NEWS ANALYSIS: As the debate wore on Monday over why Norway’s top skiers have suddenly been performing relatively poorly at the Winter Olympics, a sports reporter and commentator for newspaper Aftenposten shared an interesting experence in his hunt for answers. It led him to conclude that Norwegian athletes, at least the cross-country skiers, haven’t learned how to tackle setbacks and losses. Nor have their coaches.
Norway’s sports world reacted badly when their own representative on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) Gerhard Heiberg claimed last week that Norway is perceived as “arrogant” by many other nations. Norwegians who pride themselves on being anything but arrogant were not pleased, and Heiberg was roundly criticized.
Yet the behaviour of several top skiers after Sunday’s latest “fiasco” on the ski trails of Sochi lends credence to Heiberg’s claim. Petter Northug, the “bad boy” of skiing who often has behaved surly and cross on earlier occasions, strode through the press’ interview zone in Sochi after the men’s relay without saying a word and disappeared. Martin Johnsrud Sundby also disappeared out a back exit, reported Erlend Nesje, longtime sports journalist for Aftenposten.
Both were forced to return, to answer for themselves by their leaders under pressure. But then one of the leaders himself, national skiing coach Trond Nystad, seemed even more surly than Northug. Asked what his explanation was for the Norwegians landing in fourth place instead of on the winners’ podium, Nystad threw the question back at Nesje: “If you have an explanation, come on back to the bua (waxing shed) and enlighten us. Because then we can pay you a lot.”
“Yeah, I reckon you have an answer, because you’re so damned intelligent.”
Is that all you have to say?
And then he disappeared, too.
The conversation lasted around 22 seconds, according to Nesje, but he claims it taught him one thing: “The Norwegian ski sport has not learned how to lose. Cross-country skiers and coaches have gone from triumph to triumph, they’ve had all reason to be satisfied with themselves. But they haven’t prepared themselves for a fall. Which all athletes experience sooner or later. It’s no longer a given that Petter Northug, Marit Bjørgen and Therese Johaug will win everything they enter in the coming years.”
Once again, Nesje and many others pointed to alpine skier Aksel Lund Svindal as a much better example of a real professional. Svindal opted to drop the rest of the Olympics on Monday because he’s not feeling well, he said, but not before he showed how he knows how to lose graciously. While the cross-country team was sour and sulking, and immediately blaming their equipment instead of themselves, Svindal had a different approach after he placed seventh in the men’s Super-G, which was won by younger teammate Kjetil Jansrud instead:
“The Olympics haven’t been as I wanted,” Svindal said. “No medals. I haven’t been good enough. But I’m lucky to have incredible teammates. Thank you. Kjetil!”
Svindal, always smiling, was also praised for his professionalism in Vancouver and at a long string of World Championships, when Northug refused to answer questions and sneered his way back to the dressing rooms. Now Svindal is being praised again, and has a few things to teach his cross-country colleagues.
The search for answers over the Norwegian’s losses continued, with some experts claiming that it’s not the waxing but the preparation of the skis before they’re waxed that’s causing problems in the spring-like conditions in Sochi. Team crew members admitted they’ve spied on rival teams to see what waxing techniques they’re using. Northug, who’s been training solo, had skis that performed better than the national team’s did. Nystad also claimed at a press conference Monday that the other teams have access to some products that the Norwegians don’t. “This isn’t a conspiracy theory,” Nystad insisted. “I have it confirmed from suppliers that there are products we don’t have.”
Nesje suspects the reason for the skiers’ poor performance is the result of a combination of several factors: Waxing deficiencies, a lack of preparation for the conditions in Sochi, what kind of shape the skiers are really in, the snow itself, high altitude and a Norwegian training program that demanded top form for the Tour de Ski in January, a month before the Olympics began.
And then there’s the lack of humility, and a feeling on the team that they know better than everyone else. It’s everyone else who’s winning of late, though, not them. Other countries, not least arch-rival Sweden, clearly have expertise as well.
On Monday they all just had to gear up for the remaining events including the team sprint on Wednesday and the long-distance races on the last weekend of the Sochi Olympics. Despair over how the recent string of losses will need to be replaced by some rebuilt confidence, hopefully, according to Nesje, mixed with some newfound humility.