Lillehammer – a small town at the heart of winter sports excellence

As we celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Winter Youth Olympic Games Lillehammer 2016 – and the 27th anniversary of the Olympic Winter Games Lillehammer 1994 – we look at how the Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre has carried their legacy on, helping drive the growth in winter sports at home and abroad.

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With a population of just 24,000 people, the Norwegian town of Lillehammer may be small, but since hosting the  Olympic Winter Games in 1994 it has had an outsize impact on winter sports around the world. That legacy looks set to grow.

Sitting in a shallow valley, surrounded by low, wooded hills, just 200km north of Norway’s capital, the town then reused most of its Olympic facilities to host the Winter Youth Olympic Games in 2016 – exactly five years ago.

To maintain and further develop the legacy of Lillehammer’s well-maintained Olympic facilities, with the experience of hosting two Olympic Games and a wealth of athletic and coaching expertise, the Norwegian Ministry of Culture, with support from the International Olympic Committee, funded the Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre in 2017 to help further develop winter sports, at home and in other countries.

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“Our mission is to share Lillehammer and Norway’s skills and expertise with the rest of the world,” says Jostein Buraas, CEO of the Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre, describing the Centre’s unique advantages.

“We have some of the world’s top athletes and coaches, as well as Olympic facilities and reliable amounts of snow. That is kind of special.”

Looking out of his window on the fifth anniversary of Lillehammer 2016, Jostein sees a thick layer of snow covering the surrounding hills. A group of young athletes is heading back to the Centre from training.

In 2020 alone, the centre trained 500 athletes from 39 nations, covering a range of events from curling and ski jumping through to Paralympic biathlon and cross-country skiing. Besides athletes, it also trains coaches and event organisers.

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From Lillehammer to Beijing 2022

The Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre, which has just two full-time staff, works closely with sports federations from around the world and with The Norwegian College of Elite Sport (Norges Toppidrettsgymnas - NTG). Housing the Centre, the elite school is also a product of the 1994 Games. Its nearly 400 athletes, aged 16 to 20, combine high school studies with a range of 15 sports.

After less than four years, these Lillehammer institutions have trained young athletes from the Baltic nations, Hungary, Kazakhstan, Poland and Ukraine, many of whom have since competed in world events in curling and Nordic skiing.

“Some of the smaller countries maybe have the natural resources for winter sports, but don’t have the culture or the know-how,” says Jostein. “We can help them to get started, get them the basic knowledge,” he says.

An even more significant impact may yet come from training athletes, coaches and other sports professionals from China. The Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre has been advising officials from the Beijing 2022 Organising Committee, and for 18 months until the outbreak of COVID-19 it was also training some Chinese cross-country athletes in a specially-designed programme developed by the Centre and run by the NTG.

Most of the athletes had a strong background in rowing or track and field events but, before Lillehammer, had never touched a pair of skis.

“Together with the NTG, we set up a 100 per cent professional programme, involving coaches, nutritionists, accommodation and equipment,” Jostein says. “The progress that these athletes made in one-and-a-half years was amazing.”

The athletes may or may not win medals at Beijing 2022, but the training will help China to develop Nordic skiing in the country, and will enable the athletes to coach others in the future, in line with the Beijing 2022 vision of engaging 300 million people across China in winter sports.

Stefan Tjärnlund

Adapting to Covid-19, coping with summer

When COVID-19 spread around the world, the Chinese athletes returned home. As travel to Lillehammer became more difficult, the Lillehammer Olympic Legacy Sports Centre went digital, reaching more and more athletes with online coaching, lectures and training sessions.

The Centre has held digital camps for curling, ski jumping, para skiing and Nordic combined.  A regular event, “chat with the champions”, allows young athletes to meet and talk with older gold medallists and their coaches.

“Most of the athletes are unable to compete or train in a normal way right now, and these activities help to keep the spirit up in these rough times,” Jostein says.

School terms and snowless summer holidays might have presented further obstacles, but in fact summer is the busiest time of year. The Centre has all-weather facilities, so that athletes can train all year. Ski jumpers use plastic ramps and Nordic skiers switch to roller skis.

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Forward to the future

Some of the Centre’s international students will likely be competing at next year’s World Para Snow Sports Championship in cross-country, biathlon, alpine skiing and snowboard. Originally set to take place in Lillehammer this year, the event was postponed to 2022.

In three years’ time, Jostein thinks the Centre might be training as many as 1,000 athletes each year, but the focus is very much on quality not quantity.

Event organisation also has potential for growth. Later this month, the Centre will host a one-day sport and event conference, entitled Lillehammer Sport and Event Conference, with a focus on the development of para sports. The conference will have two parts, international and Norwegian, and is part of a wider attempt to develop and share winter sports competence around the world.

Looking to the future, Jostein says the Centre is building on a rich tradition, but still has much to do.

“Norway has been building a culture of winter sports excellence for over 150 years,” he says. “But the Legacy Centre is young: our impact and influence are still growing.”