First, retired star Thomas Alsgaard showed up at Norwegian national championships and placed third in the 15 k classic, leading commentators and fans alike to bemoan the state of the national team. Sure, Alsgaard is an amazing talent and is training fairly seriously for marathons, but should a man who has been retired for almost ten years be able to beat everyone except Martin Sundby Johnsrud and Eldar Roenning?
Then the Norwegian team for World Championships was announced, and while it didn’t include Alsgaard (no surprises there), it did include Emil Hegle Svendsen, currently the second-ranked biathlete in the world, just six points behind his teammate Tarjei Boe in the overall World Cup standings.
Cue the drama: besides the fans, Sjur Rothe, one of the skiers who will potentially be replaced by Svendsen on Norways 4 x 10 k relay team, has voiced his displeasure, and Sundby told NRK, Norway’s state-owned media company, that he “knew that the cross-country skiers are stronger.”
But Norwegian cross-country head coach Åge Skinstad had a different opinion.
“We are very pleased that Emil Hegle Svendsen made himself available,” he told NRK.
The naming represented the resolution of a much-discussed crisis: Skinstad said that none of the skiers besides Petter Northug had impressed him enough to ski a skate leg in the relay. As a result, he turned to the biathletes for help.
Svendsen is clearly quick on his skis, and often has the fastest ski times in World Cup biathlon races. In addition, his current teammates Ole Einar Bjorndalen, Lars Berger, and Ronny Hafsas have all contributed to skiing relays in the past, with great success. (In fact, Berger was Skinstad’s first choice, but he refused to participate.)
But biathlon World Championships are at roughly the same time as skiing World Championships, and they are far away – in Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, deep in the heart of Siberia. Would Svendsen really give up his own World Championships for a chance to ski in a relay?
The answer was yes – perhaps particularly because World Championships are in Oslo, on home soil.
An agreement was reached that the relay team itself would be named on February 27th, so that if Svendsen wasn’t on it, he would still have time to head to Russia. And if he was on it, he would race on March 4th and then fly to Russia, having missed only the mixed relay. With Boe sitting atop the World Cup overall and Bjorndalen ranked fifth, Norway could most likely survive a mixed relay without Svendsen.
As a results, Svendsen will not be traveling with the biathlon team; because of the timing, he requires his own private flight to Siberia, which will cost an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 kroner. A number of commentators have questioned whether relay gold is worth that expense.
But Skinstad stood by his decision.
“Emil has been stable and well throughout the winter,” he told the Bergen News. “He is also very motivated to be part of the squad. He is one of several alternatives to the two freestyle legs of the relay, but it is still open.”