BLAME ENOUGH TO GO AROUND

     On Friday October 9, 2009 I awoke in Chicago to the news that President Barrack Obama had been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Though he had only been in office nine months, so enamored was the Nobel committee with his diplomatic efforts to reintegrate the U.S. into the international community that they conferred the prize more to refute George W. Bush’s eight years of cowboy swagger than as a salute to any particular Obama achievement.

     The story buzzed through the Chicago Hilton that morning as we assembled for the 10:30 a.m. pre-race press conference for Sunday’s 32nd Bank of America Chicago Marathon.  Presiding over the presser was friend and British broadcaster Tim Hutchings, who would interview two panels of athletes on stage.  To his left sat the women, to his right the men.  The panel included 2008 Olympic Marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya who would be making his much anticipated American racing debut that Sunday morning in Chicago.

2009 Chicago Press Conference

     As Tim was interviewing the athletes, I noticed that Wanjiru was sitting slumped in his chair in a posture of utter disinterest, paying no attention whatsoever to what anyone else was saying.  Some may have viewed it as relaxed, but I recall thinking at the time, “we’re building the sport around guys like this, and this is how he presents himself?  He’s not even trying to mask his feelings.” (more…)

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HOLMENKOLLEN RELAY

Bislett Stadium, Oslo

On Thursday June 9th, Oslo’s Bislett Stadium will host the world’s greatest track and field athletes on the fifth stop of the Samsung Diamond League tour.  Usain Bolt will be this year’s marquee attraction.  But last Sunday afternoon the legendary athletics and ice-skating arena, tucked neatly into the heart of the Norwegian capital – call it the Fenway Park or Wrigley Field of T & F – hosted the Holmenkollen Relay, the largest relay footrace in the world.  If you ever wanted to experience the entirety of the Oslo running community in one place, this would be your event.

Begun in 1928, the Holmenkollen Relay boasts over 2200 teams, each consisting of 15 runners taking on distances ranging from 300 meters to two miles.  The entire course from Bislett up to near the famed Holmenkollen Ski Jump and back covers less than 12 miles.  But with so many teams, divisions, and categories, it takes hours and hours to run. (more…)

“I AM SAMMY WANJIRU!”

Break Away! Chicago Marathon 2010

It was a long 22-hours back from Oslo to San Diego yesterday, only to hear of the tragic passing of 2008 Olympic marathon champion Sammy Wanjiru of Kenya upon my landing.  Here I was returning from a memorial service for one of the greatest champions in athletics history only to be greeted by news of the premature death of yet another.  And though the passing of Grete Waitz at age 57 to cancer was tragic and all too soon, the news of Wanjiru’s sudden, violent end following a domestic dispute at his home in Kenya at age 24 was, in its own way, even more shocking and senseless.

Details of the incident are still filtering out of Kenya, and I won’t offer any speculation except to suggest that youthful fame and fortune are never simply a single-edged blade carving happiness from a rough-hewn upbringing of need and want.  Over and again we have witnessed the tragic cuts that sudden wealth and corresponding sycophancy can lay open on those ill-prepared to parry their thrusts.  Sammy Wanjiru was a passionate racer, and evidently he carried that passion into his every day dealings to a calamitous, untimely end. (more…)

TRAVELS WITH JACK

Oslo, Norway – After the emotional tribute to his wife Grete at yesterday’s memorial service at Bislett Stadium all Jack Waitz was in search of tonight was a quiet dinner.  We  met at my hotel, walked a short distance north before hopping an Oslo city bus to the St. Hanshaugen neighborhood a few kilometers away.  We disembarked at Restaurant Schroder, a tidy neighborhood joint with a dark wood interior.

Schroder's Restaurant
Schroder’s Restaurant

“Schroder’s is one of the city’s old-fashioned ‘brown restaurants’,” Jack explained as the bus pulled away leaving a plume of diesel fumes.

So-called ‘brown restaurants have held firm against the wave of renovations sweeping Oslo, still serving traditional, inexpensive Norwegian fare.   Then again, with the kroner-to-dollar exchange rate hovering around five-to-one, inexpensive is a relative term for any Yank in Norway these days.

When we walked in one of the current co-owners, a Pakistani native named Ali, greeted us warmly — seems Jack and Grete’s older brother Jan Anderson are frequent patrons.  Jack introduced me, and told Ali I was an American interested in history.

“Would you like to try our most popular dish?” offered Ali.

“Absolutely.”

“Schroder’s is featured in Jo Nesbo’s crime fiction series,” Jack continued speaking of the popular Norwegian author.  “His main character, Harry Hole, is a policeman who hangs out in Schroder’s and is a bit of a drunk.”

Nesbo’s eight work canon includes titles like The Devil’s Star, Nemesis, The Redbreast, and The Phantom which had just been published this spring.   Nesbo is being touted as the next Stieg Larrson, the best-selling Swedish author behind the Millennium series of detective novels like The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.   With Nesbo’s books growing in readership, business at Schroder’s has jumped markedly.

Less Salted Side Flesh
Less Salted Side Flesh

Minutes later Ali returned with a plate of Stekt Flesk Og Duppe, translation: Less Salted Side Flesh, which looked like thick slices of bacon served with white sauce, mashed turnips and potatoes.  The name alone had dusted my pallet a tad, but I looked down at the plate nonetheless with an open heart.  Then I looked up at Jack.  Then I assumed Grete had never dined at Schroder’s –- nor often allowed Jack to.   I also began to understand why policeman Harry Hole had begun drinking. Notwithstanding, according to Ali this dish made up 60% — 70% of his business.

