Norway faces cross-country selection dilemma

Norway’s unrivaled depth in cross-country skiing is causing the team some problems ahead of the Sochi Olympics.

With a handful of medal contenders in nearly every cross-country event, the Norwegian team selectors face the prospect of having to drop either a double Olympic champion or a former world champion from the men’s individual sprint race.

Each team can enter four skiers, and Norway’s coaches have already promised spots to three athletes based on their previous results this season. The fourth was set to go to Petter Northug, the team’s big star who has struggled with illness this season but sees the sprint race as his best chance at a gold medal.

But then former sprint world champion Ola Vigen Hattestad suddenly found a return to form by winning the last World Cup race before Sochi in Italy last weekend - his first individual victory since 2011 - to make a strong claim for the fourth spot.

Now, less than a week before the Olympics start, the selection dilemma is threatening to disrupt the team’s preparations.

“It was stupid to put me up against Petter,” Hattestad told Norwegian media after his victory. “I was angry when I found out they had selected three beforehand. They’ve put themselves in a very difficult situation.”

On the women’s side, the skier who is second in the overall World Cup standings - Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen - has already been dropped from the opening skiathlon event on Saturday. The women’s team is even more stacked than the men’s, with Norwegians occupying the top four spots in the overall World Cup standings.

And in Norway, where cross-country skiing is a national sport and a must-see event at the Olympics, these are the types of decisions that create front-page headlines and fierce social media debates.

Dropping Northug from the Feb. 11 sprint would be the most controversial decision. Northug teamed with Oystein Pettersen to win the two-man team sprint in Vancouver four years ago, and also won the individual sprint at last year’s World Cup test event in Sochi on the same course used for the Olympics.

At 1.8 kilometers, the Sochi course is considerably longer than most World Cup sprints and is more likely to suit skiers like Northug who also compete in the distance races, rather than the pure sprint specialists like Hattestad.

Northug is also the most outspoken and brash member of the squad, and having him in an unhappy mood entering Sochi could potentially affect the entire team. And for Northug, being dropped isn’t an option.

“I know I’m competing in the sprint, and I’m preparing for that,” he said after the World Cup weekend in Toblach, Italy.

The three skiers who have been promised a spot are Eirik Brandsdal, Anders Gloeersen and Finn Haagen Krogh, neither one of which have won a major title before.

And now the team coaches have opened the door to revoking one of their spots and entering both Northug and Hattestad.

“We will do a new evaluation of the team selection,” team director Vidar Loefshus told Norwegian newspaper Verdens Gang, adding that the final decision may not be made until after the opening weekend. “There are no absolutes in Norwegian cross-country skiing. They all have to learn to live with that.”

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