Norway’s national skiing federation (Norges Skiforbund) claims it’s “extremely surprised and sorry” that one of its top downhill racers, Lucas Braathen, abruptly quit the national team on Friday and ended his skiing career. Braathen claimed skiing was simply no fun any longer, mostly because of a long-running conflict with the federation over paid sponsorships.
The conflict revolves around marketing rights that determine when and how skiers like Braathen can strike their own deals with sponsors other than those that have contracts directly with the federation. He’s far from alone in complaining that current rules restrict his rights to his own name and personality: Norwegian cross-country skiing star Johannes Høsflot Klæbo and alpine medalist Aleksander Aamodt Kilde have also been front-figures in the conflict, while slalom champion Henrik Kristoffersen wound up in court against the federation a few years ago, and ultimately lost.
Kristoffersen’s conflict now pales in comparison to the bombshell Braathen set off on Friday. Kristoffersen told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK) on Friday, though, that he’d also considered ending his skiing career when his conflict with the federation was at its worst. “This (Braathen’s resignation) couldn’t be any more drastic, but I understand his choice,” Kristoffersen told NRK. “I’ve been through something similar, and there’s no doubt it costs a lot, so I can understand the decision he’s taken.”
Kristoffersen thinks the same ultimatum can also come up again if there’s no better balance between what athletes on the Norwegian team give and what they get. Conflicts have arisen for years, since skiers first started recognizing their own market value after the Olympics in Albertville and then Lillehammer in 1994. They’ve had varying degrees of success in realizing their value, with downhill racer Aksel Lund Svindal allowed to flaunt Red Bull’s logo on his ski gear but not Kristoffersen. Petter Northug also went through a form of divorce from the federation and now Braathen has quit entirely, at the age of just 23.
The skiers deny they’re being greedy or egotistical, especially compared to the money paid football or golf stars, for example. They claim they just want more control over their own value to the team.
Klæbo, meanwhile, has so far declined to be part of the national men’s cross country skiing team that’s run by the federation this season. That means he needs a separate representation agreement to be able to compete in the World Cup this winter, but negotiations with the federation have gone slowly. Klæbo wanted at least two “short periods” during the upcoming ski season when he wouldn’t be subject to its sponsor regime – not, his father claimed, to profile his own personal sponsors but rather to “have control over his own time.”
In addition Klæbo joined other alpine skiers in the separate marketing conflict with the federation that ended so badly with Braathen. Meanwhile, the cross country team faces financial losses because of costs that are higher than its revenues, and also because of the weak Norwegian currency. Newspaper VG estimated losses of as much as NOK 13 million, double what was expected last spring. “We haven’t managed to boost revenues as much as costs have gone up,” cross-country team boss Espen Bjervig told newspaper Adresseavisen last week.
Braathen was clearly pushed too far when the ski federation threatened to fine him for taking part in a promotion for clothing maker J Lindeberg, which competes with team sponsor Helly Hansen. Braathen told TV2 on Thursday that he was “very tired and drained” by the conflict with the federation.
At Friday’s press conference in Sölden, Austria, where the World Cup will start this weekend and Braathens was favoured to win in slalom, Braathens said he has always chosen to do what makes him most happy and means something to him. “That’s my definition of success, not the lucrative agreements I’m in,” he said. The conflict this autumn with the ski federation clearly provoked and angered him, with Braathens claiming that he’d been subjected to “extremely disrespectful treatment.”
He said he also thought his teammates have been unable to develop their “own opportunities” or have rights to their own photographs. He wanted no more of it, and announced he was ending his skiing career. “I’m finished,” he said. Despite shedding some tears during his statement, he said he felt glad for the first time in months, “and for the first time in years, I feel free. Everyone who knows me knows that freedom is one of my biggest sources for success.”
The ski federation issued a statement Friday afternoon claiming it was surprised and sorry Braathen had decided to quit. He hadn’t told federation officials beforehand and they were clearly caught off guard.
“I got a message about Lucas’ decision just before the press conference started, and this came completely as a surprise both for me and the others in our support group,” stated Claus Johan Ryste, chief of the federation’s alpine team. “I though we’ve had a good dialogue with Lucas and his father lately. Now we want to take care of Lucas and hope he’ll be well. At the same time we also need time to follow up the other skiers and the support team.”
Tove Moe Dyrhaug, president of the ski federation, also claimed Braathen’s decision “came as a surprise to all of us, and I deeply regret that Lucas has come to this conclusion. At the same time, we can’t do anything but respect the decision he has taken.” She quickly arranged an extraordinary meeting of the ski federation’s board “to orient” other members about the situation.
Norwegian commentators were claiming Friday night that Braathen’s resignation is a major loss for the federation, for his teammates and for the sport. Many called it “a shock,” some teammates broke into tears (as had Braathen himself) and worried about his health. Former Olympic champion Kjetil Andre Aamodt said he hoped there still was a chance Braathen and the federation might come to terms.
Several competitors from abroad also expressed shock, with Johan Clarey of France calling Braathen’s resignation “an enormous loss for the alpine world.” Klæbo called it “very sad.” Former skier and coach Finn Aamodt called Braathen “one of a kind” who made a brave decision, while veteran Hans Petter Buraas said Braathen’s resignation was a “strong statement to the ski federation.”