Koss, a big skate in Norway, wins big time Speed skater takes gold in men's 1,500 meters


ALBERTVILLE, France -- America has Michael Jordan. Norway has Johann Koss.

Jordan makes millions. Koss goes to medical school. Jordan dunks basketballs. Koss skates in circles.

Makes perfect sense.

Yesterday, the Norwegian brought the Winter Olympics to life.

The rain stopped, the temperature plunged, and the speed skating oval was filled to capacity with Dutchmen who dressed in orange and Norwegians who waved flags. There were chants and cheers and songs. And finally, there was this one 23-year-old man who grabbed hold of a race with one terrific burst of speed.

Nine days after walking out of a hospital following pancreatitis, Koss attacked the ice -- and his opponents -- by winning the men's 1,500-meter speed skating gold medal in a time of 1 minute, 54.81 seconds.

Adne Sondral of Norway was second, and Leo Visser of The Netherlands was third. All that separated the three medalists was .09, or about a yard.

Eric Flaim, the reigning silver medalist from the United States, finished 24th. He was fortunate to race at all, suffering from food poisoning after eating a meal at the athlete's village in Brides-les-Baines.

Bad fish.

"I threw up several times last night [Saturday], spent a lot of time in the bathroom, and have had diarrhea all day," Flaim said. "I've been burping and getting the taste of fish in my mouth, and it's been hard to take anything strong because of doping."

Flaim wobbled on the curves like a kid on a tricycle, and nearly fell at the finish.

"I can't believe that I trained four years for this," he said.

Flaim, who couldn't even walk on his own a year ago because of a knee injury, only had an outside chance at a medal. This was strictly a Norway vs. Netherlands confrontation.

And Norway won.

The victory only adds to Koss' legend in a country that apparently takes its winter sports seriously. Besides going 1-2 in the 1,500, Norway also received a 1-2 finish in the men's super-G slalom Alpine event, raising its overall medal total to 12, including six golds.

"We watched the skiers," Koss said. "It was great to see them do so well. They gave us a great spirit. We relaxed. We wanted to do as well as they did."

Winning on the slopes is fine. But in Norway, winning on the ice is better. Koss is so famous, he can't even walk down a street in Oslo without being besieged for autographs. He is the country's two-time reigning athlete of the year.

"You know the kicker Jan Stenerud, the one who lived in Norway and played in the United States?," said Norway's speed skating coach Hans Kristiansen. "Well, no one knows who Stenerud is in Norway. But Norway knows Koss."

Why not?

He's the world record-holder in the 1,500, 5,000 and 10,000 speed skating events. He's every parent's dream, the son of physicians who is studying medicine and training full-time in speed skating.

"It can be done," he said.

In fact, all three medalists showed that a varied life can be integrated with an Olympic career. Sondral attends business school. Visser will soon retire from competitive skating to a job as a pilot for KLM Airlines.

"It's very important for the total life of the skater to have something to do other than skate," Kristiansen said.

Koss has survived a strange opening at the Olympics. On the day of the opening ceremonies, he was in a German hospital for several hours after a gallstone inflamed his pancreas. When he was discharged, he went straight to practice.

"It was no problem," he said.

But Koss finished a disappointing seventh in Thursday's 5,000. Still, the race wasn't a total disaster. It allowed him to get a sense of the competition, and a feel of the ice.

"I was just too tired at the end of that race," he said. "But it was good training."

The training yielded a victory yesterday. First, Visser put up his time of 1:54.90 and rejoiced, figuring he had the gold clinched. But he was knocked back to the bronze as first Koss, and then Sondral bettered the time.

"I said some words I'd rather not repeat," Visser said. "They were not nice words. They were kind of aggressive."

But the words were no more aggressive than Koss' actions. He won. And then he celebrated.

He rode his bicycle to a rented apartment in Albertville.

It sure beats skating in circles.

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