Skiers still Norway’s best-loved athletes

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Despite months of controversy over doping and sponsorship conflicts, biathlon and cross-country skiers are still Norway’s most cherished athletes. A recent survey placed them on top of all other athletes in Norway, and it didn’t hurt that season openers over the weekend left the Norwegians still dominating the sport.

Marit Bjørgen out in front again, during the women's 30-kilometer race on Saturday. Her victory capped a week of brilliant skiing that made her the undisputed queen of the World Championships in Italy. PHOTO: fiemme2013.com/Newspower Canon

Marit Bjørgen was out in front again over the weekend, like she was here during the women’s 30-kilometer at the World Championships in Italy in 2013. Therese Johaug (shown here just behind Bjørgen) is still on suspension after testing positive for a steroid late last summer, but the 36-year-old Bjørgen won another World Cup race and the team has won another popularity contest as well. PHOTO: fiemme2013.com/Newspower Canon

The skiers’ administrators, like other officials in Norway’s large sports bureaucracy, have taken a beating in public opinion, not least since Therese Johaug tested positive for a steroid after using a lip cream recommended by the team’s doctor. He has since resigned and calls have gone out for other top skiing federation officials to step down, also after Martin Johnsrud Sundby got caught in a doping conflict. Norway’s entire skiing and sports reputation was at risk of being ruined, just after another “phenomenal” season of victory after another on the ski trails.

There’s been backlash, also from abroad, and Norwegian skiers were tense on arrival in Finland for the opening of the World Cup season over the weekend. Marit Bjørgen, making a comeback since having a baby 11 months ago, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) she had even brushed up on her English, in order to defend herself against any hostile questions at international press conferences about her use of asthma medicine. When the skiers arrived for training on Friday, they were met by a poster in the area where skis were being tested that read “DDR NORWAY SKI TEAM = DOPING TEAM.” It was quickly removed.

“We were prepared for this,” Emil Iversen, who was first out in a classic sprint race, told news bureau NTB. Other Finnish skiers condemned the poster prank, while the men’s cross-country team’s new head coach, Tor Arne Hetland, said “we must have respect for the fact that foreigners react (to the doping charges in Norway). Our assignment is to clarify the situation as best we can.”

Getting over it
Bjørgen, who made a solid comeback by winning the 10-kilometer race on Sunday, spent quite a bit of time clarifying at a press conference how and why she uses asthma medicine. She told newspaper Aftenposten that the recent doping charges have left her with the feeling the athletes are “doing something wrong” even when they take approved and prescribed medication. In her case, she claims she has no choice: “I have to think about my own health. I have asthma, and I have to do what’s best for my lungs.”

Sundby, meanwhile, claimed his own earlier suspension over incorrect use of asthma medicine was no longer “stealing energy” from him. He took part in the World Cup season opener for the first time since his doping case was revealed, finishing third in the 15-kilometer men’s classic. Iversen was second. Sundby was relatively satisfied with gaining a spot on the winners’ platform, and claimed it was good to get the season underway.

Norwegian skiers also won platform spots on Saturday, in biathlon and alpine as well. Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, for example, won the women’s sprint, while on Sunday, Norway’s Heidi Weng finished third behind Bjørgen and Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland. All told, the Norwegians were back at the top of their game.

Viewed like ‘rock stars’
In the survey of athletes’ popularity in Norway, conducted by Sponsor Insight between January and October, cross-country skiing (called langrenn in Norwegian) topped the list followed by biathlon and handball. Then came alpine (downhill and slalom) skiing and football, which tied for fourth place, with ski jumping next. Given the unrest in Norwegian football as well, it just shows that fans still prize the actual athletes themselves.

“When cross-country is still so popular even after an extremely turbulent autumn, we have to manage it with all possible respect,” administrator Espen Bjervik of national skiing federation told Aftenposten. “We can’t rest on our laurels and think that we don’t have any challenges, because we have a lot, also when it comes to our reputation and the confidence people have in us.”

Trond Blindheim, rector of Kristiania College in Oslo and an expert on marketing, noted that 90 percent of the Norwegian population doesn’t think Johaug intentionally ingested a steroid. “I also think that the ski stars are viewed like rock stars, and folks quickly forgive them,” Blindheim told Aftenposten.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund