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Skis, Songs and Shots at a Supremely Norwegian Sports Festival


OSLO — For 2 days before this yr’s Holmenkollen cross-country ski races, Espen Garder took his distant meetings from a heated tent within the forest. Breaks got here just for lunch and battery charging at a restaurant up the hill.

Garder, 53, had arrived early to say a spot, not only for himself but additionally for the dozen Boy Scouts he leads. They might join him for the weekend, desperate to sleep within the subfreezing temperatures along the five-mile racing loop.

Hundreds more fans, no less excitable, would take day trips on Oslo’s metro system to pack Holmenkollen’s ski area for certainly one of the world’s most improbable winter sports festivals, capped by a weekend of cheering, drinking and mania for cross-country skiing, which in Norway is something like a faith.

To picture the festival’s scale, and its vibe, think Scandinavian Super Bowl crossed with Latest York City Marathon: urban, Olympic-level competition, with spectators in wool sweaters and suspenders, campfires grilling hot dogs and enough beer and liquor for a small army.

Andrew Musgrave, a British cross-country skier who lives and trains in Norway, described it this manner: “It’s like a bunch of Vikings going out and getting smashed within the woods and cheering on some people floating around on planks.”

Two 50-kilometer ski marathons — one for men and this yr, for the primary time, one for ladies — are the center of the 10-day festival, which also includes biathlon and ski jumping competitions, plus a relay race for younger athletes. Outside the ropes, there’s something for everybody else: an enormous, trail-side party for school students and up to date graduates; a family area for quieter camping; a box for the royal family; and for fans focused on athletic performance, a grandstand in Holmenkollen’s ski stadium.

At their core, the cross-country events are celebrations of Norwegian values: labor, persistence and tradition, in line with Thor Gotaas, a folklorist whose 22 books on skiing have made him a minor Norwegian celebrity.

“It reflects the spirit of the those who survived on this country,” Gotaas said in an interview at his home in Oslo, two leisurely hours interrupted only by his occasionally feeding fresh logs right into a roaring fire in his wood stove. A 50-kilometer race — just over 31 miles — requires greater than technical skill, he said. “You might have to be stubborn.”

While lots of Holmenkollen’s traditions have endured, and winners still get an audience with Norway’s king, today’s events are barely recognizable from the world’s first ski races, which began in 1892 and took contestants so long as five and a half hours to finish.

Lots of the early competitors were woodsmen who sometimes needed to ski farther to get to the train to Oslo than the 30 or so miles they’d race once they arrived. Essentially the most elite racers looked different then, too; at the same time as the clock ticked, some would stop to eat steaks and recharge with a mix of coffee and alcohol, Gotaas said.

Athletes can now cover the 50-kilometer distance in lower than two hours. They stay at a luxury hotel next to the paths overlooking Oslo. They usually are full-time racers, with drug testers who collect blood and urine samples on the finish and endorsement deals that put their faces on advertisements at the closest metro stop.

Essentially the most recent change at Holmenkollen is one which many said was overdue: This yr was the primary by which women raced the complete 50-kilometer distance, up from the 19 miles, or 30 kilometers, they’d skied for a long time.

The prolonged women’s event got here amid a broader debate about equalizing distances in cross-country skiing, where men still race twice so far as women in some Olympic and world championship events. The discourse has revealed a surprising level of resistance amongst female European skiers, a few of whom have said they fear audiences will tune out if their races take too long. Other top competitors were blissful to ski the additional miles. Within the debut race, the Norwegians Ragnhild Gloersen Haga and Astrid Oyre Slind took the highest two places.

Slind, a distance specialist, was skiing her third long race in only over every week. After a 30-kilometer competition in Slovenia the previous Saturday, she had hopped on a sponsor’s plane to Sweden, slept three hours and placed fifth out of greater than 2,000 women in a 55-mile race there.

“It’s not an enormous thing,” she said. “I’m form of used to it.”

