Petter Northug, Norway’s sometimes surly skiing star who left the national team to train on his own, won’t be skiing in Friday’s 15-kilometer race at the Winter Olympics (OL) in Sochi. His performance in the first two OL events was so poor that national skiing officials have effectively dumped him.
The officials themselves put a more positive spin on the news, claiming that they had reached an agreement with Northug’s team that he drop the 15K. At a Wednesday morning press conference in Sochi, it was reported that the young man who long has reigned as Norway’s ski king had chosen, in cooperation with national coach Trond Nystad, to pass on the race that he’s won many times before in international competition. The reason given was that Northug himself feels he can’t optimally compete over that distance right now.
Both Nystad, head of the national team that Northug left, and Northug’s coach, Eirik Myhr Nossum, claimed that Northug simply needs to “recharge” before the other upcoming events where he’s been expected to ski – the men’s relay on Sunday and the tough 50-kilometer race at the end of the Olympics.
On Tuesday, after skiing poorly for the second time in an Olympic event and failing to reach the finals of the sprint that he once dominated, Northug had told reporters that he still wanted to race in Friday’s 15K at the Olympics. “That’s where I’ve had my strongest international results,” he told TV2.
Now reporters are getting a different message. Nystad claimed that Northug changed his mind overnight, and now agrees it wasn’t wise to compete on Friday. He did not attend Wednesday morning’s press conference, with Nystad claiming that “The reason Northug isn’t here is because he shall recharge for the relay.”
It remains unclear whether he’ll actually be chosen to run in the men’s relay on Sunday, though, an event called “stafett” in Norwegian that’s one of the most popular events among winter sports fans in Norway.
Sensational, but not surprising
Norway’s team on Friday will now consist of Eldar Rønning, Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Chris Jespersen and Didrik Tønseth, reported TV2 Wednesday morning. While news of Northug’s looming absence is sensational on the one hand, because of how he’s dominated Norwegian skiing in recent years, it wasn’t particularly surprising given his poor performance in his first two OL events and earlier in the season.
Northug has alternately seemed to be battling either illness, the effects of inadequate training, or both. He fell far behind in his opening event in Sochi on Saturday, where Norwegian skiers otherwise had a great day, and again on Tuesday, when he didn’t get beyond the semi-finals in the men’s sprint that was won by Ola Vigen Hattestad. That led to mockery in Sweden, after years of intense rivalry between Northug and Swedish skiers. They love seeing each other lose, and Swedish media seemed to have fun humiliating Northug after his slow skiing Saturday and Tuesday.
Some commentators speculate that Northug, who turned 28 last month, has lost his motivation. Ola Bernhus of newspaper Aftenposten pointed to something Northug himself told TV2 in a documentary in the run-up to the Olympics after being asked whether he took too big a risk in leaving the Norwegian national team to train on his own and under his own rules, also regarding sponsorships:
“I have won so much, I risk nothing,” Northug said.
That indicated not only that he needed new motivation, but that he no longer thinks it’s so uncomfortable to lose. TV2’s commentator and former skiing star Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeseth had another opinion:
“It’s sad that things haven’t gone the way he wanted himself. At the same time, it’s fine that he be allowed to relax a bit and get ready for the relay. He has seemed tired, so it can be good if he summons up more energy.” A decision on whether he’ll be allowed to ski in Sunday’s important relay was pending.