After four years of depressingly warm winter weather, which threatened to destroy the country’s once-booming sun lamp industry, Norwegians were ecstatic this year about the return of their white wonderland.
“Norway, being a nation of skiers, nothing makes us happier than snow at Holomenkollen time,” a satisfied King Harald V said at a dinner Friday night to open the final weekend of Oslo’s annual 11-day Holomenkollen Ski Festival.
But most Norwegians know never, ever to take nature for granted.
Even as King Harald spoke, a fog so thick that one could barely see the icicles hanging from his or her eyelashes, spread over Holomenkollen Hill, appearing as if it would be content to settle in for the next 48 hours alongside hundreds of hardy campers who arrived early to secure prime vantage points for the upcoming international competitions.
By late Saturday night, there was talk among organizers that the main event, the next afternoon’s 110-meter ski jumping contest, might be postponed, or even canceled for only the third time since World War II.
It is enough of a test of skill and nerves for even the world’s most accomplished jumpers to start at the top of a slope 361 feet above the ground, ski down a 42-degree incline at up to 55 m.p.h. and sail another 350 feet or so without also having to fly blind.
But did the chance of a fog-out discourage Norwegians Sunday from traveling to the top of Holomenkollen Hill?
Perhaps some. Although the ski jumping competition in another era routinely drew close to 100,000 spectators, attendance in recent years, probably because of intense television coverage that attracts more than a million viewers in a country of only four million people, has averaged about 70,000.
Because of the excitement over next February’s Winter Olympics 106 miles northeast of Oslo at Lillehammer, Norway, and the expectation of a Norwegian victory here for the first time in five years, organizers believed the crowd count this year might again approach six figures. That was before the fog swallowed Oslo.
Still, an estimated 65,000 people made a journey that a typical U.S. sports fan might consider foreboding. With the two-lane road to the top of the hill closed to traffic, the preferred mode of transportation is the tram. But upon arriving at the nearest station, passengers still have to walk uphill for one mile. Many families have made a tradition of walking the entire three miles from the center of the city.
They come in all ages and sizes, but the only shape is, in a word, good. They also have in common the Norwegian flags that stand from out of their backpacks. For a double-shot of patriotism, some paint the country’s red, white and blue colors on their on their faces.
Others prefer double shots of something warmer as it goes down. Coffee laced with a harsh spirit called aquavit , often homemade, is a favorite. Concession stands do not sell it, specializing in varme polser (hot dogs) and steaming cider.
Also plentiful is entertainment, which includes a band for every taste except maybe hip hop. The most popular is from Oslo University’s law school, whose musicians wear long black robes and powder wigs and play Dixieland jazz.
All this for ski jumping?
In Norway, sure.
In the so-called cradle of skiing, jumping competitions date to the 1860s, when bold, or perhaps bored, skiers leaped off the roofs of houses. Today, it is estimated that the country has between 800 and 1,000 jumping hills, even if some for children are not much taller than they are.
“In the United States, there are basketball hoops on garages,” said Michael Brady, a American ski coach and freelance writer who has lived in Norway for 30 years. “Here, there are jumping hills.”
The most important is the Holomenkollen, constructed atop Oslo’s highest peak. From the top of the platform, 1,368 feet above the Oslo fiord, one can see for 720 square miles. And on clear nights, when the spotlights are shining, one can see the Holomenkollen from almost any point in Oslo, hovering over the city like a perpetual quarter moon.
Rolf Nordberg, press director for the Ski Festival, called it Oslo’s equivalent of the Eiffel Tower or the Statue of Liberty, citing statistics revealing that it is Norway’s premier tourist attraction.
As a competition site, none other in the world is more synonymous with its sport than Holomenkollen is with ski jumping.
“It is one of the classics of all sport and the classic of international skiing,” said Marc Hodler of Switzerland, president of the International Ski Federation. “For competitors, a Holomenkollen medal means as much as a medal in the Olympics or the World Championships.”
In its first incarnation, as a 21.5-meter hill, Holomenkollen was constructed 101 years ago. The most prestigious competition that year combined jumping with cross country skiing and was won by Svein Sollid, a poor farmer from north of Oslo who sold his trophy for 30 kroner, a substantial sum at the time but worth $4.30 today.
The beloved King Olav V, Harald’s father, competed in the ski jumping competitions in 1922 and ’23 and attended 72 of them, invariably marking his own scorecard, before his death at age 88 in 1990. During the oil crisis of the mid-1970s, when automobile travel in Oslo was banned on weekends, King Olav joined other spectators on the tram.
Sunday’s Holomenkollen became another memorable one. Despite the worrisome weather, organizers decided it posed no extraordinary threat to the jumpers and gave them the green light.
The crowd heard more of the first round than it saw as the 64 competitors schussed down the porcelain, SnowChina track. But the fog burned off in time for the start of the second, and final, round, and, indeed, a Norwegian, Espen Bredesen, did win for the first time since 1988.
Even for those who did not partake of the aquavit , the trip down the hill was blissful.