Whistler, British Columbia – The heavy snow had stopped, and as Marcus Hellner made his way around the stadium, the clouds broke. For the first time in two days, the sun shown down on Whistler Olympic Park, revealing a golden afternoon for the Swedish men’s cross-country team.
It took 22 years and a return to Canadian soil for Sweden to regain the top step of the podium in the 4x10km relay. And for the Anders Soedergren, the veteran of five World Championships and two Olympics, the wait after his third leg was nerve-wracking. Sweden was deadlocked with France and the Czech Republic, with pursuit gold medalist Hellner on course. And while Martin Koukal for the Czechs and Emmanuel Jonnier for the French were both strong skiers, the real danger was lurking 30 seconds back, in the form of Petter Northug (NOR).
The gap seemed too large at the last tag, but upon exiting the stadium after the first of three 3.3km laps, Northug put the hammer down. Over the next 1.7 kilometers he shaved 10 seconds off the lead, appearing poised to pull off the impossible yet again.
This is what Soedergren feared—the Olympic gold torn from his grasp by the unstoppable force of Northug in the final kilometers of a race. He needed more faith in the quiet champion carrying Swedish hopes through the last ten kilometers.
“I never lose 35 seconds in such a short while…I knew it would be enough,” said Hellner. Soon the rest of the world would as well. He had been skiing controlled for the first two laps, and exiting the stadium with just 3.3km to victory, he accelerated to a new level. Koukal and Jonnier tried to respond, but the day would not belong to them.
Northug still managed a comeback of epic proportions, closing the final meters on the podium spot halfway up the final climb before throwing down his patented finish sprint—bringing Norway a silver that seemed impossible 45 minutes earlier.
Koukal held on for the upset bronze, while Jonnier, so close to bringing France the desperately-sought-after medal, covered his face with his bib as he crossed the line and collapsed, head in hands, as the medalists celebrated around him.
How it Unfolded
The day started with the weather that has been hyped—but not yet witnessed—thus far during these Olympic Games.
It was raining in Whistler, with heavy, wet snow at the venue, the flakes outrageously large. Low-hanging fog was an indicator of the dripping humidity.
32 degrees Fahrenheit, new snow, and a classic race to be run. The waxers would finally earn their keep.
The pace was fast but manageable out of the start, and the 14 skiers stayed together through the first lap. Two times through, the only casualty was the Estonian Algo Karp, struggling mightily on the steep climbs.
Out of the stadium and up the big climbs for the final time, Jean-Marc Gaillard (FRA) finally succeeded in stringing out the pack. Finland, Switzerland, Slovakia, Czech Republic, USA, and Kazakhstan struggled to stay in contact over the steepest pitch of the largest hill. And Canada, as Devon Kershaw, desperately trying to keep the home skiers’ medal hopes alive, slipped off the pace.
Back to the stadium for the first handoff, Finland had rallied, while Italy lost ground. Kershaw was done, unable to produce the first leg he has become known for.
While he had sat out the 15k freestyle during the first week of the Games in order to stay fresh for the latter half, the relay was still Kershaw’s third race in five days. He said that he felt “terrible” out on the course.
“I’m obviously not recovered from [Monday’s] team sprint,” he said.
So, just 10km into the race, the lead group was already down to five: Finland, France, Sweden, Germany and Norway.
Behind, Harvey had gotten the tag from Kershaw with a thirty-second deficit, and with his country’s hopes for a cross country medal in the balance, he took off in a desperate bid to pull back the front group. With the five teams in front all working together ahead, the Canadian had his work cut out for him.
Harvey pinned it for the first of his three laps, cutting the gap to the leaders in half, to just over 12 seconds. But that was as close as he could get. Spent from the effort, Harvey faded fast, losing forty seconds over the last six kilometers of his leg.
“I started really hard,” he said. “That ended up being too much for me…But if we do the same race tomorrow, and I’m in the same position, I’d do exactly the same. I don’t regret that, because we’re not racing for fifth today—we’re racing for the podium.”
In his effort to bring back the leaders, Harvey had been dragging a number of skiers behind him, including one wily Czech, Lukas Bauer.
Seeing that Harvey was on a mission and jazzed by the home crowd, Bauer said that he let the Canadian pull him along for their first lap, before turning on the jets and bridging up to the leaders.
“It’s like I launched him,” Harvey said.
At the front, Vincent Vittoz had taken over for France. A veteran of four Olympics, a World Champion, and one of the top skiers of his era, Vittoz had yet to lay claim to an Olympic medal. He focused exclusively on the Olympics this season, designing his racing and training with the sole purpose of a top performance in Whistler. But thus far, he had still been shut out, compromised by bad skis in the pursuit and a crash by his teammate in the team sprint.
France ran Vittoz second, an unexpected move, but one that immediately paid dividends. He drove the pace from his first lap, before temporarily giving way to Sweden’s Johan Olsson. But he was back at the front again for the final loop.
Vittoz’s efforts were not in vain. The pack continued to splinter, as Norway’s Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeset, Germany’s Axel Teichmann, and Finland’s Matti Heikinen began losing ground.
