UPDATED:Russia’s war on Ukraine was unleashing sports drama in Norway this week, where World Cup competition is finally due to resume in Drammen and at Holmenkollen in Oslo. Top athletes from Russia and Belarus started arriving on Monday but they weren’t welcome to take part, and on Tuesday Norway’s national skiing federation (NSF) outright banned them in rare defiance of the International Ski Federation (FIS).
The initial press release issued by NSF over the weekend was unusually tough in its language. After “drafting the situation tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine,” NSF delivered “a message to Russia and Russian athletes ” that it claimed was “crystal-clear: We don’t want your participation.”
NSF went on to write that “Russia’s violation of the rule of law and its attacks on the Russian people demand international condemnation and sanctions. Sports is not free of that, and can’t remain passive about what’s happening now.”
The board of the NSF had thus decided, according to NSF President Erik Røste, that it did “not want Russia’s or Russian athletes’ participation in the upcoming World Cup races and World Championship competition in Norway such as the situation is now.” In addition to sprint competition in Drammen this week, the annual Holmenkollen Ski Festival is due to take place this weekend when thousands of cheering fans can finally gather after two years of Corona-related restrictions and cancellation last year.
It was supposed to be festive once again, as the world emerges from the Corona pandemic, only to now be overshadowed by the crisis in Ukraine. Russia’s attacks on Ukraine are widely viewed as an attack on all of Europe, with the EU, Great Britain, Norway and other non-EU countries responding with sanctions, closure of air space to Russian flights and both military and humanitarian aid to Ukraine.
NSF had been prodded into action by both athletes and, not least, former Norwegian skiing star Vegard Ulvang, who leads the cross-country skiing committee at the international ski federation FIS. Ulvang had pointed out to Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that Ukraine “is a member of FIS and under attack. We can’t have a situation where those who are being shot at head home to fight, while those shooting are allowed to compete.”
FIS had already felt forced to move remaining competitive events this season out of Russia, while the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and football organization Fifa have banned Russian athletes from taking part in international competition.
Røste had stated that NSF “condemns in the strongest of terms” Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its attacks on Ukraine and the Ukrainian people, and claimed NSF would follow up its decision that Russians were unwelcome with FIS.
But then things went quiet and FIS didn’t respond to NSF’s decision. That prompted a new press release from NSF Tuesday morning, announcing an actual ban on athletes from both Russia and Belarus.
NSF stated that it had informed FIS that “the upcoming events in Norway will be carried out without … participation (from Russia or Belarus) … regardless of which conclusion FIS may arrive at.” Røste told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it had hoped FIS would have taken a stand on the issue itself, “but we couldn’t wait any longer.”
Organizers of a sprint race in Drammen had already threatened to cancel the entire event if athletes from Russia or Belarus turned up at the starting line, while the leader of the Holmenkollen Ski Festival was backing NSF’s decision. Norway’s own top athletes including skiers Therese Johaug and Johannes Høsflot Klæbo had also made it clear that they did not want to compete with Russians in the ski tracks, not least since Russian skiing champ Alexander Bolsjunov is also a captain in the Russian Army.
Bolsjunov, meanwhile, landed in Oslo on Monday, arriving on a flight from Finland after weekend competition in Lahti but refusing to talk to waiting reporters. An NRK sports commentator suggested on national TV Monday evening that it would be best if he and other Russian athletes “were politely escorted back to the airport and sent home.” They may face a challenging journey, though, since air space has been closed to Russian flights over Europe and to European flights over Russia.
Then the drama rose again: NSF’s press release Tuesday prompted a response from FIS, which claimed NSF’s ban violated FIS rules. NRK reported that FIS’ secretary general, Michel Vion, claimed NSF couldn’t impose such a ban.
“Norway’s ski federation can express that they don’t want participation (from Russia or Belarus) but they can’t deny them to participate,” Vion told NRK. FIS has earlier pointed to its rules that athletes can’t be excluded based on race, gender, nationality or sexual preference. In this case, the athletes’ nationality was at issue.
That left NSF to discuss “how to carry out its decision,” while waiting for a final decision on the matter from FIS, which was meeting on Tuesday. Norwegian athletes were rallying behind NSF Tuesday, with skier Simen Hegstad Krüger telling NRK that “it will feel completely wrong to compete side-by-side with the Russians, while the Ukrainian skiers can’t compete because they need to return to Ukraine to defend their country.”
Norwegians ‘don’t have the last word’
The Russians, staying at a hotel at Fornebu just west of Oslo, weren’t initially inclined to give up and go home. Bolsjunov’s coach Jurij Borodavko told Russian news service RIA that he still hoped Bolsjunov could compete at Holmenkollen once again. He has won there in the past. “Let’s wait for the official conclusion from FIS, since the competition is under their direction,” Borodavko told RIA. “The Norwegians can make decisions but they don’t have the last word. When it comes to us, we’re ready for any scenario.”
Shortly thereafter, however, NRK could report that Borodavko changed his mind and said the Russian skiing team would leave Norway after all. “We’ll fly to Russia tomorrow, and that will be the end of the competitive season for us,” he told NRK while some team members trained on the trails at Holmenkollen Tuesday. “We’ll go home, we won’t take part in Drammen or Holmenkollen. That’s a decision that’s been made and has nothing to do with sport. When you drag politics into this, we can’t accept that, therefore we’ll head back (home). We’re athletes and do our job like everyone else. This has nothing to do with politics.”
FIS changed its mind
NSF and Norwegian athletes disagreed. So, ultimately did FIS, which finally announced after its meeting on Tuesday that neither the Russians nor athletes from Belarus (which allowed Russia to invade Ukraine from its territory last week) would be allowed to compete internationally for the rest of the season. FIS claimed its decision, however, was based not on issues tied to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine but rather on “fear for the safety of Russian athletes.”
Røste was nonetheless satisfied since FIS also finally didn’t want athletes from Russia and Belarus to compete either. He thinks FIS took too long to make a decision, “but I’ll take that up with them later.”
In what’s likely a final statement from the Norwegian ski federation after much drama this week, it wrote that “NSF and the local organizers have been clear that participation from Russia and Belarus is not compatible with the enormous suffering Russia is causing for the Ukrainian people.”
Now the way is cleared for the sprint to be held in Drammen on Thursday, followed by ski jumping and Raw Air at Holmenkollen on Friday. More combined jumping and skiing events will take place through the weekend, highlighted by the women’s 30-kilometer race on Saturday and the men’s 50-kilometer race on Sunday, without Bolsjunov or, it turns his arch rival Klæbø and the rest of the Norwegian men’s cross-country skiing team. NRK reported that all have tested positive for Corona, so their season appears to be over, too.