Brenden continues rise to stardom with 15km triumph

Picture by Getty Images

The shortest individual men’s cross country distance on the programme in Cortina was the 15km, which replaced the 18km. That event had been won at Oslo 1952 by Norway’s Hallgeir Brenden, who had got the better of two Finnish skiers, Tapio Mäkelä and Paavo Lonkila. Competing alongside Magnar Estenstad, Mikal Kirkholt and Martin Stokken, he had also picked up a silver medal in the 4x10km relay. An all-round sportsman, Brenden was also an athletics enthusiast, becoming the first Norwegian to run the 3,000m steeplechase in under nine minutes.

On 30 January 1956 in Cortina’s Snow Stadium, in a heavy snowfall and up against 61 determined 15km competitors, he set himself an ambitious target of becoming the first cross-country skier to retain an Olympic “short distance” title.

In the end, any pre-race suspense in the stands quickly dissipated as he went on to control the race from start to finish. At the 5km mark, he led Vladimir Kuzin of the Soviet Union by 13 seconds, and had extended that to 21 seconds by the 10km mark with a split time of 35:28, this time over another Soviet athlete, Pavel Kolchin. Brenden crossed the line in 49:39 with a 35-second advantage over Sweden’s Sixten Jernberg, who finished strongly to relegate Kolchin to the bronze medal position.

That evening, dressed in a suit and tie, the two-time Olympic champion celebrated his achievement at the Hotel Corona in Cortina. Italian film star Sofia Loren, keen to congratulate him, kissed him on the cheek and ended up sitting on his knee, much to the delight of the press photographers present, who ensured that the image swiftly made its way around the world. Brenden was already firmly established as a hero and an icon back home, having been awarded the Egebergs Ærespris – an accolade for Norwegian athletes who excel in several sports – in 1952 and the Holmenkollen medal in 1955.

He returned to the Olympic stage at the 1960 Winter Games in Squaw Valley, adding a second 4x10km relay silver medal to his CV with the help of his Norwegian team-mates, Harald Grønningen, Einar Østby and Håkon Brusveen, in a race eventually won by Finland.

A bronze statue of the four-time Olympic medallist in action, bearing the inscription “Hallgeir Brenden, gold in 1952 and 1956”, was erected in his native Trysil in 2002.