The show must, and will, go on. That’s how the Norwegian ski federation feels about the debacle with Petter Northug, Jr., after the 29-year-old celebrity skier missed the deadline to sign its contract. For now, the federation’s offer to let Northug maintain his sponsorship obligations with the Coop grocery store chain up until the start of the 2015/2016 season in late November is off the table — and Northug won’t be able to compete for Norway on the World Cup circuit.
The two sides clashed on the terms of the agreement. VG reported that Northug had asked for a three-year contract instead of the single year the federation offered. He also wanted to represent the national team for a shorter period than last season, which lasted from Nov. 1, 2014 to April 7, 2015.
According to Dagbladet, Northug also requested “breaks” in the World Cup period where he’d be able to race in the Coop uniform, presumably in the International Ski Federation (FIS) marathon series.
In May 2013, Northug left the national team to start a private team, sponsored by Coop. He subsequently signed an agreement with the Norwegian ski federation that enabled him to compete in the 2013/2014 World Cup. The agreement was renewed last year. Northug’s deal is an exception to the federation’s policy that Norwegian skiers have to be on a year-round commitment in order to represent Norway in international races.
Initially, the federation hadn’t planned to offer Northug a special agreement again this year. But it reneged on its stance, and in June, it tendered an offer similar to the 2014/2015 agreement.
“The agreement is the same as the one he had in success season 2014/15,” said Torbjørn Skogstad, chairman of the federation’s cross-country committee, according to a translation. “[The federation] regrets that Petter Northug did not want to join the national team and the World Cup on the same terms as all other athletes.”
“The Norwegian Ski Federation is planning upcoming World Cup season with those athletes who have signed an agreement and is not going to take any further initiatives from Petter Northug or Coop,” he continued.
Northug’s tenure on the national team has been marked by controversy. As a junior, he didn’t mince words about being left off Norway’s 2006 Olympic squad. Since splitting from the national team, his results have been mixed. His four gold medals at the 2015 World Championships in Falun, Sweden, were preceded by a lackluster 2013/2014 season with no Olympic medals and seventh-place overall finish on the World Cup.
Reactions in the ski community have been mixed.
“Once the deadline has expired, then it’s time to cut through,” Odd-Bjørn Hjelmeset, a 2007 individual world champion for Norway, told VG. “[The federation has to] set an example here. Northug believes he is in a special position.”
“Did anyone really talk to Petter? I think this could have been solved,” Hjelmeset added.
One of Northug’s current rivals, Calle Halfvarsson of Sweden believes Norwegian skiing will suffer the most. He said “it would be really stupid of [the Norwegian federation]” to exclude Northug.
Jürg Capol, the nordic director for FIS Marketing AG, told VG that the sport benefits if all the best athletes toe the start line.
“In the World Cup, we are not dependent on one skier,” he said. “Northug has never won the Tour de Ski, so the best should be in place when the Tour de Ski starts. Who remembers who won the Vasaloppet and Marcialonga? It is the World Cup that matters.”
Last season, Northug placed second to teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby in the Tour de Ski and finished the World Cup third overall behind Sundby and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, respectively.
Most telling of all may be what Norwegian team director Vidar Løfshus told Dagbladet. “I think it’s a shame,” he said. “But we’ll manage just fine without Petter, too.”
Løfshus observed that Northug’s biggest successes have been in championship years, of which this season is not.
“In the World Cup, there are other Norwegians who have been just as good,” he said.
On reopening negotiations, “We’re not going to take more initiative,” he added. “We gave him a good deal.”
As of early Tuesday, Northug had not publicly commented, but posted an Instagram meme with a cat captioned, “Haters gonna hate.”
Coop deflected comments. Communications director Bjørn Takle Friis wrote, “This is a matter between the Norwegian Ski Federation and Petter. Are Sørum Langås, Team Northug’s manager will comment on the matter when they are ready.”
With no World Championships or Olympics in 2016, this season’s main events are the Tour de Ski in early January and the Canadian World Cup tour in March. Beyond this season, Northug’s future on the national squad may be determined by the men’s team’s performance this winter. For now, he’s on the outside, looking in.
— Alex Kochon contributed reporting