Whistler, British Columbia – A day after the Swedish men skied to a clear victory in the men’s 4×10 relay, their female counterparts will attempt to match the feat in the 4x5km event.
They will have their work cut out for them, however, and will have a tough time overcoming a very strong Norwegian team.
Despite featuring multi-medalist Charlotte Kalla, Sweden is actually a long shot for a medal. Anna Haag, who teamed with Kalla in the team sprint, and also medaled in the pursuit, came down ill following the team sprint medal ceremony, and will not race. Even with Haag, Sweden would not be favored. Ida Ingemarsdotter and Magdalena Pajala are both sprint specialists and have only a handful of mediocre World Cup starts between them. Amazingly enough, the Swedish women have never won an Olympic relay medal.
The clear favorite is Norway. The team of Vibeke Skofterud, Therese Johaug, Kristin Stoermer Steira and Marit Bjoergen has the depth that the men’s team lacked. The top three skiers placed 1st, 4th and 6th in the 15km pursuit.
Skofterud is the weakest link, but if she can stay close, a run away victory is not out of the question. After Skofterud, the big question is Johaug. She has struggled to find top form all season, but broke out in the pursuit race. If she matches that performance, relay gold should return to Norway.
Normally, the Finns would be a contender, and they field their usual stacked team. But the 2010 Olympics have been a disaster thus far. Virpi Kuitunen has raced just once – without distinguishing herself, and Aino Kaisa Saarinen has been unable to break through. Word on the street is that several of the Finns are overtrained, explaining the rough stretch.
This leaves the field wide open. Russia will be strong as will Germany.
The Germans race young biathlete Miriam Goessner on the third leg. She has demonstrated blazing ski speed, and the 5km skate distance should suit her as well. And Claudia Nystad will be closing, already having won a gold in the team sprint. Nystad excels at the short distance skate events, so she will be a force in the anchor position.
Russia is solid 1-4 and will be in the hunt the whole way. They can’t match Norway’s overall firepower, but if everyone stays strong, and Johaug falters, gold is within reach.
Italy is short one skier in the quest for medals. Silvia Rupil on the 3rd leg does not strike fear into the hearts of competitors. And Sabina Valbusa is not the skier she once was. But Italy always seems to come up strong in the relay (men yesterday excepted). Follis and Longa opening are as good as anyone. And the short 5km distance means less time for a weaker skier to lose ground.
The Kazakh women could surprise with a top-6 within reach on a great day. Poland doesn’t have the depth, but Justyna Kowalczyk is racing (does she ever sit one out?), so they won’t be bringing up the rear.
The US women, even minus Liz Stephen, could also be a pleasant surprise. Kikkan Randall should be able to stay close on the opening leg. Morgan Arritola has not had her best races at Whistler, but she has also been quietly solid. And Caitlin Compton is in very good form. If she is recovered from the team sprint, her anchor leg could give the US their best relay result in years.
The team will need a good leg from Holly Brooks, in the second spot, to complete the performance.
Canada will not be in contention, without Sara Renner, who is resting up for the 30km. Chandra Crawford, Madeline Williams and Perianne Jones are not strong enough distance skiers to be competitive.
There are 16 teams competing, two more than in the men’s race.
1. Norway – Bjoergen is on fire, and the rest of the team skiing fast.
2. Russia – Depth gets it done.
3. Germany – Nystad closes with conviction and wraps up another medal. Early legs can’t hang with the Russians
4. Italy – Third leg is their demise.
5. Finland – Saarinen will try to salvage another tough day for Finland.
6. Sweden – Kalla and Saarinen will both try to overcome weak teams.
7. USA – Unlike the men, the US has some of their better distance skiers on the course. Everyone comes through.
8. Poland – It is hard to rank any team with Justyna Kowalczyk this far down. If the no one breaks up the field early, this team could move up a spot or two.
9. Kazakhstan – A quietly solid team. It would not be a surprise to see them as high as 6th.
10. Ukraine – Schevchenko anchors. That is good for a couple of places.
11. France – French women have not been skiing well. They don’t have the distance siers to compete.
12. Japan – Two good skiers, two not-so-good skiers.
13. Slovenia – With Majdic they would have a solid team. Without, they will struggle.
14. Czech Republic – Several solid skiers will not be enough to do anything.
15. Canada – This is not Canada’s strongest team, but the crowd will love them anyway.
16. Belarus – Top finish ia distance race this Olympics – 39th.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.