By the end of his leg, Hjelmeset had lost thirty seconds. He was contrite in the press conference, telling journalists that he had “f—ed up.”
With heavy snow falling at the start of his leg, the 39-year-old classic specialist had opted for hairies (skis with bases that can be sanded to bring up hairs that stick to the snow). When he got them, the skis weren’t kicking well, so Hjelmeset said he sanded them a little more, which caused them to ice up during his leg in the dry snow on the top of the course. Even though he had the legs to stay with the leaders, the skis ruined Hjelmeset’s day.
Only Bauer and an impressive Alexey Poltaranin (KAZ) could make up ground on Vittoz. The Kazakhs were too far out, though Poltaranin was able to catch the chase pack. But Bauer was on fire. Two thirds of the way through his leg, he had reached the leaders, posting the fastest leg time by 8.8 seconds.
Soedergren Sets the Table
With the skaters ready to go, the lead group of Bauer, Vittoz, and Olsson held a commanding 30-second lead over the chasers Germany, Norway, and Kazakhstan. Russia and Canada remained in striking distance, another 15 seconds behind.
Soedergren, who worked hard to help his teammates to gold and bronze in the pursuit, took over for Sweden. Maurice Magnificat followed for France, and Jiri Magal for the Czech Republic.
Norway could only hope that biathlete Lars Berger could bring them close enough for Northug to work his magic.
The 24-year-old Magnificat reached the World Cup podium for the first time this season, and was a strong 6th in the 15km. He quickly took the lead from Soedergren, and the two did the heavy lifting for the rest of the leg.
At one point, the two could be seen slowing and gesturing for Magal to do his share, but the Czech veteran knew his limits. He has never been on a World Cup podium, and before a 9th in this year’s Tour de Ski Final Climb, he had not been in the top-10 since March of 2007.
He was hanging on, pushing the pace would mean disaster. He continued to ride the draft, aided by good skis.
The chase group could do nothing, and as the kilometers ticked by, the gap went up. At the final exchange, Germany, Finland and Norway were 37 seconds down. The Swedes and French had accomplished their goal: get well clear of Norway and Northug.
Behind them, Ivan Babikov (CAN) fought hard to bring Canada back into medal contention. He dropped Pietro Piller Cottrer (ITA) like a ton of Pecorino, putting 17 seconds on the 15km silver medalist in the last 1.8 kilometers. He moved the Canadians into 7th, closing to within 13 seconds of the chase pack.
Taking the tag from Soedergren, Hellner controlled the pace, taking it easy for the first 3.3 k. That allowed Northug to make up ground, as the Norwegian shaved ten seconds off the lead.
On the last lap, Hellner finally attacked—making his move decisive and devastating.
Northug stopped gaining for a time, but that was likely due to the fact that Jonnier and Koukal tried to hang with Hellner. Once they lost them, Northug again began to close, a specter stalking the fading pair through the fog. The crowd was glued to the video board in the stadium, and each time the racers passed a new camera, Northug could be seen creeping closer. The crowd roared, demanding an epic finish that would place this event forever in the annals of Olympic cross-country skiing.
And as Hellner cruised into the stadium, taking a Swedish flag for the homestretch, Northug did not disappoint.
Catching Koukal and Jonnier on the final climb, he immediately moved into the lead over the top and dropped the pace. Down around the sweeping curve into the stadium, and sprint was on. Northug immediately accelerated, high in his V2. Koukal fought to stay on him, but the Frenchman, Jonnier, was lost.
Throughout his leg, Jonnier was between a rock and a hard place. He could have attacked and pushed the pace, most likely dropping Koukal. But Hellner would have had no problems staying behind him.
“I didn’t want to take the lead, because I knew Hellner was strong,” a dejected Jonnier said afterwards.
But with a poor sprint, Jonnier also knew that Northug and Koukal were faster finishers, and if he left it until the line, he’d be out of the medals. When he couldn’t match Hellner’s acceleration on the last lap, Jonnier upped the pace himself, doing his best to shake Koukal. But the Czech hung tough.
“I knew that the way to the medal was to beat the French guy,” Koukal said.
Powerless to do anything about the hard-charging Northug, Koukal just sat in, until the top of the final hill.
When Northug came by, Koukal hopped in behind, following the Norwegian’s sprint to boost himself to third—the Czech Republic’s first relay medal since it also won bronze in Calgary in 1988.
“I can’t catch [Northug], but actually, he pulled me from the French guy,” Koukal said.
At the line, Northug crossed clear of his two chasers, avoiding the pile of Swedes already celebrating as he collapsed to the snow.
Bauer was the first Czech to Koukal, hugging his teammate on the ground, before lifting him to his feet.
Another relay come and gone. Sweden has now won Olympic gold five times in the event—a record, breaking a tie with Norway and Finland. With the silver, Northug added another line to his ever-growing list of legendary finishes.
The Czech Republic’s bronze was the surprise of the day, as they upset Germany, France, Italy, and Canada.
The Canadians crossed in 7th, George Grey holding his position, and skiing away from Maxim Vylegzhanin (RUS) and Christian Zorzi (ITA) in the stadium. Simi Hamilton (USA) dropped Estonia’s fourth skier on his last lap to take 13th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.