The drama around Norwegian skier Petter Northug, currently banned from the national ski team this season, took a new turn on Thursday when the country’s ski federation agreed to meet with the controversial champion. He won a new chance to try to cut a deal with the national skiing authorities, and also hang on to his lucrative sponsorship deal with grocery store chain Coop.
Northug was effectively dumped by the federation (Norges Skiforbund) earlier this week after he’d refused to accept an offer to ski for Norway under the same terms he had last year. They called for him to suspend his personal Coop sponsorship during the season, from November to April, when he’d be expected to ski only under the approved sponsors of the national team.
That seemed to jar Northug into action, and he even met reporters face-to-face Wednesday night to say he still wanted to “ski fast” for Norway and wasn’t asking for any special treatment. Rather, he claimed, but wanted to “find a solution” like those found for other athletes who don’t regularly participate on national teams. He’d also sent out a press release pleading his case, but federation officials said it contained errors and wouldn’t budge.
Northug, known for also being a keen poker player, may be holding some new cards but commentators following the Northug saga think any “solution” at this point would involve a defeat, or at least a loss of prestige, for Norway’s bad boy of skiing. Either he’ll have to accept the package he had last year (which he clearly didn’t think was good enough), or he won’t ski internationally for Norway and can only take part in long-distance races, Scandinavian cups or national races.
It’s unclear whether Coop will go along with not being able to use Northug in its promotions from November through April, since that greatly cuts the value of the multi-million deal Northug secured. The second alternative would be a major athletic downturn for Northug, who wants to take part in Tour de Ski, the World Cup and the Olympics in 2018.
He apparently hasn’t given up on a third alternative that would allow Coop to use him all year long, except when he represents Norway from Friday to Sunday throughout the winter. The federation has rejected that alternative, saying they’d already made a generous offer and were irritated that Northug and Coop were challenging the federation’s entire system for financing top skiing and international competition.
What’s been different about the drama this week, as the conflict between Northug and the ski federation continues, is the media and public reaction. Northug was disgraced last year when he went on a drunk driving spree and crashed the car another sponsor, Audi, had supplied him with. Audi dumped him immediately while Coop kept him on, but Northug hasn’t generated any great public support for his bid to keep skiing for Norway. Several communications experts and media commentators said patience with Northug ran out long ago, with one telling newspaper Aftenposten that “there’s a limit to how much we’ll tolerate of Northug’s ego trip.”
Newspaper Dagsavisen was even more direct: “Can we live without Petter Northug on the national team? Yes, we can. It’s more important to preserve Norway’s model for top athletics than to placate a single individual’s greed.” He will, however, get an audience with the federation next week, at its offices in Oslo. The federation stressed in a letter to Northug that it was “not a negotiations meeting,” but they were “positive to meet you as you wish. We will also go through the federation’s view of the case.”