NEWS ANALYSIS: Widespread condemnation of skier Petter Northug’s drunk-driving spree over the weekend continued to spread over media channels in Norway on Monday, as did speculation over the brash 28-year-old’s future as a top international competitor. Some sports officials and media commentators suggest Northug may finally have ruined his reputation beyond repair, despite a strong Norwegian tradition for forgiveness.
Petter Northug has already been “forgiven for a lot,” wrote sports commentator Ola Bernhus in newspaper Aftenposten Monday morning. “It gets more difficult every time.”
Northug has been known as a brilliant skier who has defended the nation’s skiing honour for years. He has also, though, shown himself to be arrogant and a bad loser, a moody and sarcastic athlete who disregards athletic tradition (like the time when he turned up late for the flower ceremonies after winning a race) and one who relies on his own special talents and has trained less than his coaches think is necessary. He has spent many post-season hours at poker tables in Las Vegas and elsewhere when other skiers are already training for the next winter, and he has continually teased, belittled and irritated his Swedish rivals, often to the amusement of Norwegians but also inappropriately at times. He ended up going his own way when he left the national ski team last year to negotiate his own sponsorships and earn more money for himself instead of for the team.
Now he’s in big trouble. News broke around midday on Sunday that Northug’s car was found demolished on a city street in Trondheim, after it reportedly had been driven at high speed through a rotary intersection and straight into a guardrail. Later on Sunday night, Northug finally admitted that he’d been the one driving his car, and that he’d been under the influence of alcohol. Newspaper Dagbladet reported that Northug had partied during the night at Studio 26, a bar in downtown Trondheim.
Serious offense, faces jail
That’s a particularly serious offense in Norway, which long has had some of the world’s strictest laws against drunk driving. Nearly all offenders get automatic jail terms, must pay heavy fines and lose their driver’s licenses for lengthy periods. “The view in Norway is that drunk driving is an offense against the general public,” lawyer Mette Yvonne Larsen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “That’s why it’s punished so harshly.”
What’s worse in this case, agree many legal experts speaking on general terms, is that police already had reported that the driver of the car (which turned out to be Norway’s most high-profile male cross-country skier of the last decade) had fled the scene of the accident, leaving behind an injured passenger five years younger than himself. Larsen, herself a high-profile lawyer in Norway who has worked on many cases involving public officials, told NRK that simply having a passenger in the car makes aggravates the offense for a convicted drunk driver because the driver has put another person’s life at risk. Leaving the scene of an accident, and in this case someone with a broken collarbone and other injuries, further aggravates the offense, Larsen added, and generally results in a mandatory jail term of 30-60 days.
The prospect of one of Norway’s most celebrated and visible sports stars landing in jail because of such illegal and irresponsible behaviour is “most unfortunate,” said the communications chief for Norway’s national skiing federation (Norges Skiforbund), Espen Graff. “This is serious for Northug and for everyone involved with Norwegian skiing,” Graff told NRK. “We regret this in the strongest possible terms.”
Northug dropped out of the national ski team last year to form his own team called Nye Høyder (New Heights), but it has achieved mostly new lows instead and still must cooperate with the national sports bureaucrats who control Norwegian representation at top international competitions like the Olympics. Graff said that Norway’s skiing federation “would enter into dialogue” with both Northug and his team. Graff wouldn’t comment at this point on what consequences Northug’s drunk driving spree might have.
Others believe the consequences will be serious indeed, with some questioning whether Northug will be able to make a comeback as a top skier, not least after his poor results last season. Jann Post, who has followed Northug for years as a cross-country skiing commentator for NRK, noted that Northug isn’t the first athlete to get into such trouble and many have made comebacks.
A matter of motivation
“But the question is whether Northug will find the motivation that he had before the World Championships in 2011 (when Northug dominated competition),” Post said on national radio Monday morning. “Things indicate that he hasn’t lived the life normal for top athletes since the Olympics in Sochi (where he performed poorly). He has to find the motivation needed to train hard again, in order to become the world’s best cross-country skier again. Right now it doesn’t look like he’s had that motivation for a while.”
Only Northug can say whether he can regain his motivation or whether he’s just tired of the demanding life of a top athlete. Economic issues further complicate the issue. With no support from a national team around him anymore, Northug must rely on his private sponsorships. His main sponsor, grocery retailer Coop Norge, already has distanced itself from Northug’s drunk driving on Sunday and it has an exit clause in the contract that has guaranteed Northug income of at least NOK 9 million (USD 1.5 million) a year. Officials at carmaker Audi can’t have been happy either, to see the expensive and powerful Audi A7 car that Northug was driving as part of a sponsorship agreement end up as a total wreck.
“Does he have the economic base to do what he wants?” questioned Post rhetorically. “Or will he need to find new sponsors?” Those are questions that also affect the skier’s future.
“Many will certainly claim that Petter simply panicked when he realized how much uproar there would be if it became known that he drove the car,” Bernhus wrote in Aftenposten. “So he ran home. Petter Northug can’t be expected to handle the situation better than others would, simply because he’s a well-known skier.
“Nor can anyone expect, though, that he can get off easily, just because he’s a national ski star.”