Norwegians won both the men’s and women’s versions of the tough, week-long Tour de Ski that ended Sunday in the alps of Europe. The double victory kept Norway at the top of its popular national sport, but experts fear the future for cross-country skiing is in danger over a lack of snow and international sponsors’ funding.
The Tour de Ski has become an annual test of strength and endurance, running over seven days as competitors move from venue to venue. Hopes weren’t high for this year’s event after top skiers like Norway’s Therese Johaug and Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla opted to drop out, in order to concentrate on more upcoming World Cup events.
The lack of participation drew criticism and complaints from organizers who rely on big names to draw financial backing. Norway’s 22-year-old skiing star Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and 28-year-old Ingvild Flugstad Østberg saved the day, at least for their homeland, when they won the overall competition (external link to International Skiing Federation’s coverage). Klæbo also became the youngest man to ever win the Tour de Ski.
Their sport, however, faces huge challenges, and not just because of the retirements of some of its biggest stars like Marit Bjørgen, Petter Northug and, in the biathlon division, Ole Einar Bjørndalen. Johaug has made a strong comeback after her controversial suspension on doping charges, while earlier Tour de Ski winner and champion Martin Johnsrud Sundby hasn’t done well this season as retirement looms for him, too. The sport naturally goes through generational changes, though, and Klæbo’s performances have been nothing less than stunning.
Concerns remain that the future of professional cross-country skiing is far from assured. One thing is the dominance of just a few countries, not least Norway itself. “A sport in which just two nations (Norway and Russia) shared 10 first-places in a World Cup event risks being on the way out,” wrote sports commentator Ola Bernhus in newspaper Aftenposten after the World Cup competiton at Beitostolen in December. The lack of broader international participation and appeal does not bode well.
Then comes the biggest threat, which is climate change. It was impossible not to notice the lack of natural snow in the alps during the Tour de Ski, and that’s a problem stalking the sport worldwide. Worse yet, the skiers arguably contribute to it themselves: Aftenposten wrote over the weekend how the Norwegians had no fewer than 10 large vehicles, including the country’s infamous truck used as a mobile ski-waxing center, to move 44 people 1,500 kilometers around the alps during Tour de Ski week. And that’s after everyone had flown in and out of Munich.
“No matter how you look at at, we’re climate fiends,” admitted Espen Bjervig, chief of cross country skiing for the Norwegian team. “It’s difficult. We travel all over the world with cars and trucks and airlines.” Head ski coach Vidar Løfshus agreed: “I think about it all the time. We’re all bad, including the skiing federations.”
Emissions created by all the travel can only contribute to the climate change that in turn raises temperatures that results in the lack of snow. It’s a paradox that may ruin their own sport in the years to come.
There’s also been problems recruiting new, young skiers, while the national ski federation (Norges Skiforbund) has been losing members, more than 30,000 just in the past few years. Non-competitive hiking and skiing federations have kept growing, indicating that public interest in skiing remains high, but organized competition is in decline and even the Olympics have lost their popularity and stature after years of lavish spending.
Norwegian media has been full of warnings this season about the lack of snow and money for professional skiing. “When it’s difficult to find organizers of World Cup events outside of Scandinavia, there’s cause for concern,” veteran skier turned commentator Fredrik Aukland told Aftenposten last month. “It doesn’t help if Norway has a big budget and a strong team itself if the sport doesn’t survive internationally.”
Germany and Poland used to have cross-country stars but they haven’t been replaced and interest there is waning. The only countries actively taking part and winning at least a medal or two in international competition now are Norway, Russia, Canada, Sweden, Switzerland, Finland and the US. Only China is showing new interest, before it hosts the next Olympics, and providing Norway with a new outlet for its expertise.