SOCHI, Russia – Saturday’s Olympic skiathlon was an emotional day for the Norwegian women’s ski team. The day before, team member Astrid Jacobsen’s brother, a close friend of the team, died unexpectedly. In complete shock, the women rallied and all four starters (Jacobsen was not among them) skied strong races, including gold by Marit Bjørgen and bronze by Heidi Weng.
In the race, the women wore black armbands in honor of their fallen friend.
On the podium, they cried.
The International Olympic Committee took issue with all of this, and sent a written warning to Norway’s Olympic Committee. The alleged violation? Wearing a symbol that promotes anything other than the Olympics.
The IOC also banned freestyle skiers from wearing helmet stickers in memory of deceased skier Sarah Burke, a friendly and inspiring member of their community.
There is no specific rule which prohibits athletes from wearing memorial patches or stickers. And in the case of the black armband, the gesture did not even include a logo or symbol.
“It is not about the rule, it is about the question of what is appropriate,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told the press regarding the issue. “We would say that the competitions themselves are not the right place to do this.”
The rule he is referring to is the one that prohibits “political protests.” Both the freestyle skiers and the Norwegian women’s team have pointed out that in no way is their commemoration of a friend’s life a political statement.
Such rules are not enforced in this manner at other competitions. For instance, at biathlon World Championships two years ago, the Japanese and Korean teams wore black armbands in support of Japanese athlete Itsuka Owada. The morning of the women’s relay, she heard the news that her parents’ remains had been found in the wake of the country’s devastating tsunami. Owada managed to race, likely in part because of the support of the two teams.
However, the IOC has a different attitude.
“We understand their desire to honor their friend’s memory, but we believe that a competitive arena, where the atmosphere is one of celebration, is not the right place to do it,” IOC spokeswoman Emanuelle Moreau told the VG newspaper. “”With 2,800 athletes, there are unfortunately many who have lost friends and loved ones. We understand your grief, but we do not want to allow the competition to become a place of mourning.
Bjørgen has said that she does not regret the team’s actions, and that it was the right thing to do.
Meanwhile, the women’s coach Vidar Løfshus said that they knew they might get in trouble, but decided to wear the armbands anyway.
Others have called this action arrogant.
The head of Norway’s Olympic Committee, Inge Andersen, immediately said that he would protest the IOC’s action. Later, he went to bat for the women’s ski team and set up meetings with IOC President Thomas Bach and his right-hand man, Gilbert Felli.
Norway’s IOC member Gerhard Heiberg also weighed in, angering various people at various times. In his latest statement to the Dagbladet newspaper he said, “The IOC would really like to show a human face, you know, the kind with two eyes and smile.”
By Andersen’s account, the IOC knows that it made a tone-deaf blunder. However, that doesn’t mitigate the pain it caused the Norwegian women’s team to be told they weren’t allowed to mourn for a friend, and that it was their job to make competition venues a cheerful place even if they were feeling anything but.
“Gilbert Felli said bluntly that the IOC understands Norway, and will look at the regulations,” Andersen told Norwegian newspaper Aftenposten. “The IOC was very humble. Felli listened to what I said and promised to follow up after the Olympics. Then the IOC will look at the regulations. He definitely knew what I expressed on behalf of Norway Sports. The conversation between us lasted quite a long time.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.