Search ends for new skating coach

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Norway’s speed skaters needed a new, diplomatic coach quickly, and skating officials found him in Bergen. A long-simmering drama around former coach Peter Mueller had reached its climax this week when Mueller was fired for alleged sexually harassment of a female skater, just months before the Winter Olympics in Vancouver.

Jarle Pedersen, who skated himself at the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid in 1980, was named Wednesday to take over as Norway’s new national speed skating coach. Pedersen, currently of the Fana skating club in Bergen, had been favoured for the job and assumes his post immediately.

Pedersen’s new assistant sparked more surprise: Johann Olav Koss, multiple gold medal winner from the Winter Olympics at Lillehammer in 1994, will travel with Pedersen and the national skating team to Calgary on Thursday.

Koss has limited coaching experience but a solid record on the ice. “This is a crisis situation and Jarle and I will start talking tonight about what’s needed now,” Koss told web site VG.no.

Norway’s speed skaters have been somewhat traumatized by the controversy surrounding fired coach Peter Mueller. Mueller’s outspoken and tough style finally did him in earlier this week, after six years in Norway. Skater Maren Haugli (photo above, with Mueller in the background) had become the target of what’s mildly been described as “innappropriate” and sexually-laden remarks from Mueller at a dinner with other athletes in Berlin last month. She wasn’t pleased, and he apologized, but Haugli was asked to file a report on the incident.

Its contents made for “embarrassing” reading for officials of Norway’s skating federation (Norges Skøyteforbund) and they couldn’t allow Mueller to continue as a coach. The federation, said its president Vibeke Sørensen, “doesn’t want to be identified with such behavior and doesn’t want to have a role model who behaves in that way towards our athletes.”

Mueller was fired and the federation also thinks its grounds for firing him allow them to avoid making a hefty severance payment to him. Mueller disagrees, and already has a lawyer dealing with both the federation and the media. Mueller has claimed all along that he doesn’t equate his admittedly “unfortunate” remarks to sexual harassment and he thinks the federation has wrongly tarnished his name.

Haugli claims she never demanded that Mueller be fired, and only filed a report as she was asked. “I think the whole case is sad,” said Haugli, who’d had run-ins with Mueller in the past. On Wednesday she had to block her own web site because of further harassment sent in by the public.

Mueller had his supporters, among them medal contender Håvard Bøkko, who wanted to keep Mueller as his coach. That’s unlikely, since Norwegian athletics officials say Mueller won’t be accredited as a coach in Vancouver. The break is final.

While some skating veterans also supported Mueller, there was broad support for his firing within Norway’s sports bureaucracy because officials feel his verbal barrage can’t be reconciled with the ethics of the sport. The skating federation exhibited zero tolerance for the kind of language Mueller used against Haugli.

They needed to find a coach who can heal wounds, bring an end to years of complaints and divisiveness among the skaters and be a clear, strong and inclusive leader. Pedersen has won strong reviews for his coaching work in Bergen and Koss remains highly respected.

The federation also wants its new skating coaching staff to help skaters win some medals, something Mueller failed to do at the Olympics in Torino in 2006.