PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Conversing in the native tongue of the men’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay winner of Olympics past and present requires a world map and an aptitude for language acquisition. 1952 Oslo Games: Finland wins. 1956 in Cortina: the Soviets win. 1968 in Grenoble: France wins. 1984 in Sarajevo: Sweden prevails. 1992 in Albertville: Norway wins.
The previous two Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia, and Sochi, Russia, — Norway took a hit. The nation’s simultaneously self-righteous and justifiable claims of cross-country-ski-racing dominance fell hollow on the men’s Olympic relay stage. In a country where it’s win and nothing else, the years between the last two Olympic cycles, 2010-2018, have been fraught with relay angst and foreboding.
Sweden won the men’s 4 x 10 k relay in Vancouver and Sochi. Norway placed second in Vancouver. Within the Norwegian singularity of win or lose, that’s a Norway loss. In 2014, Norway placed fourth. Fourth place. Can you imagine the Norwegian disgust?
“I knew some of those teams, like Russia, was going to try to spread it out,” Andy Newell, the Americans’ scramble-leg skier told FasterSkier after his first leg in Sunday’s Olympic 4 x 10 k relay. “I knew Poltarainen was going to try to spread it out because he’s such an amazing classic skier.”
For the full 10 k on the scramble leg, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin monopolized camera time. His killing form dragged Andrey Larkov, of the Olympic Athletes of Russia, close behind as he stuck to Poltoranin’s tails. Unable to keep pace, and bleeding time already were Italy (+10.0) and France (+10.8) in third and fourth. Norway tagged off in fifth (+18.2), Sweden sixth (+36.9), and Finland seventh (+1:02).
Surely Norwegian social media was rife with eyeroll and poop emojis. And for Norway’s waxing boss, Knut Nystad, most recently featured in a New York Times piece, another debacle like Sochi would cost him.
With Kazakhstan’s team expected to drop off during the next three legs, Alexander Bolshunov of Russia used Larkov’s Poltoranin-pull as a springboard.
Norway has a reliable steady — and over the last three years that has been Martin Johnsrud Sundby. Like Poltoranin, Sundby is a kick-and-glide master. On paper at least Sundby would cut Norway’s losses to the steal-the-show Russians.
Since the 2014 Norwegian relay breakdown in Sochi, there have been six 4 x 10 k relays on the World Cup and World Championships combined — Norway won them all. Sundby was in five of those six Norwegian relay lineups. Through thick and thin, Sundby appeared to be the winning missing link.
Yet, a little more than halfway through his leg, Sundby’s and all of Norway’s fate resembled the second leg of the women’s Olympic 4 x 5 k relay on Saturday when Norwegian Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen fell adrift of the front skiers. Both were haunting Sochi déjà-vu moments.
Passing his 6.6 k checkpoint Sundby looked spent. He uncharacteristically let France and Italy take over the pacing. By then, Bolshunov had gapped the chasing trio by a full 41 seconds.
In the post-race press conference, Bolshunov explained he had been hospitalized in the weeks before the Olympics.
“I have fever over 40 degrees [104 Fahrenheit] and I spent like a week in a hospital,” Bolshunov said of his illness. “But like two weeks ago I began my preparation for the Olympic games. It was not very easy but I am very glad I got myself in a good shape and that I could compete on the same level as my contenders.”
Chervotkin took over for Russia on the third leg. Skating away up the first climb alone was Russia, followed by Italy (+24.5), France (+28) and Norway (+32.1) as they tagged off for the first of two skate legs.
The moment Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krüger, already a two-time medalist here, gold in the 30 k skiathlon and silver in the 15 k skate, glided away on his leg, the Norwegian fans in attendance vigorously waved their once-limp flags.
Krüger took control by reeling in France, Italy, and eventually Chervotkin of Russia. By the 10 k mark, when Krüger tagged Norway’s now-and-future relay anchor, Johannes Høsflot Klæbo, France hung tight with Norway, while Russia tagged off in third (+16.2).
Klæbo and France’s anchor, Adrien Backscheider, backed off the pace intermittently as Klæbo appeared reluctant to make a too-early move. Russia’s Denis Spitsov caught Norway and France from behind with less than half the leg remaining.
Backscheider faded as Klæbo and Spitsov danced. Klæbo went where he was expected to go: in a flurry of red-white-and-blue lycra up and over the final headwall. With enough time to grab a Norwegian flag and undo eight years of wait, Norway won the day, crossing the line in 1:33.04.9. Of the eight gold medals awarded so far in these Games, Norway has won five. Sunday also marked Sundby’s first Olympic gold in his third Olympics.
“Today Didrik and I are very happy that we’re on the same team as Simen and Johannes,” Sundby told Eurosport after, according to a translation. “We have a fantastic team and I would at the same time like to send a greeting to all of the other guys on the team. There are a lot of guys who could have skied here today.”
“I think for all of us it’s an unbelievable feeling to be able to take part of this great team,” Klæbo said at the press conference. “I think that we have people back at the hotel we also could have this relay with us. I think that we have done something right the last couple of years and to be part of this team is quite cool. I think we are all grateful for that.”
Russia secured silver as Spitsov came through 9.4 seconds after Klæbo, and France’s Backscheider was next across the line for bronze (+36.9).
“This is a great achievement also for my country,” Spitsov said of his team’s silver at the press conference, through a translator. “We are a young team represented here while a majority of athletes were not able to attend and participate in the Olympic Games. We are very young, but still we proved that we are able to achieve great result and we are happy about that.
France’s Manificat made it clear the bronze medal was no disappointment. “For sure its a bronze medal, but for us it’s like gold,” Manificat explained. This is France’s second consecutive 4 x 10 k relay bronze after finishing ahead of fourth place Norway in Sochi.
“To do it again it’s really important,” Manificat reflected. “We are a lot of generation in this relay — old guys in term of dates and young’ ones. But they are really strong. In all the legs we were really strong and we knew that we could play the game and it was perfect.”
Finland placed fourth (+1:40.5), Sweden fifth (+2:05.6), Germany sixth (+2:08.2), Italy seventh (+2:35.2), and Kazakhstan eighth (+3:31.4). Canada was ninth (+3:41.0) to tie its second-best Olympic relay result (with Len Valjas, Graeme Killick, Russell Kennedy, and Knute Johnsgaard), and the U.S. finished 14th (+9:24.2), out of 14 teams, with Andy Newell, Reese Hanneman, Scott Patterson, and Noah Hoffman.
Racing continues Wednesday with the men’s and women’s team sprint.
— Ian Tovell, Harald Zimmer, Gabby Naranja, Alex Kochon, and Aleks Tangen contributed