Kikkan Randall came up with a great metaphor when she first described the Oslo World Ski Championships as the Super Bowl of skiing. The thing is, though, it’s a big understatement.
To truly understand what these cross-country ski races mean to the Norwegian people, you can start with the Super Bowl. But instead of the contenders consisting of two teams with small, regional followings, imagine that the home squad represents the entire country—featuring athletes that are a melding of Michael Jordan, Michael Phelps, and George Washington.
In place of Cowboys stadium, the game is actually being played at a newly-refurbished Fenway Park.
And there’s the potential for a half a million people to show up each day.
Overwhelmed by hyperbole yet? Okay, we can back up.
Norway is possessed by a love for the outdoors, and for sports—skiing especially.
“Winter joy” was how Pål Stenseth, one of 2,200 volunteers in Oslo, described his country’s enthusiasm for the championships.
“I have been looking forward to this for two months,” he told FasterSkier on Tuesday. “Every time I talk about it, I get a big smile on my face.”
Fandom is a big part Norway’s ski culture: its stars are on television practically 24/7, and their faces are plastered on advertisements all throughout Oslo.
But the championships are far more than just a spectacle. The races will be held at Oslo’s historic Holmenkollen venue, which is used during select parts of the winter as a venue for World Cup jumping, cross-country skiing, and biathlon.
For the rest of the year, though, it’s essentially a community fitness center, frequented by residents in search of their daily skiing fix. There’s even a subway that winds its way up and down from the Oslo city center to the trails, which are situated two-thirds of the way up a massive hillside that hems in the city to the northwest.
Up until Monday, the trails were still open to the public—giving fans a brief chance to rub shoulders with World Cup greats getting their first taste of the championship courses. The tracks near the stadium were redesigned for the championships—but with recreational users in mind.
“The World Cup is one weekend in a year. But still, we should use the course the rest of the winter, and also in the summer time, for normal people,” said Hermød Bjørkestøl, who was in charge of modifying Holmenkollen’s trails.
The courses weren’t the only things that got facelifts, though: there’s also a brand new ski jump, so massive that its elegant, metal frame can be seen from miles away down the hill, especially when it’s lit up at night. The cross-country stadium, directly adjacent to the jump, is a huge, white amphitheater, a cathedral of skiing, hemmed in by bleachers with space for thousands of fans.
As of Monday, some 225,000 tickets had been sold for 27 different events (including nordic combined and ski jumping as well as cross-country), according to Norwegian national broadcaster NRK. There are plenty of still available, and organizers are trying to get rid of the rest, but still, nearly a quarter of a million tickets isn’t bad for a country of just five million. The same proportion of the U.S. population would amount to some 500,000 people attending each competition.
While those fans are most fond of their own countrymen, they don’t limit their fervor to their own.
“You have here a public which is quite fair. If you are a good sportsman, you will hear the shouting,” said Jochen Behle, the German team’s head coach. “It’s very nice for everybody—maybe not for Kikkan Randall, if she will win.”
–Topher Sabot contributed reporting.
The 2011 World Ski Championships officially start on Wednesday, with a qualifying race at 6:30 AM EST followed by opening ceremonies in the evening. Thursday’s individual freestyle sprint is the first competition for which medals will be awarded, followed by five more events over the course of the next week and a half.
FasterSkier has three reporters currently on site, with two more to come, and we’ll have full, in depth coverage as the championships unfold. Look for a full sprint preview Wednesday morning.
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.