In cross country skiing, and endurance sport generally, it is acknowledged that the athletes reach their peak as they get close to 30 years old. But there have to be exceptions to every rule! Petter Northug is one of them. Aged only 24, the Norwegian cross country skier is already a phenomenon and a great champion. The pupil of Thomas Alsgaard (a five-time Olympic champion, no less) has already won almost everything. His opponents fear particularly his outstanding finishing abilities, which allow him to catch up with the other competitors in the final hectometres and to win races which had not started out as very promising.
His first Olympic race in Vancouver took the form of a great disenchantment, with a modest 42nd place in the 15km. Two days later, in the sprint event, Petter, like the other finalists, was caught out by the rhythm and tactics of the two Russian skiers who started very quickly. He stuck to it, and won the bronze medal, his first Olympic reward. He then finished 11th in the 2x15km combined, although he was the reigning world champion in this event. There was no time to brood over this underachievement, as the races just kept coming, and in the company of his compatriot, Oeystein Pettersen, he launched himself into the team sprint event. They were a winning team, beating the Germans and Russians by 1.3 seconds at the finishing line. For the two athletes, it was their first Olympic title, and, of course, a great joy.
When he took over the last leg of the Norwegian relay in the 4x10km, Northug was in fourth position, more than 28 seconds from the provisional podium. He then used all his energy to catch up with the leaders. While the Swedish racer broke away to win the gold, the Czech and French skiers saw Petter’s red bodysuit swoop in on them in the last uphill section. Although exhausted by his effort, he overtook them to avoid a counter-attack, slowed his pace and caught his breath. He controlled his opponents in the penultimate straight and dealt the deathblow in the sprint, coming in second. It was his third medal in these Games, one in each metal.
The 50km is the last event in cross country skiing. It is the main distance – the hard men’s one. It takes place on the last day of the Olympic Games. The reigning world champion in the freestyle 50km, this time it was in classic style in which victory would be played out for the Norwegian. Again, the race was a tactical one. All the best cross country racers were there, and nobody could get ahead. Three kilometres from the finishing line, there were still some 15 racers who could have won. Northug then decided to produce a huge effort, accelerating to take the lead in the last kilometre. He dropped his opponents one by one. In the last uphill section, Germany’s Teichmann attacked. He broke away and got ahead of the pack. After two hours of effort, this last race would be decided by a sprint. At the entrance to the stadium, there were only six competitors remaining for the three places on the podium. Centimetre by centimetre, Northug started to catch up, overtaking the German in the last few metres to cross the line with his arms raised. He won the title of Olympic champion in the 50km, doubtless the most prestigious one.
As is now customary, it was at the Games Closing Ceremony, among the athletes and general public, that the winner of the 50km was awarded the gold medal by his compatriot and IOC member, Gerhard Heiberg. With four medals, including two Olympic titles, Petter Northug was the Northern Star of these Vancouver Games.