When the southern Norwegian town of Lillehammer was chosen to host the 1994 Olympic Winter Games, some doubted the wisdom of the decision. On the one hand, Norway boasted a fine winter sports tradition. But on the other hand, it was also the smallest country in history to host a Winter Games. With a tiny population of just 23,000, questions were raised about whether such a small town, which prided itself on its “village atmosphere”, could sustain such a large-scale international event.
However, the sceptics were proven wrong in resounding fashion, to the point that Sports Illustrated magazine at the time called the Lillehammer Games “the fairy-tale Games… They could not exist. Reality cannot be this good.”
Today, from the Lillehammer 1994 logo that adorns the manhole covers in the streets, to the sight of the impressive Lysgårdsbakken ski jump that looms over the town, the reminders of those two weeks in 1994 when the sleepy Norwegian town was the centre of the sporting world remain in evidence.
For Audun Tron, who was Mayor of Lillehammer at the time, legacy was very much at the centre of the vision created for the Games, and he recognised that they could provide a long-term boost to the struggling economy of the region and to its social infrastructure.
“The Games coming to Lillehammer was a real positive,” says the former Mayor. “We realised it was not just a 16-day event, but something that could create a long-lasting legacy for the city and the region, especially as the economy in the region was not very good at that point.”
The birth of a “powerhouse”
Lillehammer 1994 turned out to be a real turning point for the development of winter sports in Norway. It put the small town of Lillehammer firmly on the global map and helped the country become a real “powerhouse” at the Olympic Winter Games.
With 26 medals – the highest number won at the Lillehammer Games – Norwegian athletes outcompeted their rivals. The Games triggered a period of dominance in winter sports that continues to this day. Twenty-four years on, at the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018, Norwegian athletes won 39 medals – a record for an NOC in the history of the Winter Games. Both these results represent a massive increase compared to just nine and five medals won by Norwegian athletes at the two editions of the Winter Games prior to 1994.
One Norwegian athlete came to embody the true Olympic spirit of solidarity. Having won three speed skating events at the 1994 Games, and setting a world record in every one of them, speed skater Johann Olav Koss donated the cash bonus from his first gold medal (approximately USD 30,000) to Olympic Aid for war-torn Sarajevo, and auctioned off his speed skates, raising another USD 85,000 for Sarajevo’s war victims. He then went on to found, in 2000, a global organisation that assists children in need with educational games, called “Right To Play”.
All 10 sporting venues that were purpose-built for the 1994 Games remain in use today, helping to establish Lillehammer as a major player on the international calendar, but also contributing to a vibrant grassroots winter sports culture. As a testament to the long-term vision of the 1994 organisers, almost a quarter of a century on, seven of those venues were used to stage events when the Olympic flame returned to Lillehammer for the staging of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.
The first “White Green Games”
Sustainability is now a core requirement for any Olympic Games, but it was Lillehammer 1994 that first successfully embraced this concept, setting down a template for future host cities.
The Lillehammer 1994 Games are widely seen as the first “White Green Games”, as they were the first to embrace robust environmental and sustainability practices, laying the foundations for the development of Olympic environmental standards.
Among the key sustainability benchmarks established by the organisers was the fact that more than 80 per cent of the transport to and from Lillehammer during Games time was by bus or train. Meanwhile, waste was reduced by having suppliers meet stringent environmental requirements;
Energy consumption was also a key consideration during the planning stage. The ice hockey venue, the Gjovik Cavern Hall, was constructed in a mountain hall to save energy costs by maintaining a stable year-round temperature.
All venues in the Lillehammer Olympiapark, as well as Alpine venues Hafjell and Kvitfjell, received a Norwegian standard Eco-Lighthouse certification, underlining their status at the forefront of sustainability;
Lillehammer 1994 took a pioneering approach to using locally sourced, biodegradable and recycled materials, massively reducing the environmental impact and carbon footprint of the Games. The Olympic medals were made primarily of natural, locally sourced granite, while the Olympic torches were made using recycled glass mixed with concrete. Some 70 per cent of the 20,000 information signs used at the Games were made from recycled paper. Meanwhile, all of the plates and eating utensils used were biodegradable.
Lasting social and economic impact
Beyond the lasting sporting infrastructure, which provided such a solid framework for the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games, the legacy created in 1994 can be seen throughout Lillehammer’s economic and social fabric.
One of the key achievements was the conversion of the main media centre into a new university campus. Prior to the Games, Lillehammer was home to around 600 students. Today the student population has grown tenfold. As Audun Tron notes, the benefits of this are manifold. “We have young people coming to live in the region, they spend money here, and many stay on after their studies, which is extremely positive for the local economy.”
Further testimony to Lillehammer’s vision is the fact that, in 2017, with support from the IOC, an Olympic Legacy Sports Centre was opened in Lillehammer, with the aim of creating an international winter sports centre capable of welcoming athletes from countries that lack the conditions and expertise that Norway boasts. Today the centre is supporting the development of winter sports in China ahead of the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022.
The passion that lives on
No visitor to Lillehammer today can help but be struck by the passion for winter sports among the locals and the fact that the venues created for the 1994 Winter Games are so well used; not least the cross-country and biathlon centre, which as well as establishing itself over the subsequent four decades as a leading international venue for elite events, prides itself on being able to provide grassroots usage throughout the year.
Both the memories of Lillehammer 1994 and the sporting infrastructure that it has bequeathed the town have helped to inspire a golden generation of Norwegian athletes.
This is something that is not lost on four-time Olympic champion skier Kjetil Andre Aamodt, who competed at Lillehammer 1994, where he won two silver medals in the downhill and combined events.“On the first day of the downhill, Axel Lund Svindal was one of the 60,000 people who came to watch, and I believe that is what the Olympics is all about - inspiring kids, youth or even older people to follow their dream,” said Aamodt.
Svindal went on to win four Olympic medals, including gold in the super G in Vancouver in 2010, and the downhill at PyeongChang 2018, becoming the oldest Alpine skiing gold medallist in Olympic history.