Skiing dominance churns up debate

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NEWS ANALYSIS: As Norwegian skiers claimed more victories over the weekend, this time at the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, debate kept flying over their utter domination of the cross-country sport. Both Norwegian men and women have been blanketing the winners’ platforms so far this season, after doing the same at last winter’s Olympics in Sochi, and questions are rising over whether that’s really something to keep cheering about.

Norway's Marit Bjørgen (center) once again led the pack of skiers in the weekend opening of the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, with fellow Norwegians Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug placing second and third on Sunday. Weng and Ragnhild Haga placed second and third at Saturday's opener behind Bjørgen, who put on what commentators called a show of force and thanked support staff for providing her with "super skis." PHOTO: International Ski Federation/FIS Tour de Ski

Norway’s Marit Bjørgen (center) once again led the pack of skiers in the weekend opening of the Tour de Ski in Oberstdorf, with fellow Norwegians Heidi Weng and Therese Johaug placing second and third on Sunday. Weng and Ragnhild Haga placed second and third at Saturday’s opener behind Bjørgen, who thanked support staff for providing her with “super skis.” PHOTO: International Ski Federation/FIS Tour de Ski/Facebook

Competitors are frustrated, Norwegian fans have grown accustomed to seeing the same skiers win race after race, and sports commentators have taken up the issue in local media. While it may seem like some cranks simply want to turn the Norwegians’ excellence into a problem, concerns are rising over the Norwegian domination of cross-country skiing and the huge resources behind it. Even one of Norway’s best skiers ever, who’s now a top international skiing official himself, thinks new measures are needed to give other nations a better chance to win on the ski trails.

“We know that interest in the sport is tied to individual nation’s athletes and how they perform,” Vegard Ulvang, the former Norwegian gold medalist who now leads the cross-country committee at the international skiing federation FIS, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) recently. “In order for the sport to be visible on European TV screens, we depend on having as many countries as possible perform well.”

Kowalczyk’s complaints
The debate took off after Norwegian ski queen Marit Bjørgen’s long-time arch rival, top skier Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, recently vented her frustration in the Polish newspaper Gazeta. She claimed that the Norwegian domination is “killing” international cross-country competition, which she thinks is in danger of being reduced to “an international Norwegian championship.” It wasn’t just sour grapes after the 31-year-old Kowalczyk was badly beaten by her Norwegian rivals who claimed all four top spots in the season opener at Lillehammer: She raised serious issues about the relatively huge resources, both in terms of money and expertise, that Norway has to back up its top skiers, from those waxing and preparing skis to its teams of coaches and administrative personnel monitoring the tracks.

“I’m in despair over the Norwegian domination, but at the same time admire the country’s resources, which no other country comes close to having,” Kowalczyk wrote. She doesn’t think anyone else can compete against the Norwegians’ equipment, medical apparatus and “enormous” amounts of money spent to support skiers like Bjørgen and Therese Johaug. “This season, only Sweden is trying,” she wrote, because the upcoming Nordic skiing world championships will be held at Falun in Sweden. “Then comes Russia, Germany and Finland. Everyone else has already fallen out.”

Norwegian dominance continued through December and into the New Year. After last month’s World Cup competition in Davos, for example, Norwegian women claimed all five top spots after eight of 27 scheduled events, and the men held six out seven. By the start of the Christmas holidays, it was “news” when the Norwegian women  shared the winners’ platform with a Swede, Stina Nilsson, in second place after a sprint. And then came the launch of the Tour de Ski.

Limits may be set
Jürg Capol, director of the company that handles TV rights for the FIS, thinks limits should be placed on how much money the biggest skiing nations spend on supporting their athletes. “You can compare it to Formula 1 racing, where limits were put on how many days are used for testing, how many tires you can change during a race and how big budgets can be,” Capol told NRK. “If you have 25 service personnel, there’s a question whether all of them are needed.”

Ulvang doesn’t think limits will be placed on financial resources but other measures may be put in place. One would put limits on how many people will have access to the ski tracks before a race starts, while another would limit the time a track is open. That would hinder the apparatus behind the skiers from having too much power: “I think many believe the ski race should be decided out on the tracks, not in the waxing and equipment rooms,” Ulvang said.

He thinks the FIS may impose such new measures before next season, with violations leading to fines. The idea is to level out the playing field for national teams that don’t have the support staff that countries like Norway have.

Ulvang doesn’t want to hold back the positive developments of the best countries like Norway. “I prefer giving other athletes more opportunity to perform better, whether they come from a big or small skiing nation,” Ulvang told NRK. Both he and Capol think it’s natural that Norway dominates cross-country skiing, though, given Norwegians’ interest, traditions and resources.

Strong start to Tour de Ski
At the weekend opening of the Tour de Ski, a grueling set of World Cup races that plays out in Germany, Switzerland and Italy for the next week, Norwegian women placed first, second and third on both Saturday and Sunday. It’s the only major skiing event Bjørgen has never won, not least because of health problems in earlier years, so she’s motivated to prevail.

Norwegians took five out of the 10 top spots in the 10-kilometer classic pursuit on Sunday, with only two Swedes, one German, one Pole and one Russian placing fourth through eighth. Kowalczyk of Poland was sixth.  The men didn’t fare as well on Saturday, with Petter Northug placing third behind Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden and Dario Cologna of Switzerland. Northug, shaking off a bad season last year that culminated in a drunk-driving spree and jail sentence, won on Sunday, however.

In earlier races this year and at the Olympics last year, Norwegian men like Martin Johnsrud Sundby also dominated the winners platform. Sundby, who won the Tour de Ski last year along with fellow Norwegian Therese Johaug, told newspaper Dagsavisen recently that he was surprised the Norwegians have performed as well as they have so far this season: “I know we have a very strong team, but I’m surprised the margins have been so wide.”

Commentators like Reidar Sollie in Oslo newspaper Dagsavisen have downplayed Norway’s domination, claiming that “we’re just nurturing a national distinction.” Kowalczyk, however, fears that with few other nations beating the Norwegians on a regular basis, interest in the sport will falter. “Norwegians love cross-country skiing more than anyone else in the world, but at the same time, they’re killing the sport,” Kowalczyk claimed. “What a paradox.

“In the end, you can have only a nation of 5 million people who are interested in cross-country skiing, but not necessarily, because it can get boring there (in Norway), too,” Kowalczyk added. “Who wants to see the same people win again and again?”

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund