GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) - Norway’s national coach Sondre Skarli is hoping the country finally ending its long wait for a gold medal in an Olympic speed skating discipline will end years of austerity imposed by a chronic lack of funding.
Once a powerhouse of speed skating alongside the Netherlands, Norway’s programs have fallen on hard times since the Sochi Olympics. But, Skarli is optimistic that Havard Lorentzen’s dramatic gold medal in the men’s 500 meters on Monday will change all that.
“Right after Sochi, we lost our main sponsor and we had under half of what we used to have,” Skarli told reporters. “We had an extremely low budget the last few years and a really big lack of sponsors.
“It’s been pretty hard being the coach. You want to do something and then you can’t because you don’t have the money to do it. It’s a shame that you have to think about money in sports. It shouldn’t be this way.”
Lorentzen edged out Cha Min-kyu in a dramatic photo finish at the Gangneung Oval, finishing 0.01 seconds in front of the South Korean skater for gold, with both men ending their runs below the previous Olympic record.
Lorentzen was the first Norwegian to win the 500m title since Finn Helgesen 70 years ago, and his victory marks the first gold for his country in an Olympic speed skating event since Adne Sondral won the 1,500m at the Nagano Games in 1998.
The years without success have led to funds drying up and the overwhelming popularity of cross-country and alpine skiing, in which Norway has won six of its 11 gold medals of the Games in South Korea so far, has not helped either.
“We have an extremely small budget compared to those sports,” Skarli added. “Money can’t buy you everything. Hard work is, of course, what matters in the end but money helps.”
The key influence in Lorentzen’s win, according to Skarli, was having former world 500m record holder Jeremy Wotherspoon in his corner coaching him.
The Canadian began working with Norway in 2016 and has helped Lorentzen develop into a top skater.
“He’s a lot faster since I started coaching him but I don’t want to say that (he wouldn’t have won the gold medal without me),” Wotherspoon said.
“I don’t know what would have happened if I wasn’t here but I feel like we started a good relationship together and did a lot of good work together.”
For Lorentzen himself, returning to the top of the Olympic podium for the first time in 20 years will go a long way towards rekindling Norway’s love for the sport.
“The passion for speed skating is in the Norwegian people,” he said. “As long as we can deliver good results, I think it could become as popular as cross-country skiing.”
The 25-year-old will have another shot at doing just that when he races in the 1,000m on Friday.
Reporting by Simon Jennings; Editing by Christian Radnedge