Olympic glory may prod ‘OL’ in Norway

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NEWS ANALYSIS: Norwegians were getting back to work on Monday after a Winter Olympics that surpassed even their high expectations. Skier Marit Bjørgen’s own historic gold rush and Norwegian athletes’ total haul of 39 medals put Norway at the top of winter sports once again, and raised questions about whether the country might arrange another Olympics itself one day.

Norwegian ski queen Marit Bjørgen crowned her last Olympics with another gold medal that made her the most-winning Winter Olympian of all time. PHOTO: PyeongChang2018

On Sunday and Monday morning, though, it was Bjørgen who was getting the most attention. She’s long been Norway’s ski queen but she outdid herself in South Korea, where she became the greatest Winter Olympian of all time. Her career haul of eight Olympic gold medals plus four in silver and three in bronze put her ahead of the former leaders (also Norwegian) like biathlon star Ole Einar Bjørndalen, Bjørn Dæhlie and Kjetil Andre Aamodt.

Bjørgen’s latest gold medal in Sunday’s 30-kilometer race, which she skied in just one hour, 22 minutes and 17.6 seconds, was her crowning achievement and allowed her to end her Olympic career on top. At an age of 37, she finished nearly two full minutes ahead of her closest, and younger, competitors Krista Pärmäkoski of Finland (who won silver) and Stina Nilsson of Sweden. That’s a huge margin in the world of winter sports.

Marit Bjørgen was awarded her latest gold medal during the Olympics’ closing ceremonies on Sunday. She’d turned down the honour of carrying the Norwegian flag into the opening ceremonies, because of a race the next day, but she proudly carried the flag after competition ended. PHOTO: Idrettsforbund

“I had fantastic skis and I loved these skiing conditions,” Bjørgen told news bureau NTB afterwards, typically giving credit to things other than her own sheer strength and stamina.  “I still feel like I’m just Marit from little Rognes (the community in Trøndelag where she grew up). Everyone here is a great athlete. And I don’t feel like I’m any better than Ole Einar or Dæhlie.”

With her last race taking place on the Olympics’ last day, her gold medal was awarded during the closing ceremonies on Sunday, into which she had carried the Norwegian flag. Many other Norwegian medal winners had already traveled home. She was due to land back in Oslo Monday night, and she said that all she really wanted to do was hug her son Marius again. He’s just two years old and she’d never been away from him so long.

Debate over hosting an ‘OL’ starts swirling again
As speculation began to fly over whether Bjørgen will compete for another season, or even become the head coach for the women’s national ski team, debate was also rising over whether and when Norway might host another Olympics. It’s already done so twice (in Oslo in 1952 and in Lillehammer in 1994) but the huge costs, scope and elitism of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have soured public opinion in Norway. An effort by Norwegian sports bureaucrats to get Oslo to arrange the Winter Olympics in 2022 flopped badly, leaving them facing charges of big-spending and elitism as well. Several have since resigned. Chinese officials in Beijing ended up as among the few willing to mount the next Olympics.

Now IOC President Thomas Bach wants to bring the Winter Olympics “back to its roots.” He called the games in South Korea “a success,” despite trouble with wind, spectators staying away and Russian doping trouble, but he also wants the Winter Olympics to be held in places that have long skiing traditions, and where facilities can be re-used.

Norwegians are famous for being highly enthusiastic spectators, even here in PyeongChang, where bitterly cold winds kept many spectators away. PHOTO: Idrettsforbundet

Norway would be such a place, and could certainly produce cheering crowds, but even such a wealthy nation balks at the huge spending and glitz that peaked with the Olympics in Sochi in 2014. “The only way we could host another Olympics is if it would be on our terms,” Leif Welhaven, veteran sports commentator for Norwegian newspaper VG, said on national radio last week. The IOC would have to yield to local organizers, stop demanding expensive treatment and even rein in events and demands for venues, Welhaven believes.

Kristin Vinje, former finance director for the City of Oslo who’s now a Member of Parliament for the Conservative Party, was among the backers of Oslo’s bid for the 2022 Olympics that failed to win public support. She was also on radio last week, claiming that it was “hypocritical” of Norwegians to do so well in the Olympics yet be unwilling to host an Olympics themselves.

She was quickly assailed by critics like Welhaven and others who maintain the Olympics have simply become far too big and too expensive. They absolutely agree with Bach that the games must “get back to their roots” and be scaled down in all kinds of ways. Even Vinje’s own prime minister from the Conservatives, Erna Solberg, cautioned that the government would only issue the financial guarantees needed for an Olympics if budgets were deemed reasonable and had strong support from the public.

‘Need to downscale’ the Olympics
Newspaper Dagsavisen editorialized on Monday that what Norwegians simply call “OL” is still too big for the IOC to find willing candidates in winter sports nations to host them. “They need to downscale the Games, they should be able to use existing sports facilities, possibly in cooperation with various cities,” Dagsavisen wrote. It supported some rising interest i Sweden to host an “OL,” split between Stockholm and the alpine and cross country areas of Åre and/or Dalarna. Åre has long hosted World Cup events and Dalarna is the home of the traditional cross-country race Vasalöppet. Sweden, which also did extremely well in this year’s Olympics, has never hosted a Winter Olympics before.

Norwegians, meanwhile, are savouring the record 39 medals collected in South Korea: 14 gold, 14 silver and 11 bronze. The world has also taken notice of Norway’s success, with dozens of stories appearing in international media over the past two week about what Norwegians have known for years: Their homeland has a deeply rooted winter sports culture that nurtures top athlethes, while hundreds of thousands of recreational skiers are out on the trails and slopes themselves this winter. Maybe someday they’ll be willing to host another OL themselves, if it can be on their terms.

newsinenglish.no/Nina Berglund