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Tuesday, June 25, 2024

Ski jumping drama ended, for now

A bitter and dramatic personnel conflict between the chief of Norwegian ski jumping and his bosses at the national skiing federation (NSF) has raged in Norwegian media all autumn. Now it’s finally been resolved, but the conflict itself has led to a loss of confidence in NSF’s leaders and put their own jobs on the line.

Ski jumping chief was back in the media glare this week, after an autum full of conflict with the Norwegian skiing federation NSF. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

It all started back in August, when TV2 revealed that NSF planned to end Clas Brede Bråthen’s contract as ski jumping chief. Bråthen, popular with the ski jumpers themselves and their coaches, had held the post for 17 years without ever being made a permanent employee. He nonetheless played a key role in how Norway’s ski jumpers, both men and women, have brought home lots of medals and world championship victories.

Bråthen has been known as a fighter for the ski jumpers’ interests and their share of funding from NSF, and he clearly offended people within NSF’s administration along the way. NSF’s leaders couldn’t reveal exactly why they were poised to essentially fire Bråthen, since it was dubbed a personnel matter, but by late August the board of NSF had become involved. It supported NSF Secretary General Ingvild Bretten Berg’s decision, backed by NSF’s ski jumping committee, not to extend Bråthen’s contract.

They claimed Bråthen could be “confrontational” and branded his means of communicating as “unacceptable.” The board claimed it had “been aware of challenges” regarding cooperation among Bråthen, the administrative committee and the “professional milieu” within NSF. All that created “unrest, insecurity and an intolerable situation both internally and towards important external interests.”

The board acknowledged that Bråthen “has contributed to extremely good sports results, but his behaviour over time and lack of willingness to adjust it in line with reasonable expectations, mean that the skiing federation can no longer extend” the contract NSF had with Bråthen.

It was hard for Bråthen to defend himself as he fought not only to hang on to his job, but demand permanent employment instead of going from contract to contract. He said he’d read the media reports and noticed that “cooperation” and his style “had been mentioned, but then we need to begin to talk to one another.” Bråthen said he thrived out at the ski jump, “there are no other places where I’m happier, but at the same time this (the conflict) isn’t something that came up yesterday. I’ve always had interessting discussions and been in lively processes to move forward, and that has led to ski jumping moving forward.”

With no solution in site, Bråthen filed a lawsuit against NSF, demanding full employment. Frustration rose among his loyal jumpers and the national men’s team’s coach Alexander Støckl, all of whom supported Bråthen.

Then the frustration spread to other branches of winter sports within NSF. Their leaders couldn’t understand how the conflict could drag on, not least in the media, and called on NSF to find a solution. Sponsors also grew frustrated as they saw their logos on unhappy ski jumpers’ clothing connected now to conflict instead of sport. All the negative media coverage was not advantageous in the run-up to the winter season and, not least, the upcoming Winter Olympics.

Alexander Stöckl, coach of the men’s national ski jumping teams, has been among those supporting Bråthen, along with the ski jumpers. PHOTO: Idrettsforbundet

It all turned into a form of trench warfare through September, reaching a climax when Norway’s largest trade union confederation LO temporarily pulled its financial support for the ski jumpers until a solution was found. Now NSF’s leadership was under fire, because no one could understand why its conflict with Bråthen was allowed to drag on. The frustration was also spreading to other groups within NSF, not least to the country’s most important cross-country skiing organizations. Then things got nasty, especially on social media, with especially Secretary General Berg complaining that she was being harassed, even threatened.

Earlier this week, NSF’s chapter in Buskerud expressed a lack of confidence in NSF and its leaders, both Berg and NSF President Erik Røste. So did the large and important chapter in Akershus, where its cross-country skiing group, joined Buskerud in calling for a national extraordinary session of NSF’s membership to discuss NSF’s leadership.

The Buskerud group claimed that “regardless of the outcome of the ongoing personnel conflict (with Bråthen),” it did not think NSF’s current board “will be able to restore the confidence and reputation needed from our sponsors, volunteers, active athletes and everyone else interested in the sport of skiing.” That was a stunning blow to both Berg and Røste.

On Thursday they finally announced a compromise of sorts with Bråthen, after Røste had been forced to respond to the chapters’ concerns. He called the conflict “a major burden on the entire organization, and we have great understanding for the frustration” among active proponents of skiing in Norway. Røste admitted there was “no doubt all the negative attention in the media and social media makes people uneasy. The most important thing now is that the conflict will be resolved as quickly as possible.”

Bråthen (left) and NSF President Erik Røste finally appeared together on NRK’s nightly newscast Dagsrevyen this week to announce, as the text reads, “an agreement” between Bråthen and NSF. Many commentators think Bråthen won, and that Røste faces more challenges from NSF members who lost confidence in his leadership. PHOTO: NRK screen grab

The compromise solution found Bråthen stepping down as ski jumping chief but securing a new four-year contract as chief of the national ski jumping team.  He also agreed to withdraw his lawsuit against NSF. It means he’ll continue to work with developing the sport of ski jumping but without administrative duties. NSF will now seek a new “sports chief” who will take on such administrative duties, likely an internal candidate.

The bigger problem of how so many others have now lost confidence in NSF’s leadership has been put on the back-burner until the ski season and the Olympics are over. It’s likely to boil over again, however, next spring. There have also been calls for more transparency, and open discussion over how NSF’s resources are shared among the various winter sports. Its leadership “has to lead and not hide themselves,” claimed Dag Helland Hansen of the Akershus group. Sponsors say much the same.

It’s the latest in a series of conflicts within Norway’s large sports bureaucracy that have tarnished its reputation. There’s no doubt that the climate of cooperation between the ski jumping sector and the rest of NSF has been poor, admitted the leader of the ski jumping committee Alf Tore Haug. Commentators including Daniel Røed-Johansen at Aftenposten don’t think the conflicts will end until fundamental problems within NSF are addressed and solved, with the verdict over NSF’s current leadership due next year. Berglund



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