Norway’s athletic Ingebrigtsen family isn’t known for running away from controversy. A feud that already had split the family is now also creating legal challenges for Norwegian sports officials and grabbing international attention, with patriarch Gjert Ingebrigtsen at the center of it all.
Local media had already been full of the lastest drama around the family, which became nationally known several years ago after taking part in a reality series on Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK). The drama had seemed to climax early last year when Gjert Ingebrigtsen was reported to have gone on sick leave. Then three of his sons, the medal-winning Ingebrigtsen brothers Henrik, Filip and Jakob, announced their father would no longer be their coach. No reason was given, but tensions among all four of them had already been rising.
The brothers continued their running careers, with Jakob (now age 23) especially winning more medals, at the European Championships last year and claiming more gold this year at the indoor championships. As of last month, Jakob still holds world records in at least four events including the 1500-meter and English mile. Older brothers Henrik (age 32) and Filip (30) also rank high among the world’s elite medium-distance race winners.
Meanwhile, their father Gjert (who never had any profession training as a coach or athlete himself) continued coaching other Norwegian runners including Narve Gilje Nordås, and he was with Nordås at last year’s European Championships in Munich. Gjert, long known as a demanding and highly critical coach, had already acknowledged conflicts within the family and told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) that it felt strange to be at a championship and not be following his own sons. He described the previous months as “tough.”
Then conflicts began arising between his sons and Nordås. Henrik reportedly didn’t want to sit at the same table as Nordås during training camps earlier this year. The conflicts grew more serious when Gjert wasn’t granted accreditation for the World Championships in Budapest this past summer, at which there was lots of friction between Jakob and Nordås.
The rivalry and bad feelings hit a new climax last month, when Nordås spoke out publicly about his problems with the Ingebrigtsen brothers. Henrik was ultimately accused of “bullying and harassment,” just days after Gjert had been denied accreditation for next year’s championship events. Nor will Gjert be allowed to appear at training camps.
Nordås complained this week that it was “unfair” of Norway’s national athletics federation (Norges Friidrettsforbundet) to refuse to let his coach attend an upcoming high-elevation training session in the Sierra Nevada mountains of Spain. He told Oslo newspaper VG that Gjert Ingebrigtsen “has never created uncomfortable situations” at earlier training camps.
The federation finds itself caught in the middle of its top athletes and Gjert Ingebrigtsen, who ultimately hired one of Norway’s most high-profile defense attorneys this week, John Christian Elden. The federation ended up having to obtain legal counsel, too, with its sports chief Erlend Slokvik telling news bureau NTB that the conflicts tied to the Ingebrigtsen family are the most demanding he’s ever had to handle.
“We need to lead an entire (national) team, help them perform,” Slokvik told NTB, but then comes “so much else.” He said nothing surprises him any longer: “This has become a circus, pure and simple,” adding that it’s especially demanding “because these are family things, and things that the federation really doesn’t have anything to do with.”
The drama hit a new climax this past week, when brothers Henrik, Filip and Jakob wrote in a commentary in VG that their father had been “violent and controlling” towards them, and that they lived with “discomfort, fear and violence” while growing up. They claimed it was also “painful in many ways” to write about their father, because he had “meant a lot to us and our careers,” but they felt compelled to share their history because the family feud had been in the media for so long.
“We have never wanted private details of our family situation to be laid out in Norwegian media, and we’re sorry that it affects others,” the brothers wrote. They claimed they now want “calm for all involved, therefore we’re telling our story. It hurts, but we don’t see any other way out.”
The brothers also wrote that they’ve been portrayed as “demanding, excluding and as bullies,” and they now need to defend themselves. They cited an “extremely serious” and burdensome family situation.
