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Thursday, June 13, 2024

Olympic gold rush failed to please

Despite one of the worst run-ups ever to a Winter Olympics with hardly any cheering fans, Norwegian athletes could boast another rush of gold medals that topped all other nations. When the games ended in Beijing Sunday, though, critics claimed Norway should have done even better.

On Sunday it was “bye-bye” to Beijing, when the 2022 Winter Olympics ended with Norway topping the medals race, again. Despite the accomplishment, not all Norwegians were pleased. PHOTO: IOC/Greg Martin

Norway wound up with a total of 37 Olympic medals, 16 of them gold, which count the most. That’s up from 14 at the last Winter Olympics in South Korea, which had set a record.

Norway’s last gold medal before the 2022 winter games ended was claimed by veteran cross-country skier Therese Johaug, when she won the gruelling 30-kilometer race over the weekend. She’d already claimed two more as well, in the opening 15K race and the 10K. She was mostly competing individually this time, and finally won the individual Olympic gold medals she lacked even after winning multiple World Championships.

Apart from Johaug’s achievements, though, the Norwegian women’s cross-country skiing team had a disappointing Olympics (called simply “OL” in Norwegian). Not a single other female cross-country skier even won a medal, much less gold, and that’s sparked criticism.

“We can rejoice over Johaug,” said Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK)’s skiing commentator Torgeir Bjørn on Sunday, “but if she retires, we’re in trouble.” She’s already said this would be her last Olympics.

NRK reported that it’s been 46 years since only one Norwegian woman won only one gold medal in Olympic medal in cross-country skiing. It’s often viewed as Norway’s national sport, and most popular Olympic event. In that sense, despite all of Norway’s other medals not least in the biathlon, the Beijing 2022 OL was weak.

Got off to a bad start
The women skiers’ run-up to OL was arguably the most troubled: Top medal candidate Heidi Weng tested positive for Corona shortly before the games began and never traveled to China. Weng’s teammate Anne Kjersti Kalvås suffered the same fate, and then Ingvild Flugstad Østberg, who’s been plagued with eating disorders, wasn’t allowed to participate for health reasons. Young rising star Helene Marie Fossesholm wasn’t in good enough shape to race in the the 30K.

In short, concluded Bjørn, “there are lots of other countries that are considerably stronger than Norway now.” He and others think Norway will have problems replacing stars like Johaug and the already-retired Marit Bjørgen. Calls were also going out for better preparation, more team training and better coaching. “Are we good enough at using the competence we have?” mused commentator Fredrik Aukland. “I’m not sure.”

There were problems on other Norwegian teams, too, with the men’s cross-country skiers expecting gold in all three long distance races and coming home with two bronze medals instead. “We have to acknowledge that there are some others who are better than us,” declared a disappointed Hans Christer Holund after the men’s last long distance race.

Norwegian champion Johannes Høsflot Klæbo  and Simen Hegstad Krüger each won bronze in the 15K classic and shortened 50K respectively, and Klæbo won gold in the men’s sprint and the team sprint along with Erik Valnes, but that didn’t come close to Klæbo’s personal gold rush at the last Olympics in South Korea.

Critics blame a lack of team- and high altitude training, along with chaotic circumstances just prior to the games when some positive Corona tests restricted training and complicated travel to the games in Beijing where infection prevention measures were very strict. Coach Eirik Myhr Nossum noted that “we couldn’t use our Plan A heading into OL. I’m not making excuses, we didn’t do everything we should have, but I’m satisfied with the turnarounds we had to make in a tough situation.”

Norway has also lost some of its star downhill racers like Aksel Lund Svindal, who retired. Aleksander Aamodt Kilde won a bronze in the Super-G and silver in alpine combination, while Sebastian Foss Solevåg won bronze in the slalom but that was well below Norway’s earlier alpine skiing persentations.

There were some real bright spots, like Birk Ruud’s gold in the Big Air free-skiing event, and gold in team tempo speed skating. Marius Lindvik also won gold in ski jumping and Jørgen Graabak in combine jumping and skiing

Norway’s biathlon team did the best of all at OL, winning the majority of gold medals available, both individually and in team events. Marte Olsbu Røiseland was being called “the queen of the Olympics” for Norway, winning five medals, three of them gold, while Johannes Thingnes Bø excelled in the men’s biathlon events, winning as many medals as Røiseland but four of them in gold.

It was nonetheless an unusual Corona-plagued Olympics that prevented spectators from abroad attending. No members of the either the Royal Family or the government attended, not because of a diplomatic boycott of host country China (over China’s human rights abuses and crackdowns on democracy in Hong Kong and freedom of expression anywhere under Chinese control) but because of Corona-related reasons. It was also difficult for Norwegian fans to stay glued to their televisions like normal, since many events took place in the middle of the night because of time-zone issues.

The next Winter Olympics will be held closer to home, in a free and democratic country (Italy), near where the Norwegians regularly train and, hopefully, long after the Corona crisis is over. And where Norwegian fans can tune in both day and night. Berglund



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