Marit Bjørgen skied her way into history on Monday by winning her third individual gold medal for Norway in the same world championships, but neither her coaches nor the public had ever seen her so utterly exhausted after crossing the finish line. She’s the latest athlete to collapse, raising questions about the merits of such tough competition.
Bjørgen, known for grinning as she races for the goal, raised her arms in a brief acknowledgement of her victory before falling to her knees and then sprawling out on the snow. She kept lying there for an unusually long time, eventually surrounded by her coach and other helpers.
Her collapse followed a similar episode involving Petter Northug on Sunday after he won the men’s 30-kilometer race. Both Bjørgen and Northug seemed to exceed their own limits of endurance.
After finally getting up with the help of staff, she gamely tried to walk around but stooped over while leaving the arena. She then had to stop along the fence before continuing into the stalls.
“She is very, very tired,” said former skiing pro Thomas Alsgaard, who now works as a commentator for Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “She’s showing the effects of many long and tough days.”
Her coach agreed. “We’ve almost never seen her so tired,” admitted Egil Kristiansen, who said he and his colleagues would be evaluating whether Bjørgen would be allowed to participate in Wednesday’s team sprint. It’s to be followed by the important relay on Thursday and women’s 30-kilometer race on Saturday.
Bjørgen herself has claimed she intends to ski in every event at the World Championships, but admitted to NRK (after recovering from her collapse and before appearing for the traditional flower ceremony) that “today I really went down into the cellar.” She said she was “impressed with myself” and “very satisfied” with her race, which she won by skiing 10 kilometers in the classic style (no skating) in just 27 minutes and 39.3 seconds. She indicated it was unclear, though, whether she’d be skiing in Wednesday’s sprint.
A sport that drives its participants to utter collapse raises questions about what even the team doctor called “completely extreme” events. Asked whether it’s possible or even healthy to push themselves so hard, Dr Hans Petter Stokke told NRK that there’s both the physical and mental aspects to consider. A post-race collapse like Bjørgen’s can damage the mental strength an athlete has, he said, indicating Bjørgen now needs some rest. Her coach joked that the race was so exciting, he needed a day off, too.
Bjørgen’s arch rival Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland was also tired, finishing just four seconds behind Bjørgen to claim the silver medal. She’d stayed ahead of Bjørgen through much of the race, only to have Bjørgen power forward at the bitter end.
Kowalczyk, too, spent some time on the ground just after crossing the finish line, but managed to get up faster and was even spotted texting on her mobile phone before lining up for the flower ceremony. Kowalczyk said she was “happy” with her race, and brushed aside suggestions that she may have started off too strongly.
Bronze-medal winner Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was thrilled by her third-place finish, 9.7 second behind Bjørgen. “I’m very happy, it was my best race yet,” she enthused to NRK. “The audience was yelling so much I could hardly hear my time.”
Saarinen edged out Norway’s Therese Johaug for the bronze. Asked why she skied so well on Monday, Saarinen responded: “It’s the ‘kollen spirit!” She thanked the fans in the stands for their support: “They really helped me here.”