THE ANSWER IS LILLEHAMMER
By David John Smith for Norway Communicates.
Can you name a town with a population of 26,000 that has hosted the "best Olympic Games ever"; has an international TV show; was home to a Nobel Literature Prize winner; stages the most difficult cross country race each year – and has a friendly atmosphere where it seems everyone knows everyone?
The answer of course is Lillehammer. Located just 120 miles north of the capital city of Oslo, and even closer to the Oslo international airport at Gardermoen it is the mountainside town just south of where two famous valleys (Gulbrandsdal and Gausdal) meet the northern reaches of the lake Mjøsa - one of the 20 deepest lakes in the world. It is a stunning place where nature provides the perfect backdrop all year round.
The "Best Olympic Games Ever"
Lillehammer is best known for its winter activities, and what better place to start than its hosting of the 1994 Winter Olympics - deservedly called "The Best Games Ever", by the late IOC President Juan Samaranch. For the millions of spectators or the hundreds of millions of television viewers; the sights, the sounds, and the memories of those Olympics were unique.
From the legendary figure skating grudge match between Nancy Kerrigan and Tonya Harding, to the double-overtime shootout hockey victory by the Swedish over the Canadians, to the nearly 30 medals that Norwegian brought home from heir "home turf" and the stunning sunny weather over 16 days, those Winter Olympics set a new standard for modern day events.
Steven van Zandt & "Lillyhammer"
We will come back to sports, but just for now let us take a look at a cultural phenomenon that is fast putting Lillehammer - or to better call it Lillyhammer - on the international entertainment map. The TV series “Lilyhammer” is simple, creative, and with everything that happens in the world these days – undeniably possible. The star of the show is Steven Van Zandt, also known as "Little Steven” to music fans and “Silvio” to Sopranos fans.
Van Zandt’s character is a hard core New Yorker, loathing anything that resembles the suburbs or worse yet, pure nature and the countryside. He is a big man in organized crime in the big city, and sure enough runs into big trouble with the law. Faced with the choice of going to jail for a long time or telling his story and “naming names” – Van Zandt’s character decides to “sing like a canary”.
Put into a “witness protection program” Van Zandt’s character is sent far away from New York City to the mountain town of Lillehammer where he soon discovers a life far removed from what he has grown accustomed. "Lillyhammer" is funny, thought provoking and gives an insight into not only the cultural differences that separates people and countries – but also about the similarities that bind us together. Currently being broadcast in both Norway and the USA, fans hope for expanded coverage and new television seasons for "Lillyhammer".
2016 Youth Olympics Games - and beyond
Lets come back to the Olympics. The city will be hosting the Youth Olympic Games in 2016, bringing the best young winter athletes in the world together. These are Olympics that are built around the world of youth, incorporating the state of the art communication technology and social media, cultural events that reflect the tastes of youth today – and at the same time remaining true to the Olympic spirit.
Then, a little further down the road, there are plans to seek future Winter Olympics to the region. The International Olympic Committee emphasizes the importance of the reuse of competition venues, and the venues in the Lillehammer region are in excellent condition as great care has been taken to maintain all sports venues according to the highest international requirements. In addition, the Olympic Region is now even closer to the “Big World” than in 1994 as the Oslo International Airport at Gardermoen is just down the road - less than an hour to the ice venues of Hamar and just a bit longer to Lillehammer.
Saving the Baby Prince
Finally, in rounding out the winter side of the Lillehammer story, let us look at what is closest to the hearts of many here in the region – arguably the world’s toughest cross country ski race – the “Birkerbeiner”. The is more than simply a race, it is a legend:
It was the year 1204, a time of a brutal and bloody Civil War, and Chieftain Haakon had just died. He was the leader of the "Birkebeiners", referring to the birch bark they wore to protect their feet and legs as they struggled through hardships to gain a strong foothold in many parts of the country. A son was born to Haakon just a few weeks after the Chieftan’s death, and his life was immediately in danger as rival factions wanted to capture and kill the baby princes.
Through the Mountains
The "Birkebeiners" protecting the young prince needed to get to the safety of Trondheim, but the enemies were coming closer. As Christmas Day arrived, the prince and his protectors arrived in Lillehammer, and were desperate to find a route to safety. The valleys were unsafe, and the only route was one that took them over two mountain ranges and through nearly impassable conditions to the safety of the “East Valley” (Østerdalen), where they would have a direct route to Trondheim.
The two best skiers were chosen, with the small prince in a backpack fashioned to protect him, they set out over the nearly 60 kilometers of wretched winter conditions.To make the story short, the trip was successful, the prince saved, a prince that later became King Haakon and who lead the Birkerbeiners to over a century of power in the country.
Over the years, the legend of the Birkerbeiners grew, and for the past 80 years the Birkerbeiner Ski Race has been held over the same route - a historical and traditional race of great importance to the region. Contestants not only have to transverse two mountain ranges in the throes of often brutal winter weather, they also have to carry a backpack with 8 pounds of weight in a backpack, this to symbolize the carry of the small prince to safety nearly a thousand years ago.
The summer days in Lillehammer are long - in midsummer it actually stays light all night long. Visitors wander the town, exploring and taking in sights that include Maihaugen, the country's largest open-air museum with nearly 200 building featuring historic and traditional architecture. It is here that you also visit Nobel Literature Prize winner Sigrid Undset’s home, where she lived from 1919 until her death in the 1949.
Visitors enjoy taking a day cruise on the world's oldest paddle steamship Skibladner, launched over a century and a half ago. And of course the town provides and enviable "base camp" for mountain hikes, bike tours and "road trips". Other activities include downhill bicycling at the Hafjell Bike Park - where speed and agility meet as you navigate over 800 meters in altitude drop from the top of the mountain to the base.
Of course, the Olympic venues are always pleasant to visit, including the national Olympic Museum located just up the hill from the city center at Haakons Hall, and the ski lift at the Lygårdsbakkene Ski Jumps - the site of the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the 1994 Olympics. For more information regarding the Olympic Region, see the Lillehammer Olympic Park website or Norway Communicates.
For more information about all the wealth of activities to be experienced in Lillehammer and the region, see the official Lillehammer website.