“We have grown up with a father who has been extremely aggressive and controlling,” they wrote, claiming he “used physical violence and threats” as part of his way of raising them. Henrik, Filip and Jakob all claimed they still feel “discomfort and fear” that “sits in us from our childhoods.” They added they had “lived with it” and “gone forward” as grown-ups. But two years ago, they claimed “the same aggression and physical punishment” resurfaced. “When we were younger we were part of a large group of brothers and sisters (seven in all) who were in this together,” they wrote. “Now the situation is intolerable. We should have contributed towards stopping the situation earlier. The fact that we didn’t bothers us. Two years ago, we’d had enough. We chose to break with our father. That made it also impossible to continue to have him as our coach.”
Now, they wrote, the pressure has become “inhumane.” They claimed that they were losing strength “and the joy of athletics is gone.” They want to restore calm in order “to focus on training and competition. We want to retrieve the joy of sports and representing Norway with the flag on our chests, but most of all we want the family and everyone we love to feel safe and secure.” The bothers said they had thus asked the athletics federation “not to put us in situaions where we may have to face a father we have neither the capacity nor the desire to relate to. Not now.” They concluded by saying that they realize “many want to talk with us about this, but we don’t want to. This case has cost us too much already. We want to move on and we hope the family can find peace.”
The brothers’ statement in VG, published Thursday night, was widely picked up both in other Norwegian media and abroad, and met by a quick and flat denial from Gjert Ingebrigtsen. He called his three sons’ claims “groundless,” adding through his lawyer that “I have never been violent towards my children.”
On Friday night Gjert won some support from another son, 28-year-old Martin Ingebrigtsen. He issued his own statement, published in both VG and on TV2, in which he claimed he “has never feared pappa.” He wrote that it was “impossible” to agree on a “common truth” in such a large family … “but when my experience in the family home is so different from my brothers’ I think it’s correct and fair to present both sides. Despite everything, we have grown up under the same roof.”
Martin, who’s younger than Henrik and Filip but older than Jakob, wrote that he’d long chosen “to sit still in the boat” and still thinks “family feuds “should remain within the home’s four walls,” but not after reading his brothers’ statement and the media coverage it set off. He acknowleged that “Gjert has in no way been a conventional father” and anyone watching the Team Ingebrigtsen TV series that ran on NRK could see “the controlling and grumbling tendencies” in him.
“It’s nonetheless important for me to clarify that most feelings and memories are good, because our home has been characterized by security, joy and unity in the highest degree,” Martin wrote. “Fear is fortunately a foreign feeling for me.” He added that he thinks it’s “difficult” to see any such fear “when others in the family steadily visit and recently have been on holiday with Gjert. Most wouldn’t have done that with a violent person, or built a house within walking distance of the family home if the fear is so great.”
Martin noted that there are “many strong personalities” in the Ingebrigtsen family, and “everyone has strong opinions.” He conceded that the family has thus been characterized “by many loud discussions, and pappa has always had clear lines for what he thinks is best for us. We have nonetheless been independent and secure enough to choose our own ways in life.”
Gjert Ingebrigtsen’s lawyer Elden told NRK during the weekend that son Martin’s statement “shows that the situation has several sides, and should have remained” within the family. Elden wrote his client Gjert values Martin’s support, but at the same time feels it’s sad for all affected that it should be necessary for family members to feel forced to deliver such vulnerable sides of a family life in the media.”
Runner Nordås, meanwhile, confirmed to NRK that he’ll continue to have Gjert as his coach, while the police have stated that they will look into whether there’s any “reasonable basis” to launch an investigation into the claims the Ingebrigtsen brothers have made against their father.” Elden found that “natural, it’s their job. At the same time my client is clear that he has never been violent against his children.”
Gjert also said in a podcast earlier this week, before his sons accused him of being a violent father, that relations between he and his sons had “become so professional that it ended with us no longer being father and sons.” He apologized to his wife Tone, saying she’d become “an innocent victim in this hunt for victories.” He expressed some regrets, saying that “it’s not worth sacrificing family relations for athletics. Nothing is worth that.”
Gjert later added that he will try his best to settle the family feud but won’t resign as coach for Nordås, who told reporters after winning a race on Saturday that the entire situation remained “terribly uncomfortable.”