By Keith Weir
Jan 10 (Reuters) - Norwegian Olympic champion Petter Northug brings a dash of showmanship to the tough world of cross-country skiing, his dramatic sprint finishes and teasing of defeated rivals making him a national hero.
Northug takes particular delight in winding up Norway's neighbours from Sweden and their top skier Marcus Hellner. His stunts include mockingly attaching the blue and yellow Swedish flag to his ski poles as he cruised to victory on their soil in a World Cup relay race.
On another occasion, he blasted past Hellner to build a commanding lead, then stopped to allow his rival to almost catch up before nonchalantly stepping sideways over the line to claim the inevitable victory.
A double Olympic champion in Vancouver four years ago, Northug's brash image and winning smile have helped to make him one of the biggest celebrities in his native Norway.
However, a virus in the autumn of 2013 has set back his preparations for the Sochi Winter Olympics in February and left him scrambling to make up for lost time.
"I need to train, I need to build up my strength again, get in better shape," he told Reuters in December.
He has been working at altitude in Switzerland to get back to his best and said he would treat races before the Olympics as a chance to complement his training rather than must-win events.
Northug won Olympic gold in both the individual 50km race, the sport's equivalent of the marathon, and the team sprint in Vancouver and wants to match that haul in Sochi.
"I hope to fight for an individual gold, now it's a really tough level in the men's cross-country. It's difficult to get the one," he said.
One defeat in the 2010 Games clearly still rankles and is a target for revenge.
"In the relay we want to take back the title we lost with second place in Vancouver," he added, referring to defeat at the hands of the Swedes.
GOING IT ALONE
Preparing for the Games, Northug has broken away from the national team to train with his own dedicated support team and says the decision is driving him on.
"It's helped me a lot to get new strong motivation," Northug said.
"That's the most important part of skiing, you need to be motivated to do all the work. For me it feels good, it feels more free," he added.
Going it alone also gave Northug, who turned 28 on Jan. 6, greater scope to do his own commercial deals. He recently signed up with Norwegian grocery chain Coop, building on existing endorsements for companies including soft drinks group Red Bull.
Kristian Kjelman, communications manager for Red Bull in Norway, said Northug's image as a rebel had added to his appeal for the sponsor who hired him four years ago.
Northug uses personal battles like the one with Swede Hellner for twin purposes - to spur himself on in what are gruelling races and to maintain his profile, Kjelman believes.
"It motivates him and keeps him in the public eye," Kjelman said.
Northug's flair and sense of drama can help cross-country skiing itself to win new fans in Sochi when it has a rare chance to reach a global television audience.
"He's been very important to the sport, making it more popular to the common man and abroad," said Kjelman.
"It's a sport that needs some showmen," he added.
(Additional reporting by Balazs Koranyi and Terje Solsvik in Oslo; Writing by Keith Weir, editing by Ed Osmond)