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SOCHI, Russia — All the buzz about the Laura Cross-Country Ski & Biathlon Center at the 2014 Olympics the last few days has been about how bad Norway’s skis have been — in both nordic and biathlon.
On the flip side, not many asked the Swedes why they were finding success on the warm and slushy snow, that is until Sunday.
After becoming the first country to win both the women’s and men’s Olympic relays in 42 years (the Soviet Union was the last nation to do so in 1972), the question became why are the Swedish cross-country skiers so fast.
The oldest guy on Sweden’s 4 x 10-kilometer relay team, 34-year-old Johan Olsson replied that it was in large part thanks to their skis.
“I think the biggest reason is, of course, this kind of conditions here in Sochi,” the team’s third leg and three-time Olympian said in a post-race press conference. “Very, very warm conditions that make the waxing very tough that make big differences between the skis and technical teams. We have really succeeded here with the skis and that’s the part of the sport that gives us the speed that we’re standing on.”
On Sunday, official race temperatures were listed just above 40 degrees Fahrenheit, but with intense sun shining brightly on the venue and its 3.3 k men’s course, it felt a lot warmer.
The course had been salted and re-salted over the last few races, with warmer temperatures near 60 degrees late last week. Sunday was cooler but still a waxing nightmare for some trying to find the optimal skis for the first two classic legs.
Sweden found it, and the rest was literally history.
The defending men’s Olympic relay champions from 2010, Sweden repeated the feat of winning back-t0-back men’s relays like it did in 1984 and 1988. Sunday’s team skied away from Finland, Russia and France to do so, dropping Norway as well early in the race.
Marcus Hellner anchored the win with a comfortable-enough gap to take a small plastic flag from his teammate Anders Södergren, who helped Sweden win gold in the last Olympic relay, at the top of the last climb before the finish. Hellner, who also anchored the 2010 team, waved it proudly as he skated into the stadium and finished without anyone else around him in 1:28.42.
Reaching down to eject himself from his skis, Hellner, 28, ran toward his teammates to celebrate his third Olympic gold. Maxim Vylegzhanin secured silver for Russia, 27.3 seconds later, outlasting France’s Ivan Perrillat Boiteux by 4.6 seconds to the finish.
For France, it was their nation’s 100th medal in the Olympics and their second-ever medal in cross-country (following Roddy Darragon’s silver in the 2006 Olympic sprint). For Sweden, it was another gold for three of the four original teammates from 2010,
including Daniel Richardsson.
“It means a lot, especially in Sweden, the relays are really prestigious to win because it’s the team,” Olsson said. “We see also that our waxing team, they’re even more happy when the relay goes well. I think we should just focus on enjoying this moment … It’s a big thing to win on the most important day for the whole team.”
The victory came even after the team’s newest addition, Lars Nelson, 28, fell early in the first 3.3 k lap of the race. In 12th of 16 teams halfway through the lap at 1.7 k, Nelson was up to fourth by the time he passed through the stadium.
“Lars lost his ski, but after that, I saw him in the front of the pack and I saw that it was no problem for him,” said Richardsson, who shared the podium with Olsson two days earlier in the 15 k classic individual start. Olsson had placed second to Switzerland’s Dario Cologna, and Richardsson notched bronze.
His teammate looked comfortable and “really strong,” he recalled.
By the end of the first classic leg, Nelson tagged Richardsson in first, 0.3 seconds ahead of Finland’s Sami Jauhojärvi in second. Jean Marc Gaillard led off France in third, 9.6 seconds behind Nelson at the end of the first 10 k leg.
The top three had already gapped the field by nearly 12 seconds, as Curdin Perl led the chase for Switzerland, tagging off to Jonas Baumann in fourth. Another 3.5 seconds bad, Dietmar Nöckler put Italy in contention in fifth, Eldar Rønning tagged Norway close behind in sixth and Russia’s Dmitriy Japarov came through the exchange within a second later in eighth.
“Nelson impressed most,” Södergren told Aftonbladet, according to a translation. “It was most unexpected that he would try to [lead] in the first leg.”
Yet Nelson not only fought his way back to the front of the 16-team pack on the second lap, but he tried to string out the group in doing so.
“It was so impressive what he did,” Sweden’s Sara Lindborg said.
The tactic worked as Finland’s Iivo Niskanen remained the only one capable of sticking with Richardsson on the second lap. The two tagged off together, 17.3 seconds ahead of Lukas Bauer in third.
Bauer had a race of his own to get from seventh to third, picking off Italy’s Giorgio di Centa first, then Norway’s Chris Andre Jespersen. By his second lap, Bauer was up to fourth after passing Russia’s Alexander Bessmertnykh and leading him into the lap lanes. For the final time around the 3.3 k loop, the Czech focused on catching Maurice Manificat — the Frenchman who had stuck with the two leaders before falling 11 seconds off the pace by 8.3 k.
