Skiing champ Petter Northug was at his best on Friday and showed better, if teasing, behaviour. He put on a perfect skiing performance in front of his king, queen, prime minister, former world champions and tens of thousands of screaming fans to secure his relay team’s victory at the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships (Ski-VM) – all just as the sun broke out over Holmenkollen.
The relay was a thrilling close one. Sweden and Russia held an early lead, then Finland and Italy came on strong, with Italy out in front for much of the third lap. Norway was back in fourth place when Northug took over from fellow Norwegian Tord Asle Gjerdalen, who was making his debut in a world championship relay.
Their teammates in the first two stages, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Eldar Rønning, had laid some good groundwork, though, with Rønning in particular winning high praise for his strong 10-kilometer portion. At one point, though, five nations were all up front and in a pack, including Italy, Germany, Sweden, Finland and Norway.
The Norwegian women’s team had won gold the day before, so expectations were high that the men should do the same. All the skiers admitted to being extremely nervous before the race, especially with so many thousands of fans in the bleachers on home turf.
Northug agreed with commentators’ assessments, though, that he had control the whole way through his last and arguably most important fourth lap. He stayed slightly behind the pack until finally pulling out alongside and then in front of Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, one of his arch rivals.
In what one commentator called “a psychological act of great dimensions,” Northug stayed neck-and-neck with Hellner until, in the end, pulling ahead just after entering the arena and racing for the finish line. He quickly increased his lead, gestured to the wildly cheering spectators in the grandstands and then even braked just before the finish line, pretending to block it for Hellner until stepping aside and into the arms of his teammates. Norway’s final time for the course that was 40 kilometers (24 miles) in total: One hour, 40 minutes and 10.2 seconds. Sweden was just 1.3 seconds behind for the silver, and Germany 5.7 seconds behind for the bronze.
Then came even more jubilation. After donning their golden winners’ jackets, accepting their flowers from former Norwegian skiing star Oddvar Brå (best remembered for breaking his ski pole after a critical collision in the 1982 World Championships at Holmenkollen) and enjoying the roar of the crowd, the Norwegian winners ran all along the grandstand and then across the arena to the grandstands set up a further distance from the finish line – a gracious gesture to acknowledge the fans that was repeated by several of the other skiers as well.
They kept the royals waiting to do that, but eventually trooped up to the royal box where King Harald, Queen Sonja, most of the rest of Norway’s royal family and Danish and Swedish royals as well were ready with congratulations, hugs and kisses – even from Sweden’s Crown Princess Victoria. After one of the Norwegian winners apparently expressed some form of condolence over Sweden missing the gold, Victoria responded with a hug and said, in her lilting Swedish, “Oh, but you are so good!”
Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg and his Swedish conterpart Fredrik Reinfeldt were also in awe of the Norwegian champions. Asked what he thought of Northug’s teasing performance against Hellner at the end, Reinfeldt refused to criticize it on Norwegian TV, suggesting it was “well-deserved after such a presentation,” although he probably wouldn’t have done the same. Stoltenberg had arrived up at Holmenkollen after quickly changing from a suit and tie for Friday morning’s Council of State at the Royal Palace – at which he’d announced a change in his cabinet – and consoled Reinfeldt by noting that Sweden “was only beaten by Norway.”
Northug himself, known for being surly when he loses, was in high spirits and seemed relaxed and humorous when it was all over. “It was the most important relay of our lives,” he told NRK, adding that his stunt at the end wasn’t planned.
And in the background, the crowd kept singing “Seieren er vår, seieren er vår…” (Victory is ours). The 12-day World Championships party will finally end on Sunday, when Northug and many of the others will be back competing in the men’s demanding 50-kilometer race.