The American Jessie Diggins, a three-time Olympic medalist, placed third after battling muscle cramps for half the race. She was a part of a community of U.S. athletes and coaches that led a campaign to equalize distances in Oslo and elsewhere on the international circuit.

“Imagine, we didn’t should be carted off in an ambulance,” Diggins said Sunday, her sarcasm as thick because the snow.

Diggins, 31, has change into a favourite in Norway, where spectators pride themselves on their enthusiasm for the international field — with the exception, perhaps, of their rivals from Sweden. One Norwegian fan club has even serenaded Diggins with a customized song at events. (Its lyrics include: “She looks like she’s a teen; she’s higher than the queen.”)

You might have to be drunk whenever you sing the song, Diggins said, an acknowledgment of just how much an element of Norwegian ski fandom alcohol has change into.

“Norwegians don’t refer to one another unless they’re drinking,” said Espen Antonsen, 32, who camped with a number of friends along the trail over the weekend.

One yr at Holmenkollen, Antonsen said, he drank with the daddy of an Olympic medalist, producing photographic proof.

“He was drunk and I used to be drunk,” Antonsen said. “And it was really fun.”

That proximity to athletes and their families can be an element of the Holmenkollen charm. Fans can walk across the race trail at designated points, hurl insults at Swedes from well inside earshot and hand sausages, waffles and drinks across the fence to athletes who fall off the leaders’ pace.

“I’ve had loads of bad races in Holmenkollen where I’ve been off the back,” Musgrave said. “So I’ve had my share of beer and shots.” He crossed the road in eleventh place Saturday, presumably freed from waffles and aquavit, a Scandinavian liquor.

The festival is at its loudest and most boisterous at Frognerseteren, where the loop reaches the highest of a hill at its most distant point from the stadium. Hundreds of fans, mostly there to party and plenty of of them of their 20s, fill the woods in time for the ten a.m. start, shovel out their very own seating areas and switch the course right into a tunnel of noise.

For Norwegian athletes, that form of atmosphere makes winning at Holmenkollen an achievement to rival an Olympic medal. Before the world championships were held on the venue in 2011, the Norway star Petter Northug Jr. spent years training specifically for the 50-kilometer race. When he finally won it, he found himself lacking purpose.

“Some days, I didn’t get off the bed because I’d won the 50k in Oslo,” Northug said in an interview. “What was there more to win?”

Holmenkollen’s two-hour races, that are televised nationally, have shown enduring popularity in Norway at the same time as organizers say they now compete with other events in town and Netflix for the eye of each fans and the following generation of racers.

If anything, the most important threat to the event could also be Norway’s dominance of cross-country skiing. In the boys’s race Saturday, Norwegians took the primary 10 spots in the ultimate results. Athletes and coaches on the international circuit have long said that more nations should be vying for the rostrum to sustain the interest and tv rights income outside Scandinavia that sustain the game.

“We’re really good in cross-country skiing,” Martin Johnsrud Sundby, a Norwegian Olympian turned commentator, said after his country’s dominating performances on the world championships this month. “But it surely’s not good to be good in cross-country skiing if no one else is sweet.”

Events like those at Holmenkollen are what seed Norway’s system with latest stars. While the partying at Frognerseteren draws much of the eye, those camping and cheering on other parts of the course include children who then get hooked.

“I speak about it day-after-day,” said William Rannekleiv Kjendlie, 12, who camped this yr along with his father within the family area, in a tent fitted with a wood stove and animal skins.

Iver Tildheim Andersen, a 22-year-old Norwegian phenom who finished fourth Saturday, said being an element of the massive crowds at Northug’s victory in 2011 persuaded him to affix a ski club and begin training.

“I used to be just chilling and eating hot dogs and having fun,” Andersen said. “It was like, ‘Perhaps I can race in Holmenkollen at some point, and experience the identical stuff.’”

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