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The Canadian Press - ONLINE EDITION

Olympic winter powerhouse Norway angry about losing, especially when Swedes win

Posted: 02/17/2014 9:23 AM | Comments: 0

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SOCHI, Russia - For a man with a bit of explaining to do to the folks back home, Inge Andersen didn't seem terribly concerned as he ate a late breakfast Monday at the Norway House.

The head of the Norwegian Olympic Committee had more things to worry about than the stunning collapse of his country's men's cross-country relay team a day earlier, or the even more disastrous showing by the women on long skis the day before that.

There was talk Vladimir Putin might drop by for a visit. Later in the day, King Harald V would arrive along with Queen Sonja to get a closer look at how the country's athletes are doing at the Winter Olympics.

The royal couple was flying on a charter with other Norwegian tourists, Andersen said. One reason the king — who turns 77 on Friday — is so popular in Norway is that he's a man of the people, so no private jets for him.

"The best birthday present for him would be some medals," Andersen said. "He knows sports so well and loves to be with the athletes."

If Andersen was lucky, the king didn't read the morning papers. Splashed across the pages and accompanying websites were the faces of Norway's defeated cross-country stars.

The shock wasn't just so much that the Norwegians lost the races, though that was bad enough. It was that their next-door neighbours, those uppity Swedes, won both.

The newspaper Dagbladet ran a picture on its website of the four Swedish team members celebrating as Norwegian anchor Petter Northug crossed the finish line a minute behind, with a "Warning, strong images" disclaimer normally reserved for violence and gore.

"Humiliated by the Swedes — again!" read Verdens Gang.

This wasn't the way the Sochi Games were supposed to play out for the small country that almost always comes up big in the Winter Olympics. With its cross-country and biathlon athletes expected to dominate, there were predictions in the Norwegian media that the country might win 15 gold medals, maybe as many as 35 overall.

There was even a chance Norway could be the biggest winner of all in Sochi.

Not that the country has completely tanked. Any other country its size would be thrilled with the 14 medals won through Monday, including 5 gold, that put it fourth in the medal standings.

But there's a reason Norway — where 2.1 million of 5 million residents belong to sports clubs — has won more medals than any country in the Olympics. It wants desperately to be known as a winter sports powerhouse, not just as the home of those curlers with the crazy pants.

"Norway is a winter country," said Roy Wahlstrom, a journalist at Dagbladet. "There's a popular saying at home that Norwegians are born with skis on their feet."

Those skis were sluggish in the soft snow in the cross country relays, where the loss of gold that seemed almost guaranteed overshadowed even the super G win Sunday by Kjetil Jansrud. That gold was nice, but Norway is used to winning the super G every Olympics, so it hardly deadened the pain.

"It's difficult to accept that you fail at the Olympics when the expectations were gold," said Svein-Erik Nilsen, a ski wax company representative who was standing with a Norwegian flag near the cross-country finish line. "It's been two bad days. If you were betting this it would be 9,000-1, maybe 10,000-1 against this happening, especially with the women."

Indeed, the Norwegian women seemed particularly unbeatable in the 4x5-kilometre cross-country team relay on Saturday. Norway was not only the defending champion but had not lost a women's relay in any major competition in five years.

But the Swedes — yes, those Swedes — rallied from behind on the final leg and the Norwegians faded to an almost unthinkable fifth-place finish.

"That hurts because this is our national sport," Andersen said. "I have to congratulate Sweden because we are neighbours, we are brothers and sisters. But at the end it's important that we have more medals than Sweden."

That shouldn't be a problem, with Norway still ahead 14-9 in total medals with expectations of more in the biathlon, Nordic combined and cross-country skiing. Still, the Norwegian angst at losing medals the country almost took for granted was matched by the Swedish glee at snatching a few from their smaller neighbour.

"You can't have them all. Leave a few for your neighbours," Sweden's King Carl XVI Gustaf said after Sunday's race. "We're supposed to be brothers and share."

Sharing is something Norway hasn't been very good at since winning nine golds and 20 medals overall in 1992 and then following that with an even better performance at home in Lillehammer two years later. Aside from a mediocre 2006 Olympics, Norway has been near the top of the medal count in every Winter Games since, and led all nations with 303 medals, including 107 gold, coming into Sochi.

Northug, who likes to taunt Swedes by doing such things as wearing a t-shirt saying "Second place is also very good," blamed the relay loss on a bad combination of skis and wax.

"This isn't a power shift," he insisted.

But the weekend clearly stung, and then it got worse. Aksel Lund Svindal, who won three medals at the 2010 Vancouver Games and was expected to be a star in Sochi, pulled out of Wednesday's giant slalom, citing exhaustion, after failing to win a medal in three races.

And the curlers with the wild pants must play a tiebreaker to get in the semifinals after losing to Denmark 5-3.

But the king and queen were on their way, and for Andersen better days seemed ahead. There were still medals to be won, an Olympics to be salvaged.

And, of course, some Swedes to beat.

____

Tim Dahlberg is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at tdahlberg@ap.org or http://twitter.com/timdahlberg

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