Whistler, British Columbia – He had to wait, but Petter Northug finally got to show off his dominating sprint finish against his perennial whipping boy Axel Teichmann. Northug and teammate Oystein Pettersen won the first gold by the Norwegian men’s cross-country ski team since 2002 in the team sprint competition at Whistler Olympic Park.
The high-pressure system that has brought unusually sunny weather to Whistler held out for one more day. Firm tracks in the morning for the semifinals gave way to softer corn snow as the day progressed and temperatures climbed into the 40s.
The semifinals featured a number of crashes, the most notable setting the Swedish team back, resulting in the major upset of the first round. Switzerland, led by the great Dario Cologna also failed to advance when Elgius Tambornino suffered a collapse of epic proportions.
All the other favorites successfully advanced to the finals, as well as both the United States and Canada.
If you think individual sprinting is exciting, try packing ten teams into the same 1.6km loop and have each athlete race the course three times – the interval championships of the world.
Even on the challenging Whistler course, it is always difficult to break away from the pack – especially in the strong and deep men’s field. After a quick double pole start, the race dropped to a relatively mellow pace.
“It is pretty relaxed on the first hill and then everyone hammers the second hill,” US anchor skier Andy Newell said. “That is the kind of the way this course skis. Everyone is trying to save their energy on the first hill and the second hill is so important to maintain a position.”
The teams continuously jockeyed for position, trying to stay out of trouble and set up for clean tags. The Canadian duo of Devon Kershaw and Alex Harvey were right in the mix, generally holding a good spot toward the front of the pack. Torin Koos, skiing the scramble leg for the US was also strong, especially on his second lap where he skied up to 4th place for the tag.
Considering the number of mishaps in the semifinals, the medal round was relatively clean, the only issue coming at the expense of the French team. Vincent Vittoz, out for blood after bad skis in the skate portion of the pursuit kept him from challenging for a medal, came in after his 2nd lap, leading the race. But teammate Cyril Miranda went down, relegating the team to the back of the pack. Vittoz continued to ski his brains out, posting the fastest time on his last lap – but the damage was irrevocably done.
Halfway through the race, France was the only team to lose contact, and the race was still wide open. Several team appeared to be hanging-on at the back – the Finns, Czechs and Italians, but they were just one major attack away from a medal.
So as expected it all came down to the final laps for each leg. The only question was who would it be? The favored Norwegians? The extremely strong Russians? Or the hometown Canadians?
At first it looked like the Canadians might do it. Devon Kershaw moved to the front midway through the loop as the crowd roared its approval. But halfway up the final large climb, it was German Tim Tscharnke throwing down a Northug-like move. His high tempo, powerful V1 quickly gapped the field as he charged up and over the crest of the hill. He remained strong into the stadium and around the hairpin to the tag zone.
The 20-year-old Olympic rookie had given Axel Teichmann several seconds to work with, and put the team in position for the gold.
“My job was to work for Axel and to bring him a good position.”
Kershaw came through next, and the Canadian men’s cross-country team was just one and a half kilometers from their first Olympic medal ever.
But Teichmann and Alex Harvey, both strong skiers, had their work cut out for them. The chasers featured Alexey Petukhov (RUS), who along with partner Nikolay Morilov, had won both the World Cup team sprints this year, Alxey Poltaranin (KAZ), 5th in the individual sprint several days ago, and of course, Petter Northug, arguably the greatest finisher in the history of the sport.
A year ago at World Championships, Northug won three golds, two of them at the direct expense of Teichmann. The young Norwegian superstar blew the German off the trail in both the relay and the team sprint in the final 200 meters. Petukhov made the first move to bridge up, but it was hardly a surprise when he turned on the jets on the last climb, and rapidly closed the gap on the stoic Teicmann.
“Northug let me go ahead to chase the German, and then all of a sudden he was right behind me,” Pethukhov said. “When I did see him, I thought to stay with him.”
Impressively Petukhov hung on, and the two men dropped into the stadium just behind the German. Northug wasted no time, extending high on his powerful V2 and taking the lead into the final corner. At this point the only question was whether Teichmann could hold on for second.
As Northug powered across the line, no time for finish stretch celebrations, Petukhov stepped out from behind Teichmann for the final 20 meters. But the veteran German held on at the last, winning his first Olympic medal.
“Tim [Tscharnke] did a great job,” Teichamnn said of his young teammate. “He chased some guys and gave us some seconds. I got the opportunity…on the last lap, and I did everything I could. But Petter was too strong.”
Northug was greeted by a jubilant Pettersen, who until yesterday was not even scheduled to race this event. Coming off a disappointing classic sprint where he crