Oslo, Norway- Next Tuesday May 17th Norway will celebrate National Day, commemorating the signing of its constitution in 1814 which declared the country to be an independent nation free from Swedish rule. All over Norway children’s parades will be the central expression of the celebration, with the longest parade here in Oslo where over 100,000 people will gather in the city center to participate in the festivities. Accordingly, Norwegian flags can be seen hanging prominently throughout the capital in preparation for the national holiday.
I arrived in Oslo yesterday to join in another national memorial service, this one to celebrate the life of Norway’s legendary runner Grete Waitz who died April 19th at age 57 after a long battle with cancer. The nine-time ING New York City Marathon champion and four-time world record holder in the marathon was buried in a private ceremony April 28th with government honor at state expense, only the sixth woman in Norwegian history to be accorded that distinction.
Tonight at 6 p.m. at Bislett Stadium leading Norwegian politicians, members of the Royal family, and thousands more touched by Grete’s short, but extraordinarily well-lived life will bid a public farewell to one of Norway’s most beloved international ambassadors. A delegation from the New York Road Runners also arrived for today’s service, led by its chairman George Hirsch, president and CEO Mary Wittenberg, marketing chief Ann Wells Crandall, and media director Richard Finn. Also on hand is 1984 Olympic Marathon champion Joan Samuelson, Grete’s great friend and athletic rival.
Yesterday, after checking in at our hotels, we drove out to Grete and husband Jack’s lovely two-bedroom condo overlooking OsloFjorden in the east Oslo neighborhood where the couple lived for over a quarter century. As we drove Jack pointed out the routes Grete had trained on throughout all the years.
After arriving, Jack explained how he and Grete had lived in the elegantly appointed condo for the last four years after Grete downsized, selling their nearby house, typically thinking of Jack as she prepared him for life in her absence. Next we watched a half-hour documentary produced by Norwegian TV tracing Grete’s life and exploits. Afterwards, Jack pulled out a felt bag from a dining room cabinet containing a jumble of Grete’s prized race medals, including her five world cross country golds, the 1983 World Championships Marathon gold, and 1984 Olympic Marathon silver.
The mood was both fun-loving and respectful as we handed around the medals and sorted through a collection of pictures portraying the life of one of the 20thcentury’s greatest female athletes. We shared personal memories, and it was particularly poignant when Joanie picked up and cradled Grete’s 1984 Olympic Marathon silver medal, knowing that back home in Maine lay the matching gold.
“It’s amazing how much alike we are,” Joanie mused turning the medal over in her hands. “We both live on the water, both keep our medals hidden away in a drawer. But Grete’s Olympic medal box isn’t all tattered like mine is, and her home is a lot less cluttered, too.”
Last night we all walked down along the bustling Oslo harbor on an unusually warm spring night where we were joined by Mike McManus, Adrian Leek, and Todd Klein from Adidas, Grete’s lifelong athletic shoe sponsor, for dinner at Café Sorgenfri. Many toasts were made, laughs, and memories exchanged, and New York City celebrations of Grete planned.
Since her passing, condolences to Jack and Grete’s two brothers, Jan and Arild, have poured in from all over the world. Joining Joanie tonight at Bislett Stadium will be the third member of the 1984 Olympic Marathon podium, bronze medalist and 1988 gold medal winner Rosa Mota of Portugal. Also on hand will be 1984 Olympic 3000m silver medalist Wendy Sly of England, and `84 men’s 5000m silver winner, Markus Ryffel of Switzerland.