Where Were You When Oddvar Bra Broke His Pole?

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.

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