It says a lot in Norway when national broadcaster NRK opts to broadcast live coverage of a chess game from India over the opening event of the cross-country skiing season at home. It wasn’t just any game, of course, and its winner, new World Champion Magnus Carlsen, has surpassed Norway’s sports stars to become the country’s most popular hero.
“We just have to take our hats off to him,” skiing star Petter Northug told NRK. He was busy making his premiere in the 15-kilometer race at Beitostølen in the mountains of Norway on Friday, but followed Carlsen’s winning game before he started.
“It looked like he had the championship title in his arms then,” Northug said. “It’s impressive.”
Kjetil André Aamodt, the alpine skier who won a record number of Olympic gold medals and world championships of his own, said he’d nearly become addicted to chess during Carlsen’s performance in the World Chess Championships. “I’m a huge admirerer of what he’s accomplished,” Aamodt told NRK.
‘I’ll just be a celebrity instead’
“I once said that now I’ll stop being a chess player and just be a celebrity instead,” Carlsen joked with Norwegian reporters outside his hotel in Chennai. “It looks like that’s how it will be now.”
The 22-year-old international chess sensation is nonetheless likely to remain firmly grounded, given the “Team Carlsen” group of supporters around him that includes his unassuming and down-to-earth father Henrik. Carlsen’s family, including his mother and three sisters, are said to be extremely important to Carlsen and travel with him often. They simply don’t seem the type to let all the fuss and adulation go to Magnus’ head.
He did finally seem to let go, though, after weeks of maintaining his somber, often dour, countenance. After sponsors and teammates threw him in the hotel swimming pool, he emerged with his hands in the air and let out a shout of jubilation. NRK reported that he even allowed himself a celebratory jump on his way back inside, dripping wet.
Skiing took a back seat to Magnus’ chess
Back home in Norway, meanwhile, the national skiing team’s annual season opener is always a big deal in local media. This year it didn’t get live coverage on NRK’s main Channel 1, which also opted to dump its national mid-afternoon news cast on Friday. Carlsen’s championship game in Chennai was far more exciting and important, and die-hard skiing fans had to switch to NRK2.
Most stayed tuned to the action as Carlsen, in as much of a thriller as a chess game can get, ended up forcing opponent Vishy Anand, the defending world champion, into giving up his title. Chess experts and other sports stars alike called it an historic feat, both for Norway and the game itself, and there’s no question that Carlsen’s achievement has infected the country with chess fever that shows no sign of wearing off.
He’s glad about that. With many chess experts and fans contending that Carlsen is ushering in a new era for the sport, and spreading its appeal, Carlsen himself modestly told reporters in Chennai that “we’re seeing some signs of that in Norway,” where many stores are sold out of chess boards and viewership for NRK’s live coverage of the World Chess Championship has exceeded all expectations.
“I know that a lot of people who haven’t played chess are getting interested,” Carlsen said. “I hope this will have a positive effect on the game.”
It clearly already has. As for his own celebrity, Carlsen said told NRK that “I knew there would be a lot of attention on me, but I’m really happy about everything.” His manager Espen Agdestein was dealing with a deluge of interview requests from reporters around the world, so Carlsen knows he’ll need to be away from the chess board for awhile.
He did say he was looking forward to next year’s Chess Olympics, which will be held in the Northern Norwegian city of Tromsø. “It will be fun to play for my own country,” Carlsen said.