Winter Olympics: Games that touched heights and hearts: The crowds at Lillehammer generated an atmosphere of warmth. Mike Rowbottom reports

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The Independent Online
TO SAY there were no problems during the 1994 Winter Games would be an exaggeration. Spectators lining the cross-country skiing course alarmed officials when they lit bonfires for warmth, threatening to disorientate competitors with smoke.

Temperatures dropping towards -30C caused the 300ft long skis on which 350 skiers were attempting to reach Lillehammer from Storhove to split and break. The Guinness Book of Records will not be troubled by them this time around.

The man with the job of creating artificial snow found himself at a loose end.

That, give or take a few transport difficulties, was it.

The snap assessment of the Games by Juan Antonio Samaranch, the president of the International Olympic Committee - 'Wonderful. The best ever' - gives rise to a natural response: he would say that, wouldn't he?

But the bidders who were 1,000-1 outsiders to get these Winter Olympics delivered on their promise to create a Games that were friendly. They are considering bidding to hold the Games for a second time, just like Innsbruck. Samaranch is not attempting to dissuade them.

When they were not lighting dodgy bonfires, the crowds thronging the cross-country course - and the 15km and 50km events drew numbers in excess of 100,000 - served as the image of the Games which many will remember most warmly. Waving their Norwegian flags, and with their cheers steaming into the air - loudest for home skiers, but still loud for foreign competitors - they presented a positive image of the host country that is beyond price.

That these were a successful Olympics was due in part to the kind of compelling stories which they threw up. CBS Television, which spent dollars 295m ( pounds 200m) for the rights to show the Games in the United States, has filled its boots on a series of made-for-TV human interest soap operas.

First there was Dan Jansen, whose relationship with the Olympics was coming to resemble that of Ken Rosewall and Wimbledon before he took the gold medal and the world record in his final event. Cut to his proud father in the crowd, who explained all his son had come through since the 1988 Olympics, when, as an 18-year-old, he learned of the death of his sister hours before he skated and fell in his opening race.

Then there was Bonnie Blair, the little speed skater with the big following - the self-styled Blair Bunch - and the five gold medals. Then there was the American ice dancer, Elizabeth Punsalan, whose father was shot dead by her brother shortly before the Games began. Punsalan fell heavily on to her back after her husband and partner, Jerod Swallow, lost his footing and dropped her.

Then there was the ultimate in melodramatic confrontations in the women's figure skating as Nancy Kerrigan competed against Tonya Harding, the skater who faces charges of aiding and abetting last month's attack which left Kerrigan with a bruised knee.

Now Kerrigan, who took the silver medal behind Oksana Baiul of Ukraine after skating better than she had ever managed before in a major championships, looks forward to next month's world championships. Possibly. And a book and made-for- TV deal with ABC television and Disney which will earn her around dollars 10m ( pounds 6.7m). Definitely.

For Harding, who finished eighth and then whiled away Saturday night in downtown Hamar by shooting pool, drinking beer and ten-pin bowling until 3am, the day of reckoning approaches.

Even without a chance of a medal, she made an early bid to upstage Kerrigan as she abandoned her first attempt at the free programme in tears because she was being hampered by a broken lace on her boot.

Drama all the way. No wonder CBS, for whom Kerrigan v Harding attracted record audiences for a sporting event in the United States, have already secured exclusive coverage for the 1998 Games in Nagano.

The British experience at these Olympics was, statistically, the best since 1948, when they also won two bronzes. But it just didn't feel that way. Perhaps it was because there were too many disasters. Damaged skate blades did for Wilf O'Reilly in both the short-track speed skating events. Excessive enthusiasm put paid to the chances of our biathlete, Michael Dixon, who succumbed to a chest infection after bearing the Union Jack dutifully at both the rehearsal and the opening ceremony in freezing temperatures.

Neither Emma Carrick Anderson nor Claire de Pourtales managed to complete the first run of the slalom. Britain's sole cross-country skier, Dave Belam, dropped out on the morning of the 50km with an ear infection. The touted hopes for the four-man bobsleigh never materialised.

Even Nicky Gooch, O'Reilly's short-track colleague, looked like he was going to become another disaster story. But the imperturbable 21-year-old from Barnes recovered from losing a silver medal through disqualification to take third place in the following 500 metres event.

He will go on to next month's world championships - at the rink where he works in Guildford - with realistic hopes of further success.

Whether Britain's other bronze medallists will compete in their world championships next month is open to question. There was no disguising the weariness with which Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean viewed that prospect after giving an ice dance performance which they - and a probable majority of the 23 million people who saw it on BBC television - thought was worthy of a gold.

That is debatable - such is the subjective nature of an event which Samaranch is known to be uneasy at having in the Olympics. In saying that T and D, rather than G and P, should have won the gold, the British vice-chairman of the International Skating Union, the suave Lawrence Demmy, has rolled an grenade beneath the table of the choleric Austrian judging referee, Hans Kutschera.

The explosion is likely to take place at the ISU congress in June, where Demmy is expected to take over as president of a body that needs - and now knows it needs - to move with the times and make itself more accountable to huge and puzzled television audiences. Not to mention the ice dancers themselves.

----------------------------------------------------------------- FINAL MEDALS TABLE ----------------------------------------------------------------- G S B Total Russia 11 8 4 23 Norway 10 11 5 26 Germany 9 7 8 24 Italy 7 5 8 20 United States 6 5 2 13 South Korea 4 1 1 6 Canada 3 6 4 13 Switzerland 3 4 2 9 Austria 2 3 4 9 Sweden 2 1 0 3 Japan 1 2 2 5 Kazakhstan 1 2 0 3 Ukraine 1 0 1 2 Uzbekistan 1 0 0 1 Belarus 0 2 0 2 Finland 0 1 5 6 France 0 1 4 5 Netherlands 0 1 3 4 China 0 1 2 3 Slovenia 0 0 3 3 Great Britain 0 0 2 2 Australia 0 0 1 1 -----------------------------------------------------------------

(Photographs omitted)