It was a wonderful weekend for Norway at the Winter Olympics in South Korea, with more medals that catapulted Norwegian athletes into the top spot with another week of competition ahead. Sports fans back home were also enjoying some international recognition, after major media outlets declared Norway as dominant.
“Olympics Buzz: Norway’s dominance in winter sports is hard to miss” read the headline on one story in the Los Angeles Times. Last week the Washington Post was complaining in jest that “Every four years, they come from Norway to plunder your gold.” From Austria to Japan and in between, international media outlets have woken up to what the Norwegians have worked hard for and known for years: They’re hard to beat.
“Other athletics chiefs are congratulating me, and then they look at me a bit strangely,” Tore Øvrebø, head of Norway national athletics federation (Norges Idrettsborbund, NIF), told state broadcaster NRK Sunday night. “But that’s fine. This is just fantastic. I’m very proud.”
The gold rush continued on Sunday when the men’s cross-country relay team won, as did Øystein Bråten in a slope-style skiing demonstration that left spectators gasping. Those victories came after the women’s cross-country team won its relay on Saturday, and there were several other medals hung around Norwegian necks, too. By Sunday night, Norway had knocked Germany out of first place in the medals race, with a total of 26, nine of them gold.
That already makes the 2018 Olympics the best ever for Norway, with its athletes only halfway through their two weeks of competition.
Even though the Norwegians were keen to win medals at the Olympics as always, with officials setting a goal of 30 in total and local sports commentators expecting even more, the haul so far has defied some odds. Three of the country’s former winter sports stars and Olympic favourites (cross-country skiers Petter Northug and Therese Johaug and biathlon legend Ole Einar Bjørndalen) weren’t part of the team, with neither Northug nor Bjørndalen qualifying and Johaug suspended over a doping conviction. Months of controversy over high expense accounts among top sports bureaucrats also soured the public, and led to a fall in the numbers of Norwegian officials and fans traveling to the Winter Olympics. Neither of the country’s largest national TV channels have been able to broadcast the events live, either, after Discovery won the bidding and its commercial station TV Norge took over.
But the athletes who did head for PyeongChang and other sports venues in South Korea have done very well indeed. Some of them even astonished Norwegians themselves, as they weren’t household names in a nation of winter sports fans. “Krüger who?” asked many when Simen Hegstad Krüger of Oslo won the gold medal in a men’s 30-kilometer event last week and then went on to win silver in the 15K freestyle.
On Sunday Krüger was also widely credited with saving the men’s relay team, after disappointing starts by Didrik Tønseth and ski team veteran Martin Johnsrud Sundby. Krüger “cleaned up” after them, putting Norway’s new wonderboy Johannes Høsflot Klæbo into what NRK called a “dream position” as anchor on the fouth and final stage. Klæbo carried the Norwegian flag over the finish line and Krüger could head home to Norway with his three medals.
“Simen will travel home tomorrow (Monday) with some extra weight in his luggage from all the medals,” ski team coach Tor-Arne Hetland told NRK. Krüger himself hadn’t quite digested his accomplishments: “This is something I hadn’t seen in my wildest fantasies,” the 24-year-old told NRK. “I’ve hit the jackpot in all the events, and winning the relay gold is huge.”
On Saturday the Norwegian women’s relay team won gold as well, with ski queen Marit Bjørgen in the important anchor position. Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Ragnhild Haga (who won gold herself last week) beat the Swedes by two seconds, with a team of skiers from Russia placing third.
Bjørgen, who has dominated women’s cross-country skiing for years, said she’d been taunted by some Swedish fans along the course. “They were yelling that I looked stressed, and I thought, ‘damn, that just ignites me even more,'” Bjørgen told NRK when it was all over. She poured on her customary power, seized a window of opportunity and Swedish rival Stina Nilsson couldn’t catch up.
In other events, Henrik Kristoffersen won silver in the men’s giant slalom and bronze medals went to biathlon skiers Tiril Eckhoff and Emil Hegle Svendsen. The latter was among those amused by all the international interest in Norwegian athletes. “I always get the question every four years, ‘what is it that you’re doing up there in Norway?'” Svendsen told NRK after winning his own medal on Sunday. “It is just incredible that we have the breadth that we have, over so many branches of winter sports. It’s inspiring for us all.”
Siegfried Mazet, who’s French but works within the Norwegian biathlon support staff, said his French colleagues are always trying to find out what the Norwegians’ secret is. “After (Kjetil) Jansrud and (Aksel Lund) Svindal won the men’s downhill, a French commentator asked me how the Norwegians can be so strong,” Mazet told NRK. “I don’t know. I must just be in their blood.”