Philip Barker

The visit to Morgedal this weekend is a significant staging post in the journey of Lillehammer’s Flame for the 2016 Winter Youth Olympic Games (YOG). It was here in the early 19th century that Sondre Norheim, considered the father of modern skiing, grew up in a tiny cottage at Overbo overlooking the valley.

He was an enthusiastic and gifted skier, a pioneer in ski jumping, and promoted skiing as a leisure activity. He was also an innovator in the design of skis themselves.

Much later, when Oslo staged the 1952 Winter Olympics, they lit the Flame in his honour at this cottage. It was taken to Oslo by a relay of skiers. The Flame for the 1960 Squaw Valley Olympics also began its journey at the same place when it proved impossible for it to be lit in Greece.

By the time Lillehammer first became Olympic hosts in 1994, it was customary for the Flame for the Winter Olympics to be lit in Ancient Olympia, but the legacy of Nordheim was not forgotten by the Norwegians who lit a separate one in Morgedal. This toured the country to great enthusiasm and continued to burn for the Paralympic Games. The 2016 Relay, which organisers are calling “The Olympic Torch Tour” began its Norwegian odyssey in Alta, city of the Northern Lights, and is set to visit all 19 counties in Norway before arriving in Lillehammer in less than a fortnight from now.

Twenty-two years on many still believe that the 1994 Winter Games were the finest ever staged. The organisers of the 2016 Winter Youth Olympics have plenty to live up to.

The 1994 Opening Ceremony is also considered by many to have been the best ever. It turned out to be a magical winter fantasy. There was traditional Sami music from Nils Aslak Valkeapää to welcome a pageant of sleighs drawn by reindeer. Odd Lund played music on a variety of instruments and welcomed freestyle skiers clutching traditional Norwegian fiddles.

Kon Tiki explorer Thor Heyerdahl and Liv Ullmann were joined by a group of children and called the "Olympic family".

Their task was to welcome visitors, including the King of Norway, and the competing teams which were announced in their own language.

Lillehammer's Winter Olympics in 1994 are considered by many to be the best ever staged
Lillehammer's Winter Olympics in 1994 are considered by many to be the best ever staged ©Getty Images

The Norwegian singer Sissel Kyrkjebø sang the Olympic anthem accompanied by a children’s choir dressed in the colours of the Olympic rings. Performed to new lyrics in Norwegian, her crystal clear voice made this possibly the finest rendition of this most moving music.

The Olympic oaths are normally spoken in the language of the host country but cross-country skiier Vegard Ulvang and speed skating judge Kari Karing both chose to speak in English. Their confidence in a second language was totally justified as the oath rang out loud and clear.

There was also an episode of Norse mythology explained to the crowd by Ullmann.

“Once upon a time in Norway’s endless forests in the high mountains there lived some peaceful small beings called Vetter," he said.

"They were invisible for humans though they always wished the best for them. They constantly watched the activities of mankind trying to remind them of the message of games and peace, community and friendly competition. If you are very quiet you may hear them and sometimes even see them.”

The Vetter performed a spectacular ballet which came to an end with the appearance of a giant globe which opened to release symbolic doves of peace.

Lillehammer 1994 President and chief executive Gerhard Heiberg told the Olympic world “what we have introduced as new is the environmental aspect. I hope you will see and feel our efforts in this connection."

The YOG Ceremonies for the summer Games in Singapore in 2010 and Nanjing 2014 were tremendous spectacles but if the first Youth Olympic Winter Games in Innsbruck is anything to go by then Lillehammer’s offering is likely to be much more modest in scale. The parade of the athletes will certainly be much shorter. The main body of competitors enter en-masse and only the flag bearers march into the stadium by nation.

Even so, a winter ceremony with a backdrop of snow is certain to be spectacular. At the Innsbruck YOG of 2012, there was the sight of Austrian skiing great Karl Schranz carrying the Olympic flag in a moment of redemption. Forty-years before Schranz had been expelled from the 1972 Games in Sapporo by International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Avery Brundage.

“I had invited him to be present in Torino at the 2006 Olympic Winter Games and we talked about what happened in Sapporo," said then-IOC President Jacques Rogge.

"You may say that the case is now closed."

Schranz, who was not allowed to compete in Sapporo as he was a professional, said: “I am not emotional but it gave me the feeling that the IOC had recognised me."

Austrian skier Karl Schranz enjoyed a moment of redemption at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck ©Getty Images
Austrian skier Karl Schranz enjoyed a moment of redemption at the Opening Ceremony of the 2012 Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck ©Getty Images

There is a clever variation in the entry of the Olympic flag at the YOG Ceremonies. The colour party which enters the stadium is comprised of great champions of the past. They then entrust the flag to a group comprising of Youth Olympic competitors in a symbolic handover before the flag is finally raised above the stadium to the strains of the Olympic anthem.

The Youth Olympics were also responsible for an innovation to the oath taking ceremonies. The 2009 IOC Session and Congress in Copenhagen highlighted the importance of an athlete’s entourage. A coach now takes part in the ritual alongside the officials and participants in the Youth Olympics.

Sometimes things do not always go to plan. Young Austrian skier Christina Ager tried to commit the words to memory and in the heat of the moment, let slip an expletive when she forgot at the vital moment. For her there was a happy postscript, she won a medal later in the week.

The flame appeared down the ski slopes out of the darkness borne by 1980 Olympic champion Leonhard Stock, an Alpine champion on a Nordic slope. His predecessor as Olympic downhill champion had electrified Innsbruck at the 1976 Olympics and the crowd roared again as Franz Klammer lit three cauldrons which now burned above the Bergisel Stadium to symbolise two Olympic Games and the YOG. The flame was then transferred to a smaller cauldron in Innsbruck town centre where it could more easily be seen by visitors to the Games.

Back in 1994 for Lillehammer, the arrival of the flame was every bit as spectacular. Ski jumper Stein Gruben launched himself down the slope with the Torch. His landing was perfect.

Waiting at the foot of the slope, Paralympic skier Catherine Nottingnes was waiting to receive it and passed it to Prince Haakon to light the cauldron. Twenty-two years to the very day his daughter Princess Ingrid Alexandra will take the flame from six time cross-country skiing champion Marit Bjørgen to light the cauldron and once again put a Royal seal on an Olympic occasion in Lillehammer.