Norway’s cross country skiing star Petter Northug has swapped his ski poles for poker chips, and that’s not good news for the national athletic association or gaming officials. Meanwhile, sports bureaucrats are looking for a new coach for Northug and other skiers and ski jumpers with several candidates in the running.
Northug, who won a pile of medals in the recent Nordic Skiing World Championships in Oslo, also redeemed himself after last year’s controversies over his poker playing, sponsorships and some unsportsmanlike conduct. New photos of him at the poker table with his hands full of chips and his Red Bull cap firmly in place are a let-down for the officials trying to boost his image.
Newspaper Bergens Tidende (BT) reported Friday that Northug is in place at the national poker championships being held this weekend in Riga, Latvia. It cost NOK 16,000 (about 3,000) to enter and first prize is NOK 1.2 million.
Playing poker for money is illegal in Norway, which is why the national championships are staged outside the country. That alone raises some concerns over Northug’s participation, but sports officials’ main objection is that a state monopoly on lotteries and other gaming for money is set up to fund sports. National athletics boss Inge Andersen of Norges Idrettsforbund has said that athletes who support any other gaming than state monopoly Norsk Tipping are “sawing off the branch on which they sit” (roughly equivalent to biting the hand that feeds them).
“It is unfortunate that top Norwegian athletes are fronting a money-game that is illegal in Norway,” Atle Hamar, head of the state gaming authority Lotteritilsynet, told news bureau NTB. “Northug is a mentor for many young people.”
Northug has made it clear, though, that he thoroughly enjoys playing poker and isn’t about to quit. He brushed off criticism last year of his participation in a major poker tournament in Las Vegas. While he refused to answer questions from Norwegian media including BT and the country’s largest newspaper, VG (itself a major sports sponsor), Northug told poker magazine Norwegian Aces that he plays “not just because it’s fun,” but because he wants “to get better and to win.”
Northug said he’ll mostly be playing poker this spring and summer, and will work to maintain his skills during the winter when he’s busy skiing. He also expects to travel back to Las Vegas.
While Northug plays poker, those running his sport in Norway will be looking for a replacement for men’s cross-country skiing coach Morten Aa Djupvik. After a winning season, Djupvik has decided to quit while on top, and spend more time with his family.
Djupvik, age 36, called around to the skiers on the men’s team to tell them he was moving on after five years at the helm. “It was an emotional day, and a more difficult decision than I’d expected,” Djupvik told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). He’s been coaching Northug, for example, as long as the skiing star has been at the top levels of the sport.
“We wanted him to continue, but respect his decision,” said cross-country skiing chief Åge Skinstad, who now needs to find his replacement. Top candidates include Arild Monsen of the Swedish team, Ulf Morten Aune who now coaches Norway’s sprint team and Torgeir Bjørn, who most recently has worked with Norway’s biathlon team.
Sports bureaucrats have also had to find a replacement for men’s ski jumping coach Mika Kojonkoski, who stepped down last month after nine years. They picked Alexander Stöckl, who’s been the assistant coach for the Austrian national ski team and signed him to a two-year contract.
Stöckl called it an “honor” to coach the Norwegian team and be part of an organization with a long ski-jumping history. Stöckl had his first meeting with the jumpers a few weeks ago, sporting a Norwegian sweater from the recent world championships at Holmenkollen.