Norway's cross-country team struggles with waxing woes at Sochi Olympics
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia – Amid dark murmurings and conspiracy theories, Knut Nystad's Sochi Olympics have taken a distinct turn for the worse.
Rather than basking in the glory of multiple gold medals, the head wax technician for Norway's mighty cross-country skiing team has been defending himself after a weekend the ski-crazed country would rather forget.
The equation is simple: Zero medals from two Olympic cross-country relays means 5 million Norwegians want answers.
Why is it that the country with the most Olympic cross-country medals, the most wax technicians, and the biggest budget can't figure out how to prepare a pair of skis? How could the sport's biggest stars suddenly look so inept? And how can they turn things around before the next event on Wednesday?
Nystad is the man who is supposed to provide those answers, but he's struggling — just like the country's skiers struggled on sub-standard skis over the weekend.
"It's a big mystery as to why we're not succeeding," Nystad told a news conference full of hostile Norwegian journalists after the relay failures. "We should be good enough to cope with these conditions. I get perplexed when I can't figure it out."
He hinted that other countries may be getting a head start on Norway's famous skiers.
The team's skiers have all blamed their poor performances in the relays on the wax technicians, saying they couldn't find the right setup for the warm conditions in Sochi. One of the most commonly used words in Norwegian newspapers over the past few days has been "smoerebom," which loosely translates to "waxing failure." Making matters worse is that Scandinavian neighbor Sweden won both relays and they haven't had any problems at all finding the right skis for this type of snow.
Ski waxing is a complex science that involves grinding the skis to create suitable grooves and then selecting the right kind of wax setup to get the perfect glide and grip for the snow conditions. Different setups are used based on the temperature and texture of the snow, and a professional wax technician has about 500 different products to choose from.
That means the wax teams always play a major role in cross-country skiing, and if they get things wrong it can ruin the chances of even the biggest favorites before they get to the start line.
Nystad shouldn't be having these kinds of problems, though — he's been in the job since 2006 and has helped the country's skiers dominate the last three world championships and the Vancouver Olympics. But that counts for little now, especially after the women's relay team — seen as one of the biggest favorites in the games — only came fifth on Saturday, and the men finished fourth a day later.
Nystad called the relay failures "tragic" and acknowledged that he and his team look "incompetent" at the moment. But he also hinted at a possible conspiracy by the other countries, saying Norway has been denied access to some waxing products that others have.
"I wish I had the best products, preferably the stuff the Swedes have," Nystad said. "There are rumors that certain producers favor certain countries. We've heard that rumor from two distributors."
He wouldn't name any products that Norway doesn't have access to, but said he thought other countries were working together to dethrone the Norwegians.
"Norway is seen as the dominant nation," he said. "There's been talk that Norway has been too dominant. Long-term, that's good for the sport. But right now it's incredibly irritating for us."
To many, that sounded like an excuse, especially after Petter Northug, the anchor on the men's relay team, said his skis were perfectly fine on Sunday after he decided to use factory-made grooves rather than the team's custom-made ones. By the time he set out, though, the team was already a minute behind and out of medal contention.
Nystad's theory was quickly dismissed by both the Swedish and Swiss teams, as well as some leading wax manufacturers, who all said that every team has access to the same stuff. That didn't do much to ease the pressure on Nystad, especially after grumblings from the team's skiers.
Northug said after the race that the team's waxing failure "shouldn't be possible," while Chris Andre Jespersen said he wouldn't even want to compete in the 50K freestyle race on Sunday if the team hasn't figured things out by then. Before that, there's the men's and women's team sprints on Wednesday.
In other words, Nystad better come up with those answers quickly.