Northug wins the sympathy card

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Norway’s “bad boy of skiing,” Petter Northug, has proven himself worthy of the title once again after being caught speeding last Thursday night and in possession of cocaine. On Monday a former politician and researcher who now specializes in public affairs noted how Northug seems to be playing the sympathy card, and winning.

Petter Northug won the hearts and forgiveness of Norwegians when he cried after winning gold medals at the World Championships in Sweden in 2015, less than a year after crashing his car while driving drunk. Now he’s in trouble again, and was winning sympathy from those who claims he needs help. PHOTO: NRK screen grab/newsinenglish.no

The 34-year-old former multiple World Champion in cross-country skiing is now in seclusion, after being  pulled over by police late last Thursday night for driving an expensive Jaguar at a speed of 168 kilometers per hour (101 mph) in a 110-kph zone on the E6 motorway northeast of Oslo. Newspaper Aftenposten reported that Northug was on his way home to Oslo from a summer ski school in Trysil, near the Swedish border, where he’s an instructor.

Police who caught Northug driving at such excessive speed quickly suspected that he was under the influence of something other than alcohol. He was taken to a local clinic for a blood test, his driver’s license was seized at the scene and then police searched his home in Oslo where they found cocaine.

In trouble again
It’s not the first time Northug has landed in trouble with the law, and disappointed fellow skiers and sports fans. In 2014 he crashed another fast car, at the time one of his sponsor’s Audis, into a guard rail in Trondheim and then fled the scene, leavinig an injured passenger in the car. Northug later admitted to drunk driving charges and ultimately was sentenced to just 50 days in prison, allowed to serve his time confined by a foot link instead of in jail. He claimed revenge by winning gold once again at the World Championships less than a year later.

Norwegians seemed to forgive him but now he faces jail again, this time up to two years on the narcotics charges and a year for recklessness. Northug publicized his predicament on social media himself Friday night, after most newspapers had gone to press and on his own terms. He wrote that he’d take his punishment, and it’s likely to be stronger than before.

Once again, this is how Norwegian skiing officials prefer to remenber their gold medalist Petter Northug, like here when he and the relay team won during the world championships in Oslo. He has a long history, though, of being cocky and even a bully, and his last few years before retiring were not successful on the ski trails. PHOTO: Stian Broch/Oslo 2011

The sports world and many other media commentators, though, were largely expressing sympathy and support for Northug instead of disgust over yet another dangerous escapade. Norway’s national ski federation, the country’s athletics organization and even the Norwegian Olympic committee (Olympiatoppen) were all offering sympathy and even mental health assistance.

“This is a serious offense from which we strongly distance ourselves,” stated cross-country skiing chief Espen Bjervig, “but at the same time, this is a person, and a tragedy for Northug. We have to separate the offense from the person.”

Fellow top skiers like Anders Aukland, Finn-Hågen Krogh and Didrik Tønseth were also full of sympathy, claiming that “now Petter needs support and that people don’t cut him off,” and that “it’s clear Petter has problems.” “This is just really sad,” Krogh told Trønder-Avisa, the newspaper in Northug’s native Trøndelag. “We hope things will go well for Petter.”

‘What have you done?’
Kjetil Skogrand, a former state secretary who’s now a partner in Rud Pedersen Public Affairs, noted how only the government minister in charge of culture and sports, Abid Raja of the Liberal Party, seemed upset with Northug and publicly criticized his speeding and cocaine possession. “I thought, no, no Petter, what have you done?” Raja told Aftenposten. “It’s only been a few years since the last time, and we all forgave him. Now there’s nothing to admire when he’s speeding and caught with cocaine at home.”

Raja, however, was quickly criticized by political rivals in the Labour Party, who also adopted the stakkars Petter (poor Petter) line and suggested it was wrong to criticize someone who needs help. Others claimed he’s still a “good boy,” while Skogrand pointed out that Northug is now 34 years old.

Petter Northug had at least some success with his biography that sold briskly in 2018.  PHOTO: Pilar Forlag

There have been warning signs since Northug retired from professional skiing and even broke ties with long-time manager Terje Hallan, described as a respected businessman. Northug launched his own brand for glasses and sunglasses and became an “expert commentator” for TV2, but there were reports of excessive partying with few if any around to say “stop,” wrote Jan Petter Saltvedt, sports commentator for state broadcaster NRK.

On Monday Northug’s defense attorney Halvard Helle told NRK that “Petter is down in the dumps, he’s in the cellar. He has folks around him and will receive necessary health care follow-ups.” He’s been formally charged with driving while under the influence, speeding and possession of narcotics, according to prosecutor Silje Bergsjolmen in the Øst Police District.

At least one local traffic safety organization said he now feared young people who’ve viewed Northug as an idol may think it’s okay to drive at breakneck speeds. “It’s absolutely terrible when such a role model drives nearly 60 kilometers over the speed limit and was under the influence,” Henrik Pettersen Sunde, spokesman for Ung i trafikken told NRK. “You’re putting yourself and others in danger. Fortunately nothing happened here, but I hope folks realize how serious this really is.”

NewsInEnglish.no/Nina Berglund