“I saw him, that he’s losing and he’s very, very tired,” Bauer said. “I was maybe 10 seconds behind him. He was my motivation to overpass him for sure. When I overpassed him it was long moment because I had no energy.”
“First I had in my mind that I’d ask him, ‘How is it going?’ Because my feeling was, this will kill him and after that I will have no problem,” he added. “But I have no chance to breath enough to ask him and after that I was focused only on last uphill.”
Manificat finished 6.3 seconds later to send his teammate, Robin Duvillard in fourth. Bessmertnykh put Russia in fifth, another 17.7 seconds back and di Centa tagged Italy in sixth, just 0.4 seconds behind Russia.
Meanwhile, the Norwegians had slipped to ninth, nearly 1:03 behind Sweden. Germany’s Axel Teichmann led Switzerland’s Baumann into the lap lanes in seventh and eighth, respectively, 55 seconds after Richardsson and 7 seconds ahead of Jespersen.
From there on out, Olsson started to put the hurt on — like he’s been known to do (see: 2013 World Championships 50 k).
Halfway through the first skate leg, the Swede skied away from Finland’s 26-year-old Lari Lehtonen over the top of the course. Seven seconds behind at 5 k, Lehtonen slipped to more than 22 seconds back at the end of the second lap — with saliva streaming out of his mouth as he ascended the last hill.
With one lap to go in the third leg, Olsson continued to widen the gap and the Finn became a victim of a hard-charging chase pack. France’s Duvillard caught him first at the top of the climb out of the stadium, then Martin Jaks of the Czech Republic. Along with Russia’s Alexander Legkov and Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, the group skied right through him.
Legkov continued to work his way up to second, ahead of Duvillard and Jaks, and came through the exchange 14.3 seconds after Olsson. Duvillard tagged another 4.3 seconds back in third, 23.5 seconds ahead of Italy in fourth.
Suddenly, Russia had become a medal contender after skiing in fifth — and leading the largest chase pack — for the better part of the
race. Legkov clocked the fastest third leg to do so, and the Russian fans started to go wild as they lined the course with flags, noisemakers, and an amplified version of “Rus-y-ya!”
Also Hellner set out less than 15 seconds ahead of Vylegzhanin, the tension began to build. Would he be able to hold the gap over the next three laps on an ever-softening course?
By the end of the first loop, the answer became pretty clear. Hellner was extending his lead over not only Russia, but France as well, with Perrillat Boiteux more than 30 seconds back in third.
Less than 2 k later, Hellner was 30 seconds ahead of Legkov and had a nearly 40-second margin with one lap to go. Meanwhile, Perrillat Boiteux struggled to hang onto bronze with Norway’s Petter Northug gaining from behind. Northug had gone from sixth to fifth with the third-fastest anchor leg.
But France held on, finishing 31.9 seconds behind Sweden and 37.8 ahead of Norway in fourth (+1:09.7).
Hellner skied up the last killer climb without anyone testing his grit, glancing back near the top then grabbing the flag from his teammate.
“I was really focused during the whole leg and I tried to not think so much about the gold,” Hellner said. “I suppose it was when I saw Anders with the flag that I was absolutely sure and I could enjoy on my way down to the stadium and enjoy the teammates that I have.”
At the finish, they all celebrated together: another gold for Sweden in one of their most successful Olympics to date.
“I tried to make some good-looking show there at the end,” Hellner told Aftonbladet, with a laugh. “I did not fall.”
Russia captured its first medal in eight races at its own Olympics, and President Vladimir Putin was in the stands to watch it happen. Bessmertnykh said the team wasn’t aware of his presence until after the race.
“When I finished my lap, I looked at the [big] screen — I saw him close up on the screen,” he said through a translator. “We were not warned about it. Certainly we were really pleased the Russian president wanted to watch our competition so we are really grateful to him.”
Legkov said the day turned out exactly as he had envisioned it — with a medal — even after breaking a pole early in his skate leg.
“I was really anxious after that,” Legkov said through a translator. “That’s why my responsibilities grew even harder.”
Vylegzhanin had initially tried to catch Hellner on the first lap, but once he was halfway though the second loop, he reevaluated.
“After that it was a tactical struggle,” Vylegzhanin said through a translator. “I started fighting for second place.”
France was all smiles after the race with its first-ever relay medal. Gaillard said it was especially meaningful after so much speculation and pressure from the media to win medals, and with most of its hopes pinned on biathlon and nordic combined.
“There wasn’t much talk about the cross-country team,” he said. “We are all friends … and for us, for the French sport, this is a great day for skiing.”
“I’ve never cried from joy before,” Manificat tweeted on Sunday night, according to a translation. “This relay medal is the best thing our team has ever done!”
— Nat Herz contributed reporting