Sun sets on skiing world championships

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After years of preparation and huge investment, the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships (Ski-VM) were suddenly over on Sunday after 12 days of competition. It’s generally agreed the major event turned into a huge party the likes of which many claimed only the Norwegians could host, because of their deeply rooted passion for cross-country skiing.

Skier Petter Northug greets his fans after winning his third gold medal in the men's 50-kilometer race on Sunday. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

The huge crowds that turned out for events at Holmenkollen in the hills above Oslo and then downtown for the medals ceremonies and “after-ski” activities surprised even the organizers. Some had claimed that the days of huge “public parties” tied to sporting events were over. They were wrong, as Oslo Mayor Fabian Stang was eager to point out on numerous occasions.

Spectators accepted high ticket prices and put up with overcrowded public transport to get to the ski races and ski-jumping competitions. Once there, they also put up with fog so thick at times that you could barely see the athletes at all. They didn’t seem to care. It was most important, to the avid Norwegian skiing fans, to simple be there.

Enthusiastic spectators lined the entire course at most events at the recently completed Nordic skiing world championships. PHOTO: Torgeir Stenstad

And the athletes seemed to love every minute of the rare attention and cheering they received at every competition. Norwegians don’t just cheer for themselves, they cheer for everyone, not least the last man to cross the finish line (from Denmark) in Sunday’s 50-kilometer race. He got a roaring welcome as he finally entered the stadium, long after Norwegian skiing star Petter Northug had won the race.

The crowd enthusiasm along the ski tracks so amazed the French athletes that they went around shooting video of the cheering crowds, to share the spirit of the moment with their blasé countrymen back home. Nearly all the medal winners, whether they were from Norway or Austria or Poland, commented on the “amazing” and “fantastic” spectators, thanking them for their support. King Harald V and most of the royal family attended every single day, and welcome the gold medal winners into the royal box. Even the Swedes, the target of controversial teasing by Northug, rhapsodized about the experience of competing on skis in Oslo. “It was wonderful,” said Swedish skier Charlotte Kalla, even though she didn’t perform as well as she’d hoped.

The stadium was also packed for ski jumping at Holmenkollen. PHOTO: Iselin Næss/Oslo 2011

Before the world championships began, one journalist as newspaper Aftenposten explained the pre-event hype by saying that it was a huge event “involving something we’re good at.” It was, it seems, Norway’s chance to shine on an international stage, and shine it did. The country’s medals haul was almost embarrassing, when Norwegian skiers seemed to keep winning almost everything despite tough competition from other countries boasting strong skiers like Sweden, Russia, Finland, Poland, Switzerland, Austria and Germany. By the time it was all over, Norway had won 20 medals (eight of them gold) while its nearest rival, Austria, had 10 and Sweden five.

Fans were also enthusiastic in the fog, even when visibility was poor. PHOTO: Matt Lato

Norway probably can’t expect all the international recognition it had hoped for from Ski-VM, though, simply because it didn’t get much coverage in other countries like the UK, the US or even France. Civic boosters thought lovely video and photos from the hills and forests around the Norwegian would lure lots of visitors and boost tourism. That’s unlikely, but those who actually came to Oslo for Ski-VM may indeed go home and boost Oslo’s merits themselves, not least because of the sheer enthusiasm of the spectators day after day after day.

Gian Franco Kasper, president of the International Ski Federation (FIS) was among those enchanted and impressed by the Norwegian public. “This could only happen in Norway,” Kasper told reporters Sunday morning, after learning that an estimated 75,000 people waving flags and mostly dressed in red, white and blue (Norwegian colours) formed a solid line three kilometers long aside the race route for the men’s lengthy 50-kilometer competition. And as gold-medal winner Therese Johaug said after the women’s 30-km race the day before and the relay on Thursday, “there were so many people out along the course, it created a huge boost for us. I just wanted to keep going and going!”

There's nothing quite like a Norwegian fan. PHOTO: Petter Tandberg/Oslo 2011

Northug, often viewed as being arrogant, ran around in front of the packed grandstands again after winning the championships’ final event on Sunday. “The public deserved it,” Northug told NRK. “They’ve been out here supporting us every day, in good weather and bad, and it’s so important. We all thank them a lot for that.”

Added the FIS president Kasper in his remarks at the closing ceremonies Sunday evening: “Norway and Norwegians, you should be proud. You have arranged an unforgettable world championships.”

Most of them probably are proud, and likely to spend the next few days at least recovering from an acute case of gold fever.

Views and News from Norway/Nina Berglund
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