They arrived on foot, mostly—a three meter-wide river of fans snaking up from the nearest subway station, the cowbells around their necks clinking softly.
By 12:30, with an hour still to go before the start of the freestyle sprint, the Norwegian faithful had already packed the stands at the Holmenkoll venue in Oslo—in anticipation of the first event of the 2011 World Ski Championships.
Numbering 20,000, they were awaiting their country’s 100th World Championship gold, and it didn’t take long for them to get it. Capitalizing on a course and conditions that suited her, Norway’s Marit Bjoergen brightened a grey day by taking the first medal awarded in Oslo.
Italy’s Arianna Follis, the defending champion, was second, and Slovenia’s Petra Majdic was third. But Bjoergen was in control of the final nearly the whole way, wresting the race from Justyna Kowalczyk (POL) on the course’s big climb and never relinquishing it.
In a press conference, Bjoergen said that it had been her aim to win a single individual gold in Oslo, despite the fact that she was favored in all four events.
“Now, I have my goal,” she said. “The rest of the championships, I can really have fun.”
Coming into the race, Bjoergen’s chances were by no means bad—she’d already won two sprints this year. But the discipline is the most erratic event on the championships program, as was demonstrated when the other favorite, American Kikkan Randall, got tangled up in her quarterfinal heat and spun out of contention.
Furthermore, in her last two World Cup sprints, Bjoergen had been far from dominant—she was eliminated in the semifinals in Estonia in January, and placed third behind Randall last weekend in Drammen.
Both of those races, though, were held on faster, flatter courses, which favored quickness over fitness. The latter Bjoergen has in spades, while her speed is merely exceptional—not superhuman.
Thursday’s loop, and its conditions, were much more demanding. With temperatures struggling to break 20, the skiing was still relatively slow; there was a big climb, and even the descents didn’t provide many opportunities for recovery. When Bjoergen emerged as the winner of qualifying, it was clear that she was in line for a good day.
“I know that for me, it was a good track,” Bjoergen said. “It was three minutes…longer than it was in Drammen, and also, the speed in the snow was not so fast.”
It also doesn’t hurt to have a sellout crowd of 20,000 shouting your name. There were some legimate, World Cup soccer goal-style roars that went up from the stadium throughout the day, and before the start of the finals, two big sections of bleachers traded off chants of “Marit!”
Even Vegard Ulvang, a Norwegian cross-country legend in his own right, told FasterSkier that the atmosphere at Holmenkollen was unprecedented.
“Cross-country has never experienced such a stadium,” he said. “People have usually been to the forest…It’s [the first time] that they gathered so many cross-country people in the stadium in Norway.”
Despite the festive atmosphere, Bjoergen was all business. She didn’t leave much to chance, controlling her first two heats and winning both. Each time, she had her skis off as soon as she came to a stop, then beelined out of the finish chute, stone-faced, before the rest of the women could pick themselves up off the ground.
The finals saw Kowalczyk use a nifty move to take the reigns on the initial descent. But she couldn’t match Bjoergen on the big climb, and the Norwegian took the lead on the way back into the stadium.
She had almost every fan on pins and needles as she headed up the final, smaller climb. Bjoergen’s teammate Astrid Jacobsen had died hard after skiing at the front of her semifinal early on, and in this heat, Follis and Majdic were in hot pursuit.
But Bjoergen still had enough left, or, at the very least, the others had emptied their own tanks trying to keep up. She held a clear gap into the finish, with enough time to pull up in the last few strides and raise both arms—the sign for the crowd to let out screams of unmitigated glee.
“It has been my best sprint this season,” Bjoergen said.
Follis, meanwhile, claimed an improbably silver medal—she had to fight her way back from a crash in her semifinal, after which she said she thought “the race was finished.”
At 33, this is likely Follis’s last season, though the Italian team staff will probably try to convince her to stick around for longer. She said she’ll compete in all the rest of the competitions, except for Monday’s 10 k classic.
Bjoergen hasn’t yet decided whether she’ll start in all six events—she said that she’ll make a call on whether or not to drop the team sprint after the 10 k. The way she’s going, though, six gold medals are a real possibility. Majdic was asked in the press conference if she thought anyone would knock off the Norwegian.
“With her shape? No,” Majdic said.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.