Even by cross-country skiing standards, there may be an unusually high number of Norwegians climbing the podium in the coming two weeks.
Going into the Nordic skiing world championships that start Thursday in Falun, Sweden, Norway is dominating its national sport like rarely before, winning two-thirds of the World Cup events so far this season.
It’s getting to the point where some other nations are openly worried they can’t compete with the Scandinavian powerhouse anymore, and Norway monopolizing the podium at the worlds would certainly not go down well with the host — its skiing archrival Sweden.
But the Norwegians, led by six-time Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen on the women’s side and the brash Petter Northug on the men’s, are keen to ruin the party.
“Championships are always special and in this case it’s extra special because it’s in Sweden,” said Northug, a nine-time world champion who always enjoys stoking up the rivalry with his Scandinavian neighbors.
And the next two weeks could become very painful for the home fans if recent trends continue. In 30 World Cup events this season — not including stage races — Norway has 20 wins, 18 second-place finishes and 14 thirds. The second-best teams, Sweden and Russia, have three wins each.
No wonder skiers like Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland — a two-time Olympic champion and former overall World Cup winner — are getting a bit fed up.
“Norwegians love cross-country skiing more than anyone in the world, but at the same time they are killing the sport,” Kowalczyk wrote in a column for Polish newspaper Gazeta this season. “It’s not possible to compete at their level any longer.”
The Norwegian success does cause a problem for the sport. TV ratings for cross-country events in Germany, Italy and France have all dropped in recent years, while winter sports like Alpine skiing and biathlon have become more popular. While American Kikkan Randall has been one of the top sprinters in recent years, the sport remains peripheral in the U.S.
One of the only non-Norwegian stars is Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, who again will be a medal favorite in Falun. One of the few women who could challenge the Norwegians is Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla, who blew away her rivals in a 10-kilometer freestyle event in the last World Cup meet before the worlds. She beat Bjoergen by more than 30 seconds in that race — the first time in five years that the Norwegian lost a 10K freestyle World Cup race.
“It’s always good to get a wake-up call, and a reminder that you can’t just go there and collect medals,” Bjoergen told Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang.
In all, there are 12 cross-country medal events at the worlds — six each for men and women — four Nordic combined competitions and five in ski jumping, including a mixed team competition.
Here are some things to know about the other events:
WOMEN’S SKI JUMP
Defending world champion Sarah Hendrickson of the U.S. seems to be getting back to her best at just the right time. Hendrickson beat Japanese rival Sara Takanashi for the world title two years ago in Italy, but her chances of becoming the sport’s first female Olympic champion were ruined when she blew out her knee in a training crash. She has yet to win a World Cup competition since returning to fitness but was boosted by two straight third-place finishes at this past weekend’s meet in Slovenia.
“I’m really happy about my podiums this weekend,” Hendrickson said. “I have had such a hard time mentally trusting myself and believing in myself. This just broke down that wall.”
Eric Frenzel of Germany remains the man to beat in any Nordic combined event and is expected to add to a trophy collection that already includes two world titles, an Olympic gold from Sochi and two overall World Cup titles. He was unstoppable in January, winning five straight World Cup events. Jason Lamy Chappuis of France, who won three golds in Val di Fiemme in 2013, has had a quiet season so far but can never be counted out at big events.
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