Nordic skiing is the national pride and joy of the roughly 4.5 million people in this small, frigid country. To earn the title as the overall best nation, Norway’s skiers have to win at least four gold medals in Holmenkollen, preferably five just to be sure, which is 25 percent of the gold medals up for grabs. The sprint on Thursday represents the first opportunity, and if successful, that would be Norway’s 100th World Championship gold medal to date.
Currently on the World Cup, Norway is leading the nation’s cup for the women by more than 2,000 points (5,134 points) on Italy in second place (3,080 points), Sweden is in third place just over 200 points behind Italy (2,855). In the men’s standings, Russia is in first place (3,751 points), leading by about 250 points on Norway in second place (3,504 points), and Sweden breathing down their necks another 150 points behind (3,383 points).
Norway is fielding 33 athletes: 19 cross-country skiers, nine ski jumpers and five jumpers.
Women’s sprint: wide open
Norway’s team consists of four strong racers all capable of making the final on a good day: Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen, Celine Brun-Lie, Maiken Caspersen Falla and Marit Bjoergen.
“The girls on the team are peaking, and with some tail wind and a good day, we could easily experience all four of them in the final. If that happens, it’s wide open. They’ll all fight fiercely for the medals,” said national team women’s sprint coach Jon Arne Schjetne.
“The women’s sprint is possibly one of the most undecided events. There are at least 13 to 15 racers on the circuit that could jump into the final,” Schjetne said, and looked over to the girls.
“I just realized I got really nervous,” Marit Bjoergen replied. “But I’m really excited and I know that there are a lot of really strong skiers out there. I’ll totally have to be on top of my game all day long,” she added.
“The Norwegian spectators are the best in the world. I hope they’ll be proud of me at the end of the day. I think this is just going to rock,” Bjoergen said.
While Bjoergen might have the star sticker on her forehead, the sprint team consists of three other racers with proven track records. Two of them considers Holmenkollen their home course: Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen and Celine Brun-Lie.
“I skied my first race in Holmenkollen when I was 10 years old. I’ve skied up and down and around these trails for many many years,” said Jacobsen. The humble blonde grew up 10 minutes from Holmenkollen, and has put more kilometers behind her on these courses than most.
“It will most definitely be a very special experience, but I won’t think about that when I’m racing. If I start recognizing people along the course while I race, I’ll lose my focus,” Jacobsen said, adding that she’s not sure the skate sprint is her best medal option.
“I don’t feel like I’ve managed to realize my potential in the skate sprint this season, but if I can perform as well as I do at practice, it might just pan out really well,” Jacobsen said.
The Norwegian men’s team, is a combination of proven World Cup winners in Anders Gloersen, Eirik Brandsdal and Øystein Pettersen, the reigning World Champion Ola Vigen Hattestad, as well as Petter Northug. But despite their track record and the home turf advantage, there are no guarantees.
“There are a lot of nations that are in it to win, and the margins are miniscule, particularly in sprint,” said Erik Røste, who is responsible for the Norwegian cross-country skiers and former national team coach.
Everyone has respect for the Swedes, and particularly Emil Joensson, the current World Cup sprint leader. Joensson has 430 points and leads the World Cup by almost 100 points over Ola Vigen Hattestad in second place (344 points). Alexei Petukhov (RUS) is in third place, with 277 points.
Everything for the crowds
“It’s so cool that we have three guys on the team who grew up here. That shows the development pipeline here is working, and I think being able to train together helps us elevate the level. Maybe it’s coincidence, but I think we’re doing something right,” said Gloersen, who regularly trains with Brandsdal and Pettersen outside of the national team camps.
Pettersen agreed, and he is eager to give the locals what they’re coming for: a huge party, a celebration of skiing.
“We’re still talking about the World Championships here in 1966 and in 1982, and the Olympics in 1952. I hope that in 20 years, we’ll tell stories from the Worlds in 2011. And I hope it will be remembered as the best World Championships in Norway ever,” Pettersen said, adding that it’s about time to retire Oddvar Braa and the broken pole story from 1982.
“I’ll do my best to give you the smoothest stories, whether I am racing in all five events or just one,” Pettersen concluded.
More than 50,000 spectators showed up to the opening ceremony downtown Oslo on Wednesday night. 1,800 elementary school children marched from the palace to the university square representing the 50 nations that are competing in the World Championships.
11-year-old Firat Mercanoglu from Oslo was one of the 30 students from Sagene Skole representing Croatia in the opening ceremony. His fifth grade teacher has spent the entire last week talking about the small Balcan country that borders to Italy.
“We learned how to draw their flag, and we’ve talked a lot about the country and learned a lot,” Mercanoglu said to FasterSkier right before heading to the opening ceremony.
As a thank-you for participating, Mercanoglu, his entire fifth-grade class and teacher Anita Flølo are invited to the stadium for all the events on Monday, February 28.
Facts and Numbers
Over the course of the 12 competition days and 21 events, the organizers are expecting almost half a million spectators, spread out along the course as well as in the stands at the stadium.
650 athletes from 50 nations are entered. 2,200 volunteers are taking care of their needs and those of the specators and the 1,800 working media.
Only during the pre-Worlds in 2010, there were more than 8,000 spectators camped out along the course.
The host broadcasters will rig 108 TV cameras for the event, contributing to broadcasts reaching 300 million viewers all over the world, including Europe, Japan and Russia. Norwegian television station NRK will broadcast no less than 110 hours of coverage from Holmenkollen, which averages out to just under 10 hours per day.
Inge is FasterSkier's international reporter, born and bred in Norway. A cross-country ski racer and mountain runner, she also dabbles on two wheels in the offseason. If it's steep and long, she loves it. Follow her on Twitter: @IngeScheve.