The long haul to success
The winner of five Olympic cross-country skiing medals and five times a world champion, Bente Skari called time on her career in 2003 at the end of a season in which she rewrote the record books.
Skiing in the blood
Born in Oslo, Skari is the daughter of Odd Martinsen, the great Norwegian cross-country skier, who won three Olympic medals at Grenoble 1968 and Innsbruck 1976, along with the world title in 1966, before becoming an administrator with the International Ski Federation (FIS). Coached by her father and competing under her maiden name, she competed in her first World Cup race in 1992 and made her Olympic bow at Lillehammer 1994. In the years that followed she became one of the world’s greatest cross-country skiers, battling for victory on every type of course and proving particularly adept at the classic technique. She scored her first win in December 1997, in a five-km event at Val Di Fiemme, the first landmark in a very special career.
In 1999 she married American skier Geir Skari, with whom she has three children, and began competing as Bente Skari. The name change marked the start of a tremendously successful run. As well as collecting five Olympic medals, including gold in the 10km classic at Salt Lake City 2002, she won five world titles between 1999 and 2003, scored 42 FIS World Cup wins, and picked up four crystal globes for topping the overall cross-country skiing standings in 1999, 2000, 2002 and 2003 and five more globes for the successive sprint titles she won between 1998 and 2002.
Skari won all her medals and most of her victories on the global circuit in classic events, where racers ski in parallel tracks cut into the snow. Though she was less at ease with the free technique (skate-skiing), she proved unbeatable in the 1,500m sprint, the shortest event in the discipline, which involves four-skier heats leading to a final round. Revelling in the head-to-head knockout format, she dominated her rivals. Explaining the secret of her success, she once said: “I don’t want to lose so I speed up, without really knowing how.”
Going out at the top
In 2001 Skari was awarded the Holmenkollen Medal, Norway’s highest skiing accolade. Two years later, on 28 March 2003, she competed in her very last race, a 2x5km pursuit in the Norwegian championships, bringing to an end a phenomenal season and an outstanding career with yet another victory. “I don’t have the strength or motivation to carry on skiing for another year,” she said, explaining her decision to retire. During the course of the 2002/03 FIS World Cup season, the Oslo champion won 14 of the 17 races she contested, amassing nearly twice as many points as her nearest rival in the overall standings to run away with the crystal globe again. In February 2003 Skari claimed gold in both the 10km classic and the 15km classic mass start at the world championships at Val Di Fiemme, taking her tally of wins for the season to 16, a new record for either sex. With nothing left to prove, she then hung up her skis for good.