Northug, Bjoergen look for x-country gold at Nordic worlds
Canada sending 13 athletes to world championships, which begin Thursday in Oslo
Cross-country skiers Petter Northug and Marit Bjoergen will be looking to win gold on their home snow at the Nordic world championships, which open Thursday.
Organizers have sold 225,000 tickets for the championships as fans prepare to fill the stands and viewing points at Holmenkollen, the vast ski venue overlooking the Norwegian capital.
In the city below, signs and billboards everywhere give the streets a festive feel, and talk turns often to the medal chances of the home athletes in Oslo's bars and cafes.
This air of excitement is also percolating up to the athletes in training for the ski jumping, cross-country and Nordic combined events that make up the worlds.
"For us coming from the U.S., where cross-country skiing barely makes the sports page, it's pretty cool to see," American gold medal hopeful Kikkan Randall said.
Nobody needs to remind Northug how much these sports mean to Norwegians. The most outspoken personality on the cross country circuit has viewed every race since the 2010 Vancouver Olympics as little more than a prologue to Oslo.
"A world championship gold on a home track would equate to an Olympic gold," Northug said Tuesday.
Canada is sending 13 athletes to the world championships, including Alex Harvey of St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., who won a silver medal in a World Cup sprint race Sunday.
Harvey is in the midst of a breakout season. He has three World Cup bronze medals so far, as well as a world title in the 30-kilometre pursuit race at the under-23 world championships, good enough for some recent praise from Northug.
Scandinavian fans of the sport often castigate Northug for his post-race antics, labelling him ungracious in defeat and arrogant in victory. But his many supporters instead describe the 25-year-old star as a born winner, and few of his compatriots are likely to complain if he helps Norway assemble a new stockpile of medals.
Three-time Olympic champion Marit Bjoergen keeps a lower profile than Northug, but the 30-year-old cross-country skier is still favoured to win all three distance events.
"I feel really nervous now," Bjoergen said. "This is what I've been aiming for and, whatever happens next, it's going to be an incredible experience."
In sparkling form
Randall also comes into the championships in sparkling form and will be looking to improve on her silver medal at the last worlds when she competes on Thursday in the freestyle sprint.
"Right now I'm just kind of anxious with excitement. I've been looking forward to Oslo for a long time," said Randall, who won the last sprint event before the worlds in Drammen.
Randall's American teammate, Olympic champion Billy Demong, hopes to mount a serious challenge in Nordic combined despite sitting out most of the season to get married, rebuild his home, and start a family back in Park City, Utah.
"Competing here at the world championships will be like returning to the birthplace of Nordic," Demong said. "It'll be a celebration of the history of the sport, as well as its present and future. I'm expecting the fans to be very numerous, enthusiastic and educated."
Jason Lamy Chappuis of France has jumped and raced well all season and starts out as favourite. The American-born competitor, who edged Johnny Spillane of the United States for the narrowest of wins at the Olympics, holds a strong lead in the World Cup with just two races left after the worlds.
The championships also provide an opportunity for women's ski jumpers to showcase their talents after the International Olympic Committee controversially rejected their application to compete in Vancouver, a decision that still rankles with many of the athletes.
American jumper Lindsey Van, who became the first ever women's world champion in Liberec, Czech Republic, two years ago, believes the IOC will not be disappointed when it re-assesses the sport in Oslo with an eye to the 2014 Sochi Games. For now, though, she's putting sports politics aside to focus fully on trying to retain her title.
"They say Norwegians are born with skis on their feet and you can feel that people here are really excited," Van said.
Men's ski jumping could throw up a surprise or two. The ever-reliable Austrians are expected to take the team event, but Norway is excited at the prospect of seeing Johan Remen Evensen in action. The 25-year-old Evensen was a relative unknown before he stunned spectators earlier this month with a world record 246.5-metre jump on the flying hill at Vikersund.
Qualifying for the men's 10-kilometre and women's 5K classical-style cross-country races will be held on Wednesday, followed by an opening ceremony. The first finals take place on Thursday with the men's and women's cross-country sprints.