UPDATED: Top Norwegian skier Johannes Høsflot Klæbo had mostly experienced victory, gold medals and admiration from fans all over the world, until last weekend. That’s when his controversial maneuver to get past arch rival Alexander Bolsjunov of Russia during the last race of the Nordic World Ski Championships ended with a disqualification that cost them both the gold medal – and created a conflict that Klæbo now wants to end.
The men’s tough 50-kilometer race ended with no real winners on Sunday “and only losers,” as one Norwegian sports commentator put it. Klæbo defended his maneuver just before the finish line, but Bolsjunov ended up with a broken ski pole, while another Norwegian ended up with a gold medal he hadn’t expected.
Even several Norwegian commentators criticized Klæbo’s effort to squeeze past Bolsjunov, but then Norway’s national skiing federation appealed the World Championship jury’s decision to disqualify Klæbo. The disqualification left him empty-handed after the gruelling long-distance trek in Oberstdorf.
“We believe it’s correct to appeal the disqualification because we disagree with the jury’s verdict,” stated Espen Bjervig, head of cross country skiing at the federation, when the appeal was filed on Tuesday. He indicated the Norwegians dismissed Klæbo’s maneuver as “a race incident.”
The Norwegians wanted the medal results to reflect the three men who actually crossed the finish line first, second and third. That would give gold to Klæbo, silver to Norway’s Emil Iversen and bronze to Bolsjunov, who remains convinced he would have won gold if Klæbo hadn’t moved in on his immediate right. Their poles collided and Bolsjunov’s broke, slowing him down at the critical moment.
“We’re not doing this to punish Bosjunov in any way,” insisted Bjervig to newspaper Aftenposten on Wednesday. Instead, according to the Norwegian skiing elite, they didn’t think Klæbo did anything wrong. “This is an incident that can happen between two athletes,” Bjervig told Aftenposten. Another Norwegian also stood to lose his medal if the appeal succeeded, since Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger was awarded the bronze for finishing after Bolsjunov.
Then the Norwegians decided to drop their appeal at the request of Klæbø himself. “I want to put this all behind me,” Klæbo told NRK. “I just don’t have the energy to pursue this case with an appeal, regardless of whether I would have won. I want to end this, and told the skiing federation that.”
He stressed that he still doesn’t think he did anything wrong either, only that “it would be wrong for a jury or lawyers to determine who came first on Sunday. I just want to move forward, and not spend more time on this.”
Bjervig later agreed, stressing that the appeal was filed on Tuesday “in cooperation with Johannes.” After Klæbo changed his mind, Bjervig told NRK, “we support that 100 percent.”
Bjervig and the rest of the skiing federation were nonetheless getting lots of criticism Wednesday night from commentators, critics and even a former sports sponsor who claimed they never should have filed an appeal in the first place. “I’m very glad that Klæbo realized what probably was the best way to end the World Championships,” NRK’s sports commentator Jan Petter Saltvedt said. “Everyone knows Klæbo isn’t satisfied with the jury’s (disqualification) decision, but I think he’s saving a lot of face and regaining respect by doing this.” Jacob Lund, who formerly arranged sports sponsorships, called the federation’s initial appeal a “petty” response.
Russian skiing officials, meanwhile, claimed the appeal wouldn’t have had much chance of succeeding anyway. Bolsjunov was so bitterly disappointed and angry over losing his chance at the gold medal that he’d even refused to put the silver medal around his neck during the medals ceremony Sunday evening. He had earlier told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that he’d invited Klæbo to his upcoming wedding. It remains unclear if that invitation still stands.
Klæbo himself said he simply didn’t want to appear like a whining skier. He’s also acutely aware that he’ll be racing against Bolsjunov again this weekend in Switzerland, where the skiing season will end. “I want to congratulate him,” Klæbo told NRK. “We’ll be competing against each other for many years ahead. It’s best to have a good relations.”