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The Queen of Norway was late. Everyone was trying to be polite. The food was waiting, too.

The gravlaks was neatly laid on white plates. The sardines, the cucumbers, the mackerel in herb jelly topped by dill horse radish, the Lopme bread and salted, dried leg of pork were other delicacies fastidiously organized on the sprawling buffet tables.The Christmas tree-like Kransekake, a coffee cake made with almonds, stood tall, ready to be devoured. But not until Queen Sonja arrived into the makeshift geodesic dome, with her son, Prince Haakon Magnus, and Norwegian Prime Minister Gro Harlem Brundtland. Then, the 500 Olympic dignitaries could dig in.

Suddenly, the Norwegian paparazzi, restrained behind a rope, began flashing and clicking their cameras. The Queen was in the room.

Lillehammer, Norway, threw a bash last weekend. Tiny Lillehammer - a farm community of 25,000, 100 miles north of Oslo - was getting ready to become the next Winter Olympics city.

The Queen was in Albertville for the final days of the '92 Games to assist in the transition. When that ubiquitous flame died Sunday on the 16th Winter Games, there were only 719 days of waiting for the 17th Winter Games.

The next Winter Olympics is less than two years away, the result of a new cycle created by the International Olympic Committee. Lillehammer's Games will be the guinea pig.

In 1986, the IOC voted to split the Olympic cycles. Instead of loading up every four years with a Winter and Summer Games, the IOC decided to alternate the events every two years. The move came after the IOC learned U.S. TV networks preferred it.

In addition, winter sports federations were feeling overshadowed by their Summer Olympics brethren. Winter Games in between the Summer Games could heighten visibility for sport and commercial shelf-life for star athletes, they reasoned.

"At first, I thought the two-years time was bad," said Gerhard Heiberg, an Oslo industrialist brought in to head the Lillehammer Olympic Organizing Committee. "But now, all the talk in Albertville is excitement, that the next Olympics are only two years away."

The wine was sipped. The four kinds of caviar tasted. Lillehammer was moving front and center as Albertville was packing up.

"We want to be a point on the map," said Lene Nyhus, a member of Lillehammer's city executive board. "We want to build up our city, our region."

With a planned investment of $2 billion, Lillehammer is building every Olympic venue from scratch. There will even be a 5,000-seat hockey arena in Gjovik built into Hovdetoppen mountain. So far, 250,000 square meters of stone have been blasted out. By year's end, all but the mountain-tucked rink is expected to be completed.

As Heiberg sees it, the Lillehammer region has been backward. Roads and telecommunications have been behind the times. "The economy was bad, people were leaving the region, there was no hope for the future," he said.

So, local business people decided to bid for the Winter Olympics. After all, Lillehammer claims to be the only town in the world with a skier in its coat of arms.

"Ordinary Norwegians thought these people were crazy to bid," Heiberg said. "The biggest event for the world is coming. Now, it's a question if it's the right medicine."

At the very least, Heiberg said the idea is to bridge a perceived gap that Norway is a dark nation, tucked away from the flow toward the 21st century. The Lillehammer Games are intended to smash myths.

"Norway is something else than what most people believe," he said. "We will prove this to the world."

In the dark? No, Heiberg said. The sun is up at 8:30 a.m. in mid-February. The sun is down at 5 p.m. "It will not be a candlelight Olympics," he said.

It could be an all-Norwegian victory games. Norway's athletes have gone bananas in Albertville, preparing to dominate their own Olympics. At the 1988 Calgary Games, Norway won one gold medal - in curling, which was a demonstration, non-medal sport. The Norwegians will leave Albertville with a second-best nine gold medals, after skier Finn Christian Jagge's triumph in the men's slalom Saturday. It was the first Norwegian gold in Alpine skiing in 40 years.

"We are born on skis, you know," Gunbor Staubo, wife of Norway's International Olympic Committee member Jan Staubo, said as she sipped wine at the Queen's bash.

The Lillehammer Games will begin Feb. 12, 1994. And just like last night, Queen Sonja will be there to kick off the whole thing.

She'll be the one who will say, "Let the Games begin."