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Petter Northug had long been heralded as cross country skiing’s next big star, with sponsors fighting for his signature right from his junior days.
The Norwegian was the first athlete to win five individual gold medals at the Nordic junior world championships, and while some young athletes fail to fulfil their potential at senior level, that was emphatically not the case with Northug.
Much to his disappointment, he had been a surprise omission from the Norway team for the 2006 Olympic Winter Games. Responding to that setback with hard work, he kept on improving, so much so that there was no question of him missing out on a place at Vancouver 2010.
He had shown what he was capable of at the 2009 Nordic World Championships, collecting gold medals in the 15km double pursuit, 4x10km relay and 50km mass start, sprinting away from the pack on each occasion to seal victory.
Though he arrived in Vancouver full of confidence, he got off to a poor start. In the 15km he finished a lowly 41st but responded by taking a bronze medal in the sprint for his first taste of the Olympic podium.
There was another disappointment in the 30km pursuit a few days later. The format for the event had changed and was now split between 15km of classic technique and 15km of freestyle. Despite his status as the world champion in the event, Northug could finish no better than 11th after snapping a pole.
His wait for a victory finally came to an end in the team sprint, in which he and Øystein Pettersen combined to victorious effect, thanks in part to one of Northug’s trademark finishing sprints.A few days later he put in another late surge to help move Norway up from fourth to second in the 4x10km relay. Though in possession of a medal of each colour, he had by no means finished.
Conditions for the 50km freestyle were warm and wet, with sticky snow making for a slow course that served to keep the pack together and resulted in the closest mass finish the event had ever seen. The top five were separated by just 1.6 seconds, but surging his way first across the line was Northug, who returned to Norway with his four-medal haul as a national sporting hero.