Petter Northug, an otherwise confident young man from Trøndelag, shocked Norwegian fans on Monday with one of the worst Olympic debut performances in his country’s history, placing 41st in a race (the men’s 15-kilometer freestyle) that he had been expected to win.
He offered no immediate explanation, walking right past stunned Norwegian journalists without making a single comment. He later blamed “poor skis” and that he felt “heavy” on the trail. Tord Asle Gjerdalen ended up as the best Norwegian in the bunch, in 28th place, making the embarrassment complete.
The Olympics got off to a disappointing start for Norway over the weekend, but fans at least got two more medals on Monday. Marit Bjørgen won the bronze medal in the women’s 10 kilometer freestyle, skiing the challenging course in 25 minutes 14.3 seconds behind gold-medal winner Charlotte Kalla of Sweden and silver medalist Kristina Smigun-Vaehi of Estonia.
Norway’s Aksel Lund Svindal, meanwhile, took silver in the men’s downhill, just seven-hundreths of a second behind winner Didier Defago of Switzerland and ahead of Bode Miller of the US. It was Defago’s fellow countryman Dario Cologna who won the men’s cross-country event, more than two minutes ahead of Northug, while the silver went to Pietro Piller Cottrer of Italy and the bronze to Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic.
Svindal was delighted with his downhill win, his first Olympic medal after several World Cup victories, while Bjørgen said she was “glad I’m back.” She’s earlier suffered illness and other downturns in major competitions.
Sports commentators seemed at a loss to clarify Northug’s poor performance, but newspaper Aftenposten noted that he also had a weak opening at the World Championships in Liberec three years ago. He went on to win three gold medals, so there was still hope.