenburg he would handily take both races.
On the in-flight SAS magazine I got my first view of the championships through Scandinavian eyes as it mentioned the two best Norwegian hopefuls: Geir Moen in the 200 meters and Vebjorn Rodal in the 800. Moen was the more highly touted of the two, having recently won the European Championships and in doing so becoming the first Norwegian medalist in a sprint competition since Haakon Tran Berg turned the trick in 1946. Earlier in the year he’d won the World Indoor Championships at the 200 and was by most measures world class.
But the 200 meters were firmly in Michael Johnson’s domain, so I dismissed Moen’s prospects somewhere over the North Atlantic. The next best Norwegian medal contender was Rodal. Like Moen, he had the misfortune of running in an event that was dominated by one individual, in this case Wilson Kipketer. Kipketer immigrated to Denmark from his native Kenya and now represented the Danes in international competitions. Like Johnson in the 200, Kipketer appeared a lock in the 800 meters. But since I’d only read of Kipketer whereas I had seen Johnson’s speed, his triumph seemed less assured. Rodal had put up a 1:43.50 the summer before, and I knew enough of the 800 to know that Kipketer or not, that was world class territory.
Stepping off the plane in Oslo I left behind Johnson, Moen, Rodal and Kipketer. The timing of the championships in Sweden with my visit was a nice coincidence but track and field was hardly foremost in my mind upon arrival. I was interested instead in seeing fjords and the fetching Norwegian countryside.
In Oslo, my primary guide would be Jon, my nephew Noel’s stepfather. Our first few days were spent in and around the city, including a requisite visit to the National Gallery of Norway to see Edvard Munch’s ‘The Scream.’ It recently had been stolen from the museum, and there was an attempted ransoming back to the Norwegian government. The government showed equal doses of pluck and disregard for a priceless national treasure when they told the thieves that they could keep the painting, there would be no ransom forthcoming. It showed up shortly thereafter relatively unscathed.
Jon, an electronics buff without peer in the Northern Hemisphere—this will become relevant momentarily—then promised some touring of the countryside to the southeast of Oslo and even a brief visit into Sweden. Owing perhaps to a series of territorial wars in the 19th century, not all Norwegians and Swedes are fast friends, so I took it as uncommonly generous that Jon would take me to see Sweden when he had the opportunity to further showcase his own country. I need not have.
Jon had two goals in taking me to Sweden, one stated and one unstated. Stated goal: Get across the border so that I could get my passport stamped and add to my skimpy collection contained therein. Unstated goal: To electronics buffs, these were the heady early days of cell phones, and quite simply Jon wanted to see what would happen to his cell phone service when we crossed the border with his fancy new Nokia phone. This surprise goal he announced 100 yards into Sweden.
“Here Tom, look at my phone,” he said as we pulled away from the border guards. I opened it and looked at the screen: blank. I’m not sure what Jon expected exactly but presumably either service or some message welcoming us to Swedish phone space.
“Try it again, Tom,” Jon implored, somewhat panicked. Trying it again meant turning it on and off and making a small waving gesture in the air to perhaps pick up some wayward Scandinavian phone service signal that had missed us the first time. Blank. We attempted a half dozen variations of turning the phone on and off and waving or shaking it.
Norwegian phone service did not extend into Sweden which in Jon’s estimation rendered any further travel into the country superfluous. I was stunned and quickly tried to think of Swedish destinations that I could rattle off for us to visit. They included… Stockholm, Stockholm, Stockholm, and Stockholm. The city was summarily rejected out of hand by Jon; there was no reason to think they would get Norwegian phone service there, either. Finally Gothenburg popped into my head and I tried to play to Jon’s inner track and field fan. This met with mixed success: rather than waste further phoneless travel into Sweden, we could head northwest back into Norway and visit his parent’s small vacation cabin, or hytte, on the Swedish-Norwegian border to take in the championships on television. It was a fair compromise.
So we drove through pretty if unspectacular Scandinavian countryside to an area known as the Finnskogen. They met us warmly at the quaint cluster of tiny wooden cabins set on an upward sloping bluff that collectively comprised their hytte. The cabins overlooked a placid blue lake that drifted off westward through ever-narrowing mountains back towards Sweden. It was beautiful.
After recounting with much flourish and gesturing our phone failure, Jon asked his father Svetta about the championships in Gothenburg and sure enough Rodal was running in the semi-finals that afternoon. It was beer and salmon all around as we settled into the main cottage in front of the aged but functional television. The first semi-final featured Kipketer and Atle Douglas, the Norwegian who had surprisingly bested Rodal’s time in the qualifying heats and was in the semi-finals with the Dane. We watched and cheered but it was no contest: Douglas finished sixth, over a second behind the winner Kipketer, and was out of the championships. The first four finishers advanced to the finals and Jose Parilla and Mark Everett of the US were amongst them.
Six minutes later and it was Rodal’s heat. His field was not as strong without Kipketer but he was not an overpowering runner; an exit here was entirely possible. Vebjorn did not disappoint, winning his heat, besting Kipketer’s time, and for the first time perhaps rearing his head as an Olympic medal hopeful.
The next day was spent pleasantly milling about the hytte, meandering the surrounding hills, and having a swim in the lake. That evening Michael Johnson easily won his 400 meters race to advance to the finals. The 200 would come later in the week.
I awoke early on Tuesday, got in some fishing (I got skunked… Svetta attributed it to the Norwegian fish being far too clever for my garishly bright American fishing tackle) and then again whiled away a flawless sunny day and waited as the long twilight settled in and the competitions began. Before the starting gun, neighbors drifted in from nearby hyttes to watch the race. In a large city like Oslo an American was not altogether uncommon; here in the dense woods of the Finnskogen I was something of a minor celebrity. They were gracious hosts and I thanked them by dutifully keeping America’s relative place in the world fishing order (well below Norway) by getting blanked throughout the trip. By race time eight of us crowded around the television.
This time Rodal would be facing Kipketer and three Americans. You may hear the term grueling used to describe the 800 meters more often than you will a marathon. In the 800, you must run the first lap all out to stay with the leaders, and then you must do it again for a second lap with virtually no fall off. The race combines formidable speed with steadfast endurance like no other distance.
Rodal could not beat the unconquerable Kipketer but he did finish third to take the bronze. He also beat all three Americans. After a moment of mild disappointment, an air of celebration swept through the room. Svetta, perhaps seeking to take the sting off my poor fishing and my fellow American’s shoddy performance, sprung to his feet and shoved back the throw rug in the center of the room to reveal a trap door set in the wooden floor.
Into the basement he happily descended and within a moment he was back up with a platter of smoked salmon, offered it to me first as the guest perhaps in the greatest need of the curative power of fish. We passed the platter and the ale, recounted the race countless times with the significant barrier of Norwegian and English between us, and at the end of the evening hugs all around sealed our bonding over a courageous 800 meter race and salmon.
The next summer I was in the Outer Banks for the 1996 Olympics. I’d kept an eye on Rodal and his continued success, but also saw that Kipketer and several other runners slightly outclassed him in international events. Unfortunately for Wilson, his eligibility to race for Denmark in the Olympics was challenged by Kenya, and ultimately he was declared ineligible for the Games. The door had opened finally for Rodal and he would sprint through it like none other in Olympic history.
Just before the final turn of the 800 on July 31st, Rodal broke into his kick and then broke the Olympic record, his personal record and the Norwegian record simultaneously and won the first gold medal for the country in 40 years of summer games. His Olympic record still holds after 12 years, in plain view for all the countries that head to Beijing with little beyond slim prospects and hope. If we take a momentary glance away from the bright din of the accomplishments of our own athletes, we may just see something even more Olympian.