Gibes and jealousy in bitter Scandinavian showdown
Associated Press Writer
STOCKHOLM – Wondering how Sweden is doing in the Olympics? Check the Norwegian papers.
Looking for Norway’s medal count? Read the Swedish sports pages.
Eighty-two countries are competing in Vancouver, but in this part of the world you might think the main competition involves only two.
The Scandinavian rivalry is intense during the Winter Games, especially in cross-country events where both nations have world-class skiers. The Norwegians, particularly, are obsessed with trumping their Swedish neighbors.
After Sweden won its second gold medal at the Vancouver Olympics, Norwegian daily Dagbladet ran the cover of its Olympics insert in blue and yellow – the colors of the Swedish flag – with the plaintive headline “can’t we get a gold too?”
Now they’ve won three.
When Marit Bjoergen finally won a gold for Norway, in the women’s cross-country sprint Wednesday, Norwegians were equally thrilled by Swedish favorite Emil Jonsson’s failure to reach the men’s sprint final.
“The most important thing today was not to win Olympic gold, but to beat Emil Jonsson,” Norway’s Petter Northug told Norwegian TV2. Northug – Norway’s biggest medal hope in Vancouver – had to settle for bronze in the final after being outpaced by two Russians.
On Thursday, Tora Berger earned her first Olympic gold medal and gave Norway it’s 100th overall in the Winter Olympics with a victory in the 15-kilometer individual biathlon race.
Not long after Norway had become the first country ever to hit the 100 milestone in Winter Olympics gold medals, it had No. 101 when Emil Hegle Svendsen won the 20-kilometer individual biathlon rce, denying countryman Ole Einar Bjoerndalen his sixth Olympic gold medal.
So Norway moved ahead 3-2 in the gold-medal standings midway through Day 7 in Vancouver, taking the edge in a rivalry that is rooted deeply in history. Norway was forced into a union with Sweden that was dissolved only a century ago. During World War II, “neutral” Sweden looked the other way when German troops on leave used Swedish railways to travel home from Nazi-occupied Norway.
But much of the Scandinavian infighting boils down to a desire from both countries to have significance on the global stage.
Sweden gave the world such names as Volvo, Saab, Ikea and Abba. Norway’s global image is associated with its breathtaking fjords, but it lacks world-famous brands. Even the Nobel Peace Prize, which puts Norway in the global spotlight once a year, was established by a Swede.
The balance of power started shifting, however, after Norway found vast offshore oil and gas reserves. Swedes watched their western brethren become one of the world’s wealthiest people, while Swedish icons like Saab, Volvo and Absolut vodka were sold to foreign buyers.
“Even if Norway has its oil, skiers and its knitted sweaters, Norway will always be little brother,” Johan Esk, who covers the Olympics for Stockholm daily Dagens Nyheter, wrote in an e-mail to The Associated Press.
That kind of talk has helped foment Norway’s desire to outshine Sweden – Swedes call it an inferiority complex – that manifests itself most explicitly in the Winter Olympics. This is when ski-crazed Norway normally rules, and Sweden is little brother.
“It’s fine to get beaten by the Swedes in ice hockey, because that happens. But it’s not OK to get beaten by a Swedish skier,” Truls Daehli, a sports columnist for Norwegian tabloid VG, told AP. “It has to do with our national identity. Norwegians see those as our own sports.”
When Norway got off to a poor start Monday in the men’s 15-kilometer cross-country race, many Norwegians found comfort in the fact that Sweden’s Marcus Hellner, who took an early lead, slowed toward the end and finished fourth, narrowly missing the medals.
The schadenfreude knew no boundaries in the live chat on VG’s Web site. “YEEEES! He didn’t make it!” said one posting. “A lovely consolation,” said another.
When Swede Bjorn Ferry surprisingly won the 12.5-kilometer biathlon pursuit the next day – while Norwegian medal favorites Bjorndalen and Svendsen missed the podium – the grief was palpable in the VG chat. “Fiasco Olympics. And worst of all is that a Swede wins. Tragic,” one posting said.
Bjorndalen and Svendsen congratulated Ferry, but Svendsen couldn’t resist a bit of a gibe at Sweden, telling Norwegian reporters “it’s embarrassing to lose to a Swede.”
Sweden is less consumed with the Olympic results of its smaller neighbor, but its tabloids have not been shy about reminding Norwegians of their flops.
After Northug fell far behind in the 15-kilometer race, placing 41st, Swedish commentators joked the Norwegians were still looking for him in the woods during the medal ceremony.
On Sweden’s part the rivalry is intensifying as its own star power fades, said columnist Lasse Anrell, who writes for Swedish tabloid Aftonbladet. That won’t be helped by Norway’s three gold medals in two days.
“We are worthless at everything these days: cars, mobile phones. But in skiing we’re the best again,” Anrell said.
Associated Press Writers Ian MacDougall in Oslo, Norway, and Mattias Karen in Vancouver, British Columbia, contributed to this report.
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