Editor’s Note: The following is an editorial based on the recent news regarding Petter Northug’s pending DUI. Facts are juxtaposed with opinion, which belong to the author and do not reflect FasterSkier as a whole.
Petter Northug screwed up. And now he feels bad, or so he says.
While the news that the 28-year-old Olympic champion and Norwegian bad-a** athlete celebrity drove drunk and crashed his Audi A7 on Sunday morning didn’t come as a complete surprise, it was still a disappointment — to Norwegians, fans around the world and Northug himself.
After leaving his friend and running to his house just a few hundred meters away from the roundabout crash, which totaled his leased car, Northug answered the door when police knocked just minutes later.
He could’ve hid inside, sobered up, and been charged with leaving the scene of an accident (and ditching his friend). It wouldn’t have been moral, but it might have been smarter.
What Northug did — taking his car out for a joy ride early Sunday morning (around 5 a.m.) while heavily intoxicated — was a bad idea. Ultimately coming clean when police confronted and questioned him, then having his manager blitz together a press release about his mistakes later that day, was the right decision.
At least he’s on the right track … now.
A lot of people don’t like Northug. The guy makes way too much money for being somewhat of a dingleberry. He swears, he doesn’t play nice, and he’s arrogant. But that’s his M.O. in the sometimes dry sport of cross-country skiing. Every exciting drama needs its villain.
Northug never asked to be a role model. His raw talent threw him into the spotlight. A two-time gold medalist at the 2010 Olympics (in the team sprint and 50 k classic), he went on to win the Holmenkollen 50 k skate, making him the first skier to win the 50 k at Holmenkollen, World Championships and the Olympics since Sweden’s Gunde Svan did so in 1988. And Northug was a show stopper as a junior, racking up six golds at Junior World Championships.
Today, Northug is worth several million dollars: $5.8 million according to sportrichlist.com. Some $1.5 to $3.6 million of that (10-20 million kroner) comes from his main sponsor, Coop, an 800-store grocery chain. Coop is in the business of selling juice and bread with Northug’s name on them, according to the Wall Street Journal. Maybe the company should sell beer with his face on its labels, too.
While the execs at Coop have a difficult task ahead of them in deciding whether to stand by Northug or drop him with the help of a contractual exit clause, Northug’s got his own issues to deal with.
He could face jail time, although the prospects of that are unlikely. According to the International Center for Alcohol Policies, the legal limit for blood-alcohol concentration (BAC) in Norway is below 0.02 percent (compared to 0.08-percent in the U.S., Canada and Mexico, for instance). Getting pulled over with a BAC of 0.02 percent in Norway would warrant a fine and potentially a suspended license in the case of aggravated circumstances.
At 0.05 percent, you’ll get a suspended sentence, your license suspended and a fine; 0.10 percent, a fine, suspended or mandatory sentence, and a suspended license; and 0.15 percent, a mandatory sentence, suspended license and a fine.
Asbjørn Strandbakken, the dean of the University of Bergen’s Faculty of Law, told NRK that the circumstances of Northug’s crash will likely be considered aggravated and the maximum penalty would likely be a year in prison. Driving with a BAC above 0.10-percent usually warrants 21 days to three months in prison, he said.
While Northug’s BAC won’t be released for up to two weeks, pending a police investigation, he described his level of intoxication as high. He had been out with friends the night before partying in Trondheim and returned home early the next day.
“I was so drunk that I was not able to make the right choices,” he told VG, according to a translation. “That was the reason I didn’t leave the car keys alone.
“Around five o’clock people began to go home and some went to bed,” he explained. “It was kind of just me and the passenger in the car who were awake when we decided to go out in the car and drive it. We had no motive for why we were out.”
The rest was history. He went straight through a roundabout, exceeded the speed limit of 40 kilometers per hour (around 25 mph), and off the road into a barrier. He and his friend, the passenger, were OK (police later found the friend beside the car with minor injuries), but the car was totaled. No one else was harmed.
“When we started driving, it was not many hundred meters before we started going to fast and we ran into a roundabout and into the crash barrier,” Northug recalled. “It slammed. Probably both in shock, we asked each other, are you OK? … There was no damage that we saw and the next thing that happens is that I am acting in panic and want to get away.”
Once the police came to his house, Northug went with them to the emergency room for routine checks. Then, he went to the police station for questioning. The interrogation ended around 3 p.m. Sunday, about 10 hours after the accident.
If Northug is fined for a BAC above 0.05 percent, it will cost him at least 1 1/2 months of his base salary — which could add up to a hefty amount. Jail time ranges from three weeks to three months with a maximum of a year. Suspensions can vary from less than a year to two years, according to Norway’s traffic laws. None of this takes into account lawyer fees.
And while Northug might not go to jail (although he was prepared to: “I’m ready to take punishment for this,” he told VG. “I’ll take my punishment, there is no doubt about that.”), he could be put under house arrest or confined to traveling to and from training sessions.
And that might not be a bad thing. Northug has reiterated that he’s sorry, that his judgment was completely flawed, and that he’s going sober from here on out to commit himself to training.
This is a guy who has claimed to be dry (alcohol-free) throughout the racing season. While it’s believable — even for a poker aficionado — maybe drinking a little throughout the winter and not so much at once at the end of the season wouldn’t be a bad idea.
I’m not promoting drinking, and if anything, it’s probably best to stay off the stuff altogether. But the idea of going buck wild for a month or two before training resumes might not be the best one. Not for Northug and not for anyone, especially those who don’t think about the consequences of getting behind the wheel after a night out.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.