Twelve Norwegian skiers could crowd onto the winners’ podium after this weekend’s World Cup men’s relay race in Lillehammer. The Norwegians loved it, but their near-total dominance of international cross-country skiing “is not good for the sport,” claims one former top German skier, who’s calling for a limit on Norwegian participation.
“It’s not the Norwegian team’s fault, it’s everyone else who has to do something,” Jochen Behle, who also once coached the German national ski team, told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). “If only one nation dominates everything, it’s not good for the sport.”
Behle was in Lillehammer over the weekend as “expert commentator” for TV channel Eurosport. He was among the spectators, viewers, fellow athletes and international skiing officials who watched how three Norwegian men’s teams won first, second and third place in the men’s relay, where each of four participants skis 7.5 kilometers. A fourth Norwegian team placed ninth.
Norway has long been a dominant ski nation, but never has any single nation claimed all three spots on the winners’s podium of a World Cup relay. The four Norwegian men claiming the gold medal were Niklas Dyrhaug, Hans Christer Holund, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Petter Northug, but all 12 Norwegians packing the platform could “smile to the world,” as newspaper Aftenposten put it.
Sundby, meanwhile, also won the World Cup “skiathlon” on Saturday, skiing the 30-kilometer course in just one hour, 19 minutes and 22.2 seconds. Fellow Norwegians Niklas Dyrhaug, Hans Christer Holund and Sjur Røthe placed second, third and fourth respectively, with only a French skier, Maurice Magnificat, slipping in with fifth place. Of the top 10 finishers, seven were Norwegians. Sundby is leading the overall World Cup points total with 466, compared to 299 points for his next-closest competitor Petter Northug, also a Norway.
The Norwegian women were outstanding as well during the weekend World Cup, winning their 5-kilometer relay event on Sunday ahead of a team from Finland and the US. Other Norwegian teams placed fourth, seventh and 10th. And that was after Norway’s Therese Johaug won the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon on Saturday (in just 42 minutes, 17.7 seconds) and her teammate Heidi Weng won second place. Johaug is also way ahead of her closest competitors in the points total.
Too good for their own good?
The Norwegians, already leading all the World Cup events after the season’s first five races, now may simply be too good for their own good, given the rumbling from people like Behle. He’s afraid that total Norwegian domination will kill interest for the sport elsewhere. Lots of money is involved as well. Broadcast interest can decline outside of Norway, along with sponsor income.
Behle told NRK that he thinks the international ski federation (FIS) needs to take drastic steps. “Maybe there should be smaller starting groups, not 20 Norwegians but maybe only six from each country.” He also proposes “A”- and “B”-World Cup competition, with younger skiers (under age 23) taking part in the “B” Cup.
Asked whether that would make Germans better skiers, with fewer Norwegians out front, Behle said “No, but it will look better. If only six Norwegians can start, there won’t be seven Norwegians among the eight best. But the winners will be the same.”
Not entertaining outside Norway
Vegard Ulvang, a former top Norwegian skier who now leads FIS’ cross-country committee, shares Behle’s concerns. “What we saw in Lillehammer this weekend is great entertainment for Norwegians, but not in other countries, unfortunately,” Ulvang told NRK. He thinks it’s likely that lower quotas for Norway will be approved at an FIS congress in June.
“Yesterday (Sunday) Norway started with more than 20 men,” Ulvang said. “We can move towards a maximum quota of six.”
The Norwegian skiers themselves were celebrating their victories over the weekend but also tried to tone them down. Even though Sundby and Northug claim they’re not worred by Norway’s dominance, Northug conceded that “it’s a bit dumb that there aren’t other countries on the (winners’) platform.”
Sundby said the Norwegians “demonstrate a bredth … that’s perhaps unique,” adding that “great young talent is zooming up” as well. The Norwegians are known for being very concentrated in their training, with a culture that also includes structure in daily life. “We are professional in all areas,” the women’s national team’s coach Egil Kristiansen told Aftenposten. “We pay attention to all details. It’s not certain the other coutries have the same resources to do that. Not everyone is clear over what’s involved to perform at the highest levels.”
Both he and men’s coach Trond Nystad said they’re willing to share training tips with rival teams. “Norway has no secrets,” Nystad said, stressing that “patience” is the most important when nurturing young talent. “In Norway athletes who have struggled with illness or injury can get an opportunity to blossom later.” There’s no question they’re blossoming now.