Lillehammer and the flame that never died

The Olympic flame was kept burning at Sjogg Park at downtown Lillehammer for the duration of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics. All photos by David Lozada
The Olympic flame was kept burning at Sjogg Park at downtown Lillehammer for the duration of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics. All photos by David Lozada

A cold -5 degreesC welcomed me as I stepped outside the train station. The sky was pale and patches of snow were visible across the face of the town. My American friend and I walked towards our hotel, Scandic Victoria, braving the chilly winds that welcomed us after our long-haul flights to the continent. From the across the road, we see a statue of a skiing Birkebeiner carrying a child while Olympic flags hung in different posts.

We were in Lillehammer, Norway’s proud Olympic city, host of the 1994 Winter Olympic Games – which Norwegians believe to be the best games ever held – and host to the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games.

There was a certain magic in the city when we arrived in early February. It’s not just because of the snow and the buildings that looked as if they jumped out of a fairytale book. It’s the fact that after 22 years, the Olympic flame is back at the city

The next 2 weeks, I thought to myself, was going to be one hell of an adventure. Coming from a tropical country, I had never experienced anything below 0 degreesC. I have experienced winters in Seoul and Tokyo but I had never seen snowfall, more so touch snow. (READ: Lillehammer 2016 and a young reporter’s dreams of winter)

The view from my hotel after a heavy snowfall.
The view from my hotel after a heavy snowfall.

I wanted to sing songs from Disney’s “Frozen” – my friend and I did, eventually – when I first stepped out of my hotel room balcony and when I was walking up the media center to get my media ID. I couldn’t feel most of my face due to the cold but I couldn’t care less because of the picturesque streets and houses I was passing through.

A legacy of winter sports

Lillehammer has set the bar high for creating an Olympic legacy. The venues created in 1994 were the same ones used for the 2016 games. In between, the city became known as a center for winter sports. This is where Norwegian athletes and tourists go to ski, skate, and bobsled.

Haakons Hall, the largest handball and ice hockey venue in Norway, was where we spent most of our time gathering stories. The hall, which opened in 1993, was where the Learn and Share area was located. Here, young athletes enjoyed cross-cultural exchanges and activities beyond their sports.

Håkons Hall was named after Haakon Haakonarson, a medieval king of Norway who as a child was transported across by mountains by skiers.
Håkons Hall was named after Haakon Haakonarson, a medieval king of Norway who as a child was transported across by mountains by skiers.

A few hundred meters from Haakons Hall was the Youth Olympic Village (YOV), which will be Lillehammer 2016’s legacy after the games. The buildings created will serve as student dormitories after the youth olympics.

It’s hard to miss the Lysgårdsbakkene Ski Jumping Arena from Haakons Hall and the YOV. Also built in 1993 in time for the games, the same venue hosted Ski Jumping and Nordic Combined this year. This arena stands as a silent spectator to the Olympic history of the city.

One of the earlier stories we did was about 1994 games volunteers who were also volunteering for the youth games. For an interview, my friend and I had to go up to the Birkebeineren Ski stadium, venue of Cross-country Skiing and Biathlon. The stadium stands around 1,600 feet above sea level so the oxygen level is really thin.

The Biathlon arena at the Birkebeineren Ski stadium.
The Biathlon arena at the Birkebeineren Ski stadium.

It is in this stadium where I experienced altitude sickness for the first time in my life. I felt dizzy on the bus ride down and I almost vomited when we reached the media center. Thankfully, I brought some ointments from the Philippines that helped me get through.

A day in Hamar

The streets of Lillehammer, though scenic in almost every turn, are wet and slippery during winter. We had to get crampons so we wouldn’t slip, especially because the city is on a hill and we had to trek up and down. Caution must be taken in every step because one slip could literally break your bones – as one young reporter learned the hard way.

Hamar Olympic Amphitheater was the venue for the figure skating events.
Hamar Olympic Amphitheater was the venue for the figure skating events.

It was a breathe of fresh air, then, that I was assigned to cover skating events in Hamar, which is between Lillehammer and Oslo, during my first week in Norway.

Hamar was drier and warmer compared to Lillehammer. The streets were not as covered with snow and the buildings were more modern. The town was the venue of the figure skating and speed skating events. It is no stranger to Olympic sports, too, since the venues used – Hamar Olympic Amphitheater and Hamar Olympic Hall Viking Ship – were also built for the 1994 games.

Figure skating was one of the few winter sports I was familiar with so I enjoyed shooting young athletes’ demonstrations. One notable figure skater, the one we did a story on, was the lone Malaysian young athlete Kai Xiang Chew, his country’s first winter youth Olympian. He was a really nice kid who’s hopeful that his experience in Lillehammer will boost interest in winter sports in Malaysia, given that the government didn’t recognize figure skating as a sport prior to his participation.

It snowed at dusk as we headed to the Hamar train station. We weren’t able to visit any restaurants or shops since we had to go back to Lillehammer that night to edit our videos. I slept through the 45-minute train ride, hoping I can visit Hamar again in the future.

The running man

Nothing says Olympic legacy better than a figure of a man carrying an Olympic torch etched in a mountain.

The running man, one of Norway's most iconic sites.
The running man, one of Norway’s most iconic sites.

I went to Hafjell, a town 25km from Lillehammer, twice during the last week of our coverage.

It was the Hafjell man on the left and the beautiful ski slopes on the right that greeted me. Gondolas ran up and down the hill bringing skiers on top of the slope. It was quite a hike for us given that the area where athletes landed and rested was halfway through the slope and no gondolas stopped in between.

But the view from up the slope was definitely worth the trek. It was breathtaking to see the town and the mountains surrounding it covered in white. More amazing were the athletes dashing down the slope in their skis.

I wanted to learn how to ski before I went to Norway. But as I found out, this sport is not as simple as it looks. Many young athletes were not able to finish their sports events – some didn’t even get to compete – because they got injured on the slope.

Athletes and spectators trek Hafjell's famous ski slopes.
Athletes and spectators trek Hafjell’s famous ski slopes.

This is why I didn’t even dare try skiing. I didn’t want to risk being handicapped for the 2 more weeks I had in Europe. This doesn’t mean though that I didn’t try sliding down one of Hafjell’s slopes.

Hafjell is known for its amazing ski resorts. Hence, there are several good cafes and restaurants that offer breakfast and lunch buffets down the ski slopes. This is, unfortunately, a rare find in Lillehammer as there are very few good restaurants in the city.

Winter for the next generation

Kids enjoy the slide at Sjogg Park.
Kids enjoy the slide at Sjogg Park.

Kids slid down slides made of ice as teenagers go inside an igloo disco in Sjogg Park, a few hundred meters from our hotel. Families and young couples stroll through the park, enjoying the beautiful view. It is here where the Olympic flame stayed lit since the opening ceremonies.

The parents we talked to said they wanted their children to be winter athletes. They had access to all the venues and equipment they needed, after all. The youth olympics, they added, boosted the dreams of many Norwegian kids who wanted to be Olympians when they grow up.

This is, perhaps, the biggest legacy that the 2nd Winter Youth Olympics will leave behind –  to inspire the next generation of winter athletes to continue pursuing their sports. 

Lillehammer's town center
Lillehammer town center

For the people of Lillehammer, after 22 years, they have reestablished their place in winter sports and Olympic history.

Living in this city for 2 weeks, I realized that the Olympic flame never really died since 1994. It kept burning in Norwegians’ hearts and, as my experience showed, the same flame will continue burning in the hearts of the volunteers, young athletes, and journalists who took part in the Winter Youth Olympics.

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