After finishing our beers — but not the less salted side flesh — we walked a few blocks up to Albertine’s, a confusingly named restaurant serving Indian fare.  There we ordered our dinner, including two more beers.  But when the young waiter returned, he carried on his tray what looked like two magnums of champagne.  Fortunately, the bottles, though resembling champagne, contained nothing but thirst-slaking lager.

After an excellent curry dinner we walked casually back to my Royal Christiana Hotel in city center, passing through narrow city streets and an urban college campus along the way.  Jack said he would return tomorrow morning for us to go visit the golf course he helped design and build outside town.

View to Ski Run from Aas Gaard Farm
View to Ski Run from Aas Gaard Farm

In the 1990s Niles Fearnley was an All-American javelin thrower and school record holder (244’8”) for the USC Trojans.  It was there that he met his American wife Cindy, herself a swim star from Minnesota.  After graduation they returned to his native Norway to take control of Nils family’s large land holdings in Hakadal, 33 kilometers north of Oslo.

Jack Waitz & Nils Fearnley

In 2000 Nils and Jack began collaborating on the planning then building of the Hakadal Golf Club on Nils property outside Oslo.  When the club opened in 2005 there were 200 members. Today, that number has swelled to 1600.

The Aas Gaard Farm itself, and its 18-hole golf club, sprawls out over 30,000 acres of spruce covered hills overlooking snow covered ski runs.  The farm is one of the oldest and most traditional in the area, and has 70 roofed structures on it.

A large man with a robust sense of humor, and a pension for chewing tobacco, Nils was welcoming his new $150,000 Toro lawn mower as we arrived.  Standing well over six feet tall and weighing in at 235 pounds, Nils said he was installing a workout room as part of the major rehab he is doing on the family’s 1760 manor house.  It had only one previous renovation, that back in 1860.

Fearnley Family Home

”I need to get some muscle back on my frame,” he said patting his belly.  “When I was at USC I weighed 275, and they kept trying to recruit me for the Trojan football team.  But with my track scholarship that wasn’t allowed.”

Nils teasing masked a pain he shared with Jack.  He, too, had recently lost his wife to cancer.  Cindy Makens Fearnley died this January at age 38 while visiting her parents in San Diego.  The couple have two young children, a boy five and a girl eight.

A tour of Nils’ family home revealed an old-world elegance and charm.  In the main foyer was a bust of Fridtjof Nansen, the Norwegian explorer, scientist, diplomat, humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, whose exploits were funded by the Fearnley family.

Nils & Jack with bust of Fridtjof Nansen
Nils & Jack with bust of Fridtjof Nansen

Hanging in all the rooms were a series of old paintings. One dated from the 14th century, while others, by some of Norway’s finest artists, were donated to the estate by the artists who were supported after World War II at Aas Gaard Farm when there were no painting supplies or studios anywhere to be found in wake of the German occupation.  Today, the paintings those artists left to the family for its kindness are priceless.

Gallery in Ballroom

With dinner plans to attend to, we thanked Nils for the tour, promised to return for a round on the rolling 5732-meter layout at a future date, and drove back to Oslo.

Along the way Jack took me to the Keiseirlokka (Kaiser Field) neighborhood where Grete had grown up with her older brothers Jan and Arild.

Today, Kaiser Field is a quiet working class neighborhood, but in the post-war years it was bustling with children, an idyllic place for a child to grow.  Nearby stood Hasle Lutheran Church where Jack and Grete were married in 1975.

Grete Waitz childhood home (second story on left)

“She was the only girl in the family,” Jack explained.  ”And her mother, Reidun, ran a tight ship.  Grete was given all the tasks in the house. They made her take piano lessons, and they weren’t too enthusiastic about her running, because it wasn’t considered a girlish thing to do.”

It was exactly that type of girls-staying-in-their-place attitude that Grete’s running exploits help turn around for future generations of Norwegian girls.

Tonight we will meet up with Grete’s brother Jan for dinner at a restaurant near the Royal Palace that Grete, herself,  enjoyed.  I assume we won’t be ordering the Stekt Flesh Og Duppe.

END

“OUR GRETE”

Grete Waitz Statue, Bislett Stadium

     Oslo, Norway – Perhaps it was a good thing Grete wasn’t still with us, because last night in Bislett Stadium where the great Norwegian champion first came to national then international prominence, she was eulogized to over 1500 people by the likes of the Norwegian Prime Minister, the mayor of Oslo, the head of the Norwegian Athletics Federation, fellow champions, and the president of the New York Road Runners.  Knowing Grete, the private person who shunned personal recognition, the public display of it all would have been pure torture.  

     Her husband Jack  joked to me earlier that “Grete will come back and haunt me” if he made the commemoration too elaborate.  But both Grete and Jack came to the realization long ago that she wasn’t just a private citizen of Norway alone.  The one-time school teacher from Oslo had long since become a citizen of the world, and the world needed to say good-bye and thank you. 

    (more…)

CELEBRATING GRETE

     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. (more…)

LAKERS OUTCLASSED

     Even as a Celtics fan I was shocked and disappointed with how the Lakers were swept out of the NBA playoffs yesterday in Phil Jackson’s final coaching performance (ostensibly) in the NBA.  The 36-point wipeout by the Dallas Mavericks in the Western Conference semifinals game 4 was historic in its size.  But it wasn’t simply the score.  It was how the Lakers reacted. 

     First of all, they didn’t even show up for the game mentally. You don’t lose by 36 and say you tried. But beyond that, it was how Andrew Bynum stripped off his Lakers # 17 jersey after being thrown out of the game for his cheap-shot elbow to Dallas Mavericks guard Juan Barea.  The incident was so ugly, so petulant, and stood in such stark relief to the character and tradition of the Lakers franchise that I had to remind myself this wasn’t the 1989-`90 Detroit Pistons I was watching. (more…)