Speed skater Jan Egil Storholt’s gold-winning performance in Innsbruck in 1976 is a classic tale of triumph over adversity.
After a promising start to his career on the ice, the Norwegian suffered a near-fatal mining accident at the turn of the 1970s and was told by doctors his days of competing at the highest level were over. But Storholt had other ideas.
Born in Trondheim in 1949, he showed early promise as a skater and joined the Falken club, which sported two Olympic champion alumni in Sverre Farstad, who won gold in the 1,500m in St Moritz in 1948, and Hjalmar Andersen, a triple-gold medallist at the 1952 Oslo Games.
Storholt’s prowess took him to the Norwegian Junior Championship in 1969 – then came the accident. But, astonishingly, by 1972 he had clawed his way back to the top of his sport. And after a series of his compatriots turned professional in 1973 – thereby barring them from Olympic competition – Storholt was, quite suddenly, the best amateur speed skater in the country.
But he would still have to wait three years for major success – and 1976 was to be his greatest year. After taking bronze at the European All-round Championships that year, Storholt arrived in Innsbruck for the 1976 Winter Olympics with his eye on a gold medal, entering all four competitions.
His quest for glory was fruitless until the 1,500m. As the lanky electrician lined up to race Yuri Kondakov of the Soviet Union in the fourth pair, Dutchman Hans van Helden was in the lead.
As the rivals set off, 72kph gusting winds swept the 400m oval at The Olympia Eisschnelllaufbahn in Innsbruck.
The race was thrilling and they were neck-and-neck all the way – but Storholt nicked it to earn Norway its second gold medal of the Games, on his 27th birthday. His time of 1:59.38 smashed the Olympic record set in Sapporo four years previously by the great Ard Schenk of Holland.
Storholt told journalists immediately afterwards that he had circled the day of the Olympic 1,500m race on his calendar a year before. With a grin, he said: “I didn’t know if Friday 13th would be lucky for me or not.”
A year later Storholt became European all-round champion and was narrowly defeated by Eric Heiden in the World All-round competition. He won silver behind Heiden in three consecutive World Championships, and won a European All-round gold for the second time in 1979. Storholt ended his speed skating career in 1981, after having won bronze in the World Championships.
His prowess on the ice earned him a place in the history books with Amund Sjøbrend, Sten Stensen, and Kay Stenshjemmet as one of Norway’s “Four S-es” (four aces), who dominated speed skating during the country’s golden age in the sport in the 1970s.