Cross-country skiing as a team sport

Arve Hjelseth
Norwegian University of Science and Technology
Jeremy Crump
Translation from Norwegian


An interesting discussion arose in both traditional and social media in Norway in the wake of the World Championships’ 50km in Lahti. As far as the Norwegian men’s cross country team is concerned, the championships were only partially successful since Norway didn’t win a single individual gold medal.  In fact, Petter Northug is the only man to have won gold in the championships over a traditional distance (i.e. excluding the sprints) since 2007.

For that reason and because of his media friendly manner, Northug is without doubt our most popular male cross country skier. At the same time, he’s the person who most divides opinion. I shall leave that to one side here, but there is hardly any doubt that many Norwegians relied on Northug to win the 50km. If he wasn’t going to win, it was all the same whether a Russian or a Canadian won (many drew the line at a Swedish victory). On the other hand, there were certainly some Norwegians who preferred any winner other than Northug, even a foreigner.

The race itself unfolded much as all cross countries with a simultaneous start have always done, with the exception of the 2013 World Championships. A very large number of the competitors remained part of the main pack with only a few kilometres to go. Sprinting ability was once again decisive in a 50km race. There are always some competitors who know they have little chance in a sprint and who consequently prefer a fast pace (without that meaning that they intend to take responsibility for setting a fast pace, it’s better to hope that someone else will do the job) while others prefer the slowest possible pace since they are good sprinters but can easily be burned off if there are a lot of long stretches at a fast pace along the way.

Among the Norwegians, Martin Johnsrud Sundby belonged to the former group, while Petter Northug belonged to the latter. Northug was certainly in poor form throughout the season, even if it looked as though he was getting better. Sundby’s chance depended on himself or someone else managing to soften up the sprinters to such an extent that they were no longer in contention with only a few hundred metres to go, or else that they were so exhausted that the difference in sprinting power was evened out.

A couple of kilometres before the end, on the last hill of any length, Sundby made a final effort to split the field. It almost worked. Only Alex Harvey and Sergei Ustiugov were really able to keep up. Sjur Røthe almost kept up, and behind him Matti Heikkinen was moving up, so that there were five men competing for the medals in the final stretch. The rest of the field was so far behind at the top of the penultimate hill that it was clear that they wouldn’t have any part to play in the contest for gold. Petter Northug was one of them.

How sensible was it for Sundby to try to split the field? Of course it is likely that another competitor with limited sprinting power would have done exactly the same if Sundby hadn’t put his foot down, Dario Cologna for example. Even so, from the point of view of the Norwegian team, the result was that Sundby potentially sacrificed quite a good chance of a medal for Petter Northug against a much smaller chance that his break would succeed and he would take the sought-after gold. If the objective was to win as many Norwegian medals as possible, preferably including the gold, it was more or less clear from a couple of kilometres out that Northug was probably the best bet. From this perspective, it looks like a remarkable order from the team management that Sundby should do all he could to burn off as many of the others as he could, including Northug, when, based on experience from similar runs in the past, the chances of success were small.

By this argument, it seems to me that there are two groups in particular who believe that the Norwegian tactics were misguided. First, those who support Petter Northug regardless, and there are lots of those. Secondly, there are the increasing number who ‘read’ a simultaneous start in skiing like a cycle race in which everything is about the team and the individual participants are pieces who are deployed in the team’s interest.

But cross country has traditionally been a solo event, not counting the relays (and even then, it’s man against man), not one for collaborative team tactics. The simultaneous start has simply opened things up for a new way to approach cross country which neither the athletes nor many of the spectators have taken on board. Perhaps they shouldn’t do so either.

How reasonable is it that an athlete like Sundby, undoubtedly the world’s best and most consistent cross country skier of recent years, should forfeit his small chance of gold to increase another Norwegian’s chance of winning? For those of us who have watched cross country for a long time, it sounds totally unreasonable, to put it mildly. Yes, they are team mates but they are also competitors. This is especially the case if we recall that Sundby hasn’t won an individual gold at the world championships.

But don’t imagine that the Norwegian national skiing team, perhaps in particular the support team, haven’t thought about this deeply or that they won’t give different orders at the next crucial moment. The managers are assessed on golds won, not valiant attempts made. For those of us who are already quite disillusioned about how cross country is going and think it has been modernised to the point of becoming unrecognisable, it will be yet another nail in the coffin.

Copyright © Arve Hjelseth 2017

This text was previously posted on forumbloggen, in Norwegian.

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