Experts predict an Olympic gold rush

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Norwegian skiing experts are perhaps overly optimistic, but they’re predicting that Norway’s winter sports athletes will win no less than 50 medals at the Olympics getting underway in PyeongChang, South Korea. At least 20 will be gold, according to the experts and former champions polled by state broadcaster NRK.

This is what Norway covets as the Winter Olympics get underway in PyeongChang this weekend. PHOTO: IOC

Norway has dominated winter sports competition for years, ever since state sports officials mounted a concerted effort to nurture medalists prior to hosting the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994. After dismal results in  Calgary in 1988, Norwegian athletes won a pile of medals six years later at home in Lillehammer.

The streak mostly continued for the next 20 years, through the last Olympics at Sochi in 2014. Experts like former long-distance skiing star Fredrik Aukland don’t see any let-up now, even though several Norwegian stars won’t be competing in South Korea. Biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen, who kept skiing and shooting this season at an age of 44, didn’t qualify, nor did Norway’s biggest cross-country skiing celebrity Petter Northug, who’s had lots of trouble in recent years. Commentators put the blame for Northug’s poor season this year purely on Northug himself, even though illness played a role. Magnus Moan withdrew from combined skiing and jumping competition after a dispute over his training program, while multiple gold medalist on the cross-country circuit, Therese Johaug, is still forced out of competition following a controversial doping verdict against her. She’s planning a comeback next season.

Norwegian ski queen Marit Bjørgen will be competing in her last OL, and remains keen on winning even more medals. PHOTO: FIS World Cup

Veteran ski queen Marit Bjørgen is still in the race, though, and dominated once again earlier this season. She intended to compete in all distances at the Olympics, which Norwegians simply call “OL,” and turned down the honour of carrying Norway’s flag at the opening ceremonies on Friday because she’ll be gearing up for a race scheduled on Saturday. This is Bjørgen’s last OL, and commentators in Norway think she’ll cap her career as the greatest Winter Olympian of all time if she can just break Bjørndalen’s record of winning the most medals. Experts think she can win gold in the relay, the 15- and 30-kilometer races.

Several other women on Norway’s cross-country team are also favoured while young Johannes Høsflot Klæbo exploded onto the men’s circuit this year and is widely favoured to mine gold in PyeonChang. Experts including Aukland and Carl-Henning Gran are convinced that Klæbo, age 21, will win gold in his first OL. All told, the experts predict seven gold medals among the men and women on the Nordic skiing teams.

Biathlon athlete Tarjei Bø is among those in the running for gold at what Norwegians simply call “OL.” PHOTO: NRK screen grab

Norway is also heavily favoured in biathlon competition even without Bjørndalen this time around. Tiril Eckhoff is a contender on the women’s team, while the two brothers Johannes Thingnes Bø and Tarjei Bø are set to shine, as is Emil Hegle Svendsen, who’ll carry the flag for Norway. Commentator Halvard Hanevold predicts four gold medals plus others in the sport that combines cross-country skiing and shooting, and remains wildly popular in the country.

Another two gold medals are within reach in men’s combined cross-country skiing and ski jumping. Expert and former medallist Fred Børre Lundberg thinks the success at Sochi, which resulted in two gold medals, can repeat itself, with Jørgen Graaabak, Jarl Magnus Riiber and Jan Schmid in contention.

Speed skating, ski jumping and downhill candidates
It’s not just on the cross-country trails where Norwegians have been doing well this season. Norwegian speed skaters, not least Sverre Lunde Pedersen and Håvard Holmefjord Lorentzen, have caught attention this season as Norway glides back to the top of the sport, 24 years after Johann Olav Koss set records in Lillehammer.

Both the men’s and women’s ski jumping teams are also strong, with gold medal contenders in the form of Daniel-André Tande and Maren Lundby. Ski jumping expert Johan Remen Evensen called Lundby, who comes from the rural district of Toten, “probably the most assured gold-medal candidate” Norway has, after she won six straight World Cup victories this winter. Experts predict three gold medals in ski jumping, including one for men’s team competition, and at least some medals in speed-skating, either silver or bronze.

In alpine skiing, veteran downhill racer Aksel Lund Svindal has made another triumphant comeback from injury and returns to the Olympics as a gold medal candidate once again, after being in what commentators called “a class of his own” in World Cup competition this season. Kjetil Jansrud is also in the running following strong performances of his own on the World Cup circuit, while Henrik Kristoffersen is a candidate for gold in slalom skiing. Experts predict at least one gold for the alpine team plus others, with perhaps some surprises on the women’s team.

Official goal: 30 medals
Gold medals are also predicted within freestyle skiing and snowboarding, while curling athletes were off to a good start this week, too. No medals are expected in ice hockey, though, where none of the NHL players including Norway’s own Mats Zuccarello are involved. Norway is up against tough competition in its group consisting of powerhouse national teams from Sweden, Finland and Germany. Norway’s hocky team was at least hoping to make it to the quarter finals. Norway also has one woman and one man competing in the skeleton, Desirée Bjerke Andersen and Alexander Henning Hanssen, but no medals are expected.

Norway’s Olympic Committee has a goal of winning 30 medals, with Norway placing among the top three nations at the Winter Olympics. “Based on experience, that means we need to win 10 gold medals,” Norwegian Olympic boss Tore Øvrebø told NRK. Norway won 11 gold, five silvers and 10 bronze in Sochi, where it ended on top.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund