VANG, Norway — It seems an unlikely event to be emblazoned in a nation’s collective memory. But if you’re from Norway, and you’re over 50, you almost certainly have a vivid recollection of this:
A man named Oddvar Bra is skiing the final segment of the men’s 4×10-kilometer cross-country relay at the 1982 world championships in Oslo. Surging up a hill, he passes and sideswipes the only person ahead of him, Alexander Savyalov of the Soviet Union.
Immediately, Bra realizes that the impact has had a terrible consequence. His right pole has snapped in two.
“Let him get a pole, man!” shouts the sportscaster for what is then Norway’s only national TV station.
As if on cue, someone in the crowd bolts into view and hands off a pole. His equilibrium restored, Bra battles Savyalov in a sprint to the finish line.
Let’s recap. A guy breaks a ski pole and keeps racing. Not exactly the moon landing, is it? And to be clear, this isn’t a come-from-behind story. Bra was actually leading after he broke his pole, because contact had knocked Savyalov to his knees.
Also, Bra didn’t win, at least not outright. After staring at an image of the finish for about an hour, the judges decided that he and Savyalov had tied for first.
In Norway, these apparently are trifling details. “Hvor var du da Oddvar Brå brakk staven?” (“Where were you when Oddvar Bra broke his pole?”) has become the country’s most beloved and recurring question. Knowing your location, and what you were shouting, at roughly 1:54 p.m. on Feb. 25, 1982, is more than a signifier of shared cultural identity. It conveys a deep passion for cross-country skiing, which, as an essential form of transportation for millenniums, and thus a matter of survival, has long transcended sport here. The question also underscores a reverence for pluck and humility as embodied by Oddvar Bra.
Norway, a country of just 5 million that has won the most medals in Winter Olympics history, is in familiar position through the first few days of the Pyeongchang Games with more medals than any other country. It is undoubtedly about to produce another collection of Nordic skiing legends, but no matter how many gold medals Norway’s finest bring home, none will achieve the level of veneration Bra has experienced the past 36 years.
For years, a national newspaper ran a feature every Monday asking, “Where were you when Oddvar Bra broke his pole?” Hundreds of people weighed in. Bra’s broken pole is kept in a glass box in the lobby of a hotel near the outdoor arena where the race occurred, displayed like a national treasure. In his hometown, Holonda, he is honored with a statue that captures him in midstride. Every once in a while, someone breaks the statue’s right pole.
Television airs the race every year. Children have filmed YouTube video tributes. Norwegians regularly stop Bra, now 66, to ask about those event-filled minutes, which he didn’t realize, at least initially, would become his vehicle to immortality.
“Sometimes it’s 10 times a day,” he said of the interruptions. “The same questions, day after day.”
A lean man with wisps of gray hair and bright blue eyes, Bra is wearing a dark wool sweater and the delighted grin that is his default facial expression. He carries himself without airs. If friends and fans didn’t come by to say hello and slap him on the back during this interview, there’d be no guessing at his notoriety.
In the years since he retired from the sport, he has worked as a coach and later in sales for Adidas. Still an avid skier and fan, Bra attends plenty of cross-country races, like the national championships in mid-January in Vang, where he recently sifted yet again over his most celebrated race.
He still seems tickled by the particulars. It marked the first time in his career that he had ever broken a pole in a competition. By sheer happenstance, the pole handed to him during the race — by a friend who made a habit of running alongside Norwegian skiers — was exactly the same length as the broken one, 147.5 centimeters.
“I just remember a shadow coming from left, with a pole,” said Bra, speaking through an interpreter. “If it had been 135 centimeters, I’d have taken it.”
To the uninitiated, the renown of Bra’s broken pole is a little confounding, and it raises some obvious questions. Can a spectator just hand a competitor a pole? (Yes.) For how long did Bra have only one pole? (About 15 seconds.)
More substantively, why is this a Norwegian legend rather than a Soviet one? Watch the final minutes of the race and you can imagine a very different rendering of the same story, one that lionizes Savyalov.
In this version, Savyalov is bumped onto the snow by Bra, but gets up immediately. He then chases his rival down a hill, gains on him in the final sprint and catches him right at the finish line.
That is a come-from-behind story. It is also a description of the race that Norwegians would consider so preposterous that it veers to the profane. It’s like someone contending that Neil Armstrong didn’t say anything about “one small step for man,” when he exited the lunar module. No, he told a knock-knock joke.
Bra, for one, doesn’t buy this Soviet-friendly narrative of the race. If anyone deserves blame for the collision, he said, it’s Savyalov, who knew that hill was Bra’s last chance to pass him and drifted ever so slightly to the left in an effort at blocking.
“I might have done the same thing,” Bra said, grinning.
Moreover, he went on, Savyalov doesn’t regard himself as a victim. Bra knows because the two have met many times, first in a surprise on-air introduction during a TV show about the broken-pole race. The pair exchanged little beyond pleasantries during the program, but later spent hours at Bra’s house. There have been plenty of meetings since, typically at major races.
“Very friendly discussions,” Bra said. “Neither of us blames the other. We have a phrase for it in Norwegian, which translates as the absence of luck. It was just unlucky.”
Actually, Savyalov has a different take on the entire incident. Reached at his home in Moscow last week, he reminisced through an interpreter for 45 minutes. Though the race is not a touchstone in his country, it was a major story in the Soviet Union at the time and a topic he is asked to revisit often.
This is especially true when he and Bra run into each other at cross-country races.
“We never had any enmity, we never hated each other,” Savyalov said. “Whenever we meet and sit down, people ask us, ‘Which of you won?’ We always smile say, ‘Friendship won.’”
That’s the public Savyalov. In the interview last week, he referenced a photo that showed him “half a boot” in front of Bra at the finish line. If they had measured hundredths of a second instead of tenths, he said, the Soviets would have owned first place.
As for the collision, he initially said on the phone that “what happened happened,” as if no one were to blame. Then he blamed Bra, though in doing so he described a sequence of events that is hard to square with reality.
He said that when the impact occurred, he was passing Bra, not the other way around.
“I don’t know what he was thinking, but he didn’t let me pass,” Savyalov said. “So we crashed into each other and his pole ended up between my legs. And of course, the pole broke and Oddvar Bra continued because he hadn’t fallen. But I was on my knees.”
The notion that Savyalov was passing Bra runs so counter to all visual evidence that it had to be asked: When was the last time he watched this race?
“I have it on my mobile phone,” he said.
Savyalov said anyone who thinks Bra was passing him when the accident occurred is falling prey to an optical illusion. Bra was on his left, which means he was closer to the camera, making it appear that he was trailing, Savyalov said.
In fact, the camera is too far away to distort the placement of the two skiers. At any rate, a different camera, taken from the other side of the race, right before the hill, shows Savyalov a good 15 feet ahead.
Savyalov’s interpretation seems utterly perplexing — until you start to discuss the race with Norwegians. They, too, get key details demonstrably wrong. A small and random sampling found many who believe that Bra was trailing in the final sprint (he wasn’t) and then beat the Soviet at the finish (he didn’t).
“Bra won,” said Ole Mikalsen, a furniture dealer who was waiting in the Oslo airport one recent Sunday. “He came from behind and it was very tight, but he was judged to have won.”
Have you seen the race lately?
“Sure,” Mikalsen said. “They play it every year.”
Others correctly remember a tie. But not one of a dozen people mentioned that Savyalov stopped racing for a few seconds because he’d been dropped in a mini-crash.
It turns out that to grasp how this showdown entered the realm of national mythology in Norway, you can’t just watch the ending. The tape must first be rolled back roughly 20 minutes.
In the third leg of the relay, the man racing for Norway, Pal Gunnar Mikkelsplass, inexplicably fell while skiing all alone on a downhill portion of the course. He wound up briefly in an undignified heap.
Mikkelsplass would later receive death threats that were taken seriously enough to merit a police escort for the Norwegian team out of the arena. More immediately, the disaster left Bra with a roughly 15-second deficit when it was finally his turn to race.
In other words, once you see the contest in its totality, this is a comeback story.
Now roll the tape back a full decade. In the years before 1982, Bra distinguished himself as one of Norway’s greatest skiers, winning more than a dozen national titles starting in his early 20s. In a sport known for its slow and steady pace, Bra was a born sprinter who would once beat the English soccer player Kevin Keegan in a televised foot race. Bra also had a freakishly high tolerance for pain and could race in an agony that produced a recurring visual hallucination.
“I see this gray fog,” he said in the interview. “Especially during 50-kilometer races. The point is not to just keep going. The point is to enjoy it.”
Bra seemed destined for an epic career, but his promise was matched only by his terrible fortune. In the ‘70s, at both the Olympics and world championships, he caught the flu, or he chose a catastrophically wrong set of skis or wax. Gradually, he began to seem cursed, a great talent thwarted by the stars.
Norwegians never abandoned hope. That’s because Bra seems reverse-engineered to be irresistible to them.
“To be a folk hero in Norway, you need to grow up on a farm and you need a country accent,” said Thor Gotaas, who is writing a biography of Bra and who studied Norse mythology as a student. “Norwegians don’t trust people from the city. They like people who have struggled, people who have suffered.”
Humbleness is a plus. The nicest thing you can say about a Norwegian hero, Gotaas explained, is “He’s like everybody else.”
It helped that Bra insisted on racing on Norwegian-made skis, even if they were not ideal for the conditions. This made him seem the opposite of the money-crazed braggarts who soon populated the sport.
“He’s a man of the people,” said Per Jon Faldalen, another Oslo airport interviewee. “He’s not thinking about sponsorships. He had won the heart of each and every Norwegian.”
This was most obvious two days before that fateful 4×10 relay at the ‘82 world championships. Bra had finally nabbed his first world title, in the 15-kilometer race. The nation’s best known radio broadcaster was so overwhelmed with emotion that after he called the race’s final seconds he shouted, “Oddvar Bra, I love you!” Then he bolted from his broadcaster’s booth, for the first and only time in his career, and embraced Bra with tears streaming down his face.
The front page of the country’s largest paper the next day was just an image of Bra, without any text.
As a team sport, the relay two days later was an even bigger deal. It would mean a win for Norway, rather than a single skier. And in the midst of the Cold War, there was no better foil than the Soviet Union. Lore had it that the country’s athletes were instructed by the KGB to appear as mirthless as robots, and rumors persisted about their use of performance-enhancing drugs.
By the time that Bra started gaining on Savyalov on that final hill, Norway, which was then a country of just 4 million, was in a collective frenzy. Then his pole snapped. Spectators thought they were witnessing the latest and cruelest manifestation of the curse. Many began screaming “No, no, no!” in Norwegian.
But Bra kept racing. So when he held off a late charge by Savyalov, he had produced something far larger and far more resonant than a tie. This was a national proof of concept, a wink from the universe. At long last, the ideal Norwegian athlete had triumphed, for Norway, in the most hallowed of Norwegian sports.
Published at Mon, 12 Feb 2018 14:29:57 +0000