For the three-and-a-half-hour Lillehammer ’94: 16 Days of Glory, Bud Greenspan zeroes in on nine stories, although he does briefly cover a few other events. There are two themes that run through the film. The first is an attempt to deal with the fact that Sarajevo, the host of the 1984 Winter Olympics, was currently under siege by the Serbian secessionist army. The day of the Opening Ceremony, 12 February 1994, was the first day in more than two years that no one in Sarajevo was killed. At the Opening Ceremony, IOC President Juan Antonio Samaranch asks for a moment of silence for the people of Sarajevo. Figure skater Katarina Witt dedicates her free skate program, performed to the Pete Seeger anti-war song “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?” to the citizens of Sarajevo. Norwegian speed skating champion Johann Olav Koss donates part of his prize money to Olympic Aid (now called Right to Play), which sought to help children in Eritrea, Sarajevo and elsewhere.
The other recurring theme is the difficulties athletes face when dealing with the media. When Espen Bredesen, the Norwegian ski jump champion, while adjusting to the new V-style technique, placed last in the normal hill event at the Albertville Olympics and next-to-last on the large hill, Norwegian journalists mocked him by calling him “Espen the Eagle” after Eddie Edwards, known as Eddie the Eagle, who had finished way behind all other jumpers at the 1988 Winter Games. U.S. speed skater Dan Jansen first took part in the Olympics in 1984 when he was 18 years old. Hoping for a top ten finish, he was pleased with himself when he took fourth place in the 500 meters event. But when he returned to the United States, he was surprised to learn “what the press does with medals” and that what he had considered a success was not reported as such back home. Italian Alpine star Alberto Tomba complains that his fun-filled life ceased to be so much fun when the media covered every one of his misdeeds and added some that he hadn’t committed. And then there are the repeated shots of athletes being followed by cameramen (including Greenspan’s) recording their emotions in close-up.
Greenspan begins his in-depth coverage with the three ski jump events, concentrating on Bredesen and German Jens Weissflog, who had won the normal hill at the 1984 Olympics, but had experienced roller coaster results since then. In the large hill event, Bredesen takes the lead after the first jump, but Weissflog comes from behind with a big second jump to outpoint Bredesen for the gold medal. The team jump event is a battle between Japan and Germany. Before the final jumps, with Japan in the lead, Weissflog, the last German jumper, turns to Japan’s final jumper, Masahiko Harada, and congratulates him on Japan’s imminent victory. Harada then mistimes his jump and hands the victory to Germany. The next day, Weissflog finds himself turned into a villain in the media for his unsportsmanlike comment to Harada. After their disappointment, the Japanese shrug it off and Harada explains that he and his teammates decided to mock themselves by stumbling onto the platform at the Medal Ceremony, a charming moment that Greenspan shows us. In the final ski jump event, we see a possibly rattled Weissflog finish out of the medals, while Bredesen earns the gold medal, completing a last-to-first comeback.
Despite the massive media coverage of the case of thugs attacking Nancy Kerrigan on behalf of American rival Tonya Harding, Greenspan, while not ignoring the controversy, concentrates on the story of the eventual winner of the women’s figure skating event, Ukrainian 16-year-old Oksana Baiul. The best part of the coverage comes when coach Galina Zmievskaya tells why she initially didn’t want to coach Baiul after her coach of nine years moved to Canada. Zmievskaya says that she prefers to coach a skater from the beginning. “It’s like cooking borscht,” she explains, “without outside help.”
The segment on women’s cross-country skiing highlights the friendly rivalry between Lyubov Yegorova of Russia and Manuela Di Centa of Italy, who, between them, won all five gold medals at the Lillehammer Games. Di Centa praises Yegorova as “my friend forever, as gracious in defeat as she is in victory.” Three years after the film was made, Yegorova was banned for two years for a doping violation, but returned to compete in the 2002 Olympics.
Dan Jansen’s story was well-known in the United States because of his Olympic frustrations, particularly when he fell twice at the 1988 Calgary Games after learning of his sister’s death three hours before his first race. He was also famous in Norway, but more for his speed skating successes. Although he had entered the 1988 and 1992 Olympics as the favorite in both the 500 and 1,000, he came to Lillehammer (actually Hamar) without ever having won an Olympic medal. A favorite again in the 500, he slips and places eighth. In an interview filmed after the 1994 Olympics, Jansen explains that he never liked the 1,000. So his sports psychologist convinced him to paste messages around his home that read, “I love the 1000.” In Hamar, he wins the 1,000 and sets a world record. This emotional chain of events is seen through the eyes of Jansen’s wife, Robin, who, when her husband skates poorly in the 500, leaves the stands to avoid the cameras showing her crying. Alas, this highlighted marriage, like those of other U.S. Olympic champions featured in official films (Bruce Jenner and Edwin Moses), ended in divorce just a few years later.
The film also includes segments on the men’s cross-country relay, the four-man bobsleigh, Bonnie Blair, and Alberto’s Tomba’s surprising silver medal in the slalom after standing in only twelfth place after the first run.
One of the nicest profiles is of cross-country skier Vladimir Smirnov representing Kazakhstan. Smirnov was good friends with Norwegian stars Vegard Ulvang and Bjørn Dæhlie, and Norwegians considered him an adopted Norwegian. We watch footage of the finish of the pursuit race at the 1993 world championships, where Ulvang’s body crosses the finish line just ahead of Dæhlie. However, the victory was given to Dæhlie because his foot crossed the electronic beam ahead of Smirnov. In an interview, Smirnov explains that Norwegians flooded him with letters, and several Norwegian children sent him homemade gold medals. So when Smirnov, competing in the twelfth race of his Olympic career, wins the 50-kilometer race, the final event of the Lillehammer Olympics, the Norwegian fans hail his victory with pleasure.