1998 Olympics: Bjarte Engen Vik becomes 1st to sweep Nordic combined events
After years of Nordic combined dominance from the Norwegians, Bjarte Engen Vik became the first athlete to win two gold medals at the 1998 Winter Olympics. In those days, Nordic combined only included two events on the Olympic program: the individual and the team.
Norwegian Nordic combined athlete Bjarte Engen Vik became the first Olympian to win gold both in the team and the individual events during the Nagano Olympic Games in 1998.
At the inaugural Winter Olympics in 1924 in Chamonix, France, Nordic combined – an event combining both cross-country skiing and ski jumping – was limited to an individual event, now known as the 10km individual normal hill. The athletes would attempt two ski jumps on the first day, and on the second day, compete in an 18km cross-country skiing race. For 1956, the cross-country skiing was shaved to 15km and today, it’s 10km. It wasn’t until the 1988 Games in Calgary that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) added the team event to Nordic combined. The rules and format of each event had evolved significantly by 1998.
Norway, the country with the most medals in Nordic combined, had never earned team gold before the 1998 Nagano Games. They missed the podium entirely in 1988 and earned silver in 1992 and 1994 (held two years apart to stagger the years of the Summer and Winter Games).
Enter Bjarte Engen Vik.
Vik was born in Tromso, Norway, the biggest city in northern Norway and often dubbed “the Nordic Paris.” Vik began competing in Nordic combined when he was young, entering a national championship and placing fifth at age 12.
“Skiing has always been a big part of my life. As a child, in my town, there was a lot of snow, so outdoor life was big in my family,” Vik remembered.
Nordic combined champions were closely tied to Vik’s family. The late Sverre Stenersen, 1956 Olympic gold medalist, was Vik’s godfather and remained close to the family despite not being related by blood. Stenersen never coached Vik, but was alongside Vik’s father throughout his Olympic competitions.
Vik had been competing at the highest levels for nearly a decade, but he didn’t qualify for the 1992 Olympics.
“I was maybe number six [best] on the team and only four went,” he recollected.
Soon he earned recognition on a world stage by winning two medals in his Olympic debut at Lillehammer – in his home country– in 1994. Vik earned bronze in the individual event after falling just two seconds behind silver medalist Takanori Kono of Japan in cross-country. Vik’s teammate and close friend Fred Borre Lundberg won his first career Olympic gold by a landslide – more than a minute ahead of the silver medalist.
Led by Kono, the Japanese would win gold in the team event, dominating both ski jump and cross-country. The Japanese fell one place short of sweeping the Nordic skiing events at Lillehammer. Vik and the Norwegians earned team silver.
In between the 1994 and 1998 Olympics, Vik had several strong outings in world championship play. Vik struck gold twice at the 1995 and 1997 World Championships in the team events and added another Worlds silver throughout his training for Olympic gold.
“When I win a competition, I always look forward to the next one,” said Vik. “If I do well, I don’t relax. I really love to train.”
In the individual event, held Feb. 18 and 19, Vik held off rising Finnish star Samppa Lajunen to win his first individual gold medal. If he could win the team event, he would complete what the Japanese team could not do four years prior.
The IOC changed the team event structure beginning in Nagano: Four team members (up from three) would each take two ski jumps, then participate in a 4x5km cross-country skiing relay.
Four days after his individual victory, Vik joined forces again with best friend Lundberg and claimed gold in the team event. Despite sitting in third after the ski jump half, Norway’s strong cross-country skiers gave them a wide berth to claim the country’s first Nordic combined team gold medal. By the anchor leg, Lundberg had such a big lead that he picked up a Norwegian flag from a spectator and skied with it for the final 500 meters.
When he retired in 2001, Bjarte Engen Vik ultimately earned two World Cup overall titles and eight world championship medals. He won the Holmenkollen Medal in 1997, awarded to the top skiers in international competitions. He once joked that he often met celebrities because he’s good at his sport, adding, “Yes, I met King Harald, but we don’t go golfing together.”