A few weeks ago we ran a short piece asking what people thought about Petter Northug’s behavior, on and off the race course. We asked the question, “Can Northug be considered a true champion if he doesn’t treat his competitors with respect?” The question stimulated quite a bit of discussion and is worth following up with a bit more information on Northug. I was recently in Norway, where Northug’s antics are laughed off. The people I talked to did not necessarily approve of his actions, but he is the on the home team, and one of the best in the world, and most people tended to view his comments as funny as opposed to offensive or disrespectful. That is not surprising – people generally support the home town boy, faults and all. But I did learn a few more things about him. Apparently he is very shy, spending most of his free time holed up in his room playing video games – not social at all. He also claims that he can’t remember what he says and does at the end of races and immediately following.
Regardless of what you think of his behavior, he is clearly a great competitor who leaves it all on the trail when it really matters. He put on a display in Liberec, and continued his impressive run right up until the World Cup Finals. His performance in the classic 50k in Trondheim, definitely not his strongest event, was impressive. He skied a very smart race, set himself up to win a ton of points in the intermediate points, and pushed for every place in his effort for the overall title.
His performance in the final race of the season, the handicap start to decide the winner of the the World Cup Final. He needed to make up nearly 1:30 on Dario Cologna to win the overall World Cup – a near impossible task in a 15km race. It was also clear that he was tired, and did not have the extra level that he brought to Liberec. But he attacked several times anyway, and even when the race was clearly lost, he continued to battle to the end, working for every place in the big chase pack. He could have very easily dropped off the back, and cruised to the end of the season.
He certainly knows how to win, and his antics have made him a celebrity. Cologna won the Tour de Ski, the World Cup Final, and the Overall World Cup, becoming the first Swiss skier to take that title. He is young (same age as Northug), handsome, and exceptionally talented. But softspoken and measured, he yields the limelight to Northug. It is Northug who most people talk about. People love controversy, and Northug creates it. If his actions were calculated, it would be a perfect business move, ensuring his place in the spotlight, regardless of his performance. Just 23, Northug is already a true celebrity. I would guess the controversy he stirs is not planned, but who can say?