Norway’s own Norwegian member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Gerhard Heiberg, was stirring more controversy at home on Monday when he called Norwegian skiers “arrogant” after they allegedly broke some of the committee’s own rules. Others suggest Heiberg doesn’t understand all the rules himself, and that the IOC has long been out of touch with popular opinion.
“Norway is known … for being arrogant,” Heiberg told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), referring to how the Norwegian cross-country ski team donned black armbands on Saturday after one of their team members lost her brother and training partner. In doing so, Heiberg claims they broke IOC rules against any form of protest or personal statements by athletes, but were nonetheless willing to risk being reprimanded by the IOC.
Heiberg also referred to a warning that skier Martin Johnsrud Sundby received from the international ski federation FIS after Russian officials complained that he’d hindered their own athlete during their rush to the finish line on Sunday. Sundby was awarded the bronze under protests from the Russians.
On Monday, Heiberg claimed that Norwegian skiing star Marit Bjørgen risked losing the gold medal she won on Saturday because a commercial website in Norway was still displaying one of her sponsors ads, also in violation of IOC rules. He didn’t blame Bjørgen, but pointed fingers at both Norway’s ski federation (Skiforbundet) and at the company owning the website.
Such rule-breaking, Heiberg told NRK, “doesn’t exactly help the image” he thinks Norway has as being “arrogant.” He claimed the Norwegians need “to clean up their act” to avoid more trouble as the Winter Olympics in Sochi proceeds. “I hope there won’t be any more warnings,” Heiberg said. “Let’s hope things calm down.” Asked whether he thinks the Norwegian athletes and sports bureaucrats need to sharpen up, Heiberg responded that “you can certainly use those words.”
Others beg to differ
He was quickly assailed by a professor in Norway who disagreed that Bjørgen was in any real danger of losing her medal, because the IOC generally doesn’t want to make athletes suffer for mistakes made by their sponsors. Others also disputed Heiberg’s claim that the Norwegians are “arrogant,” and suggested that Heiberg and the IOC were out of touch with how most people perceived the skiers’ display of mourning on Saturday.
“I think the vast majority had great understanding for why they did that,” said Bjørn Dæhlie, a former champion skier for Norway who won numerous medals during his Olympic career. “We shall follow the rules, and we shall not be arrogant.” He doesn’t think the Norwegian skiers view themselves as having any overwhelming respect from the juries in Olympic disputes that might allow the skiers to get away with repeated violations.
Dæhlie told NRK that he thinks most IOC members also understand “deep down” why the Norwegian women wore the armbands during the 15-kilometer race on Saturday. Erik Røste, president of Norway’s skiing federation, tried to downplay Heiberg’s characterizations.
“My feeling isn’t that Norway is seen as arrogant, on the contrary, I think we’re seen as contributing to international sportsmanship,” Røste told NRK. As for the armbands, “that had nothing to do with arrogance,” he said. Rather, the skiers simply wanted to express their sympathy for a fellow skier during a very difficult time.
An NRK commentator suggested on national radio Monday that the IOC members, Heiberg included, “need to reevaluate their own views,” also regarding how the Olympics are arranged and the enormous amounts of money that’s allowed to be spent on them. Recent refusals on the part of great sports nations like Germany, Switzerland and Sweden to organize an Olympics should send a powerful signal to the IOC, that major changes must be made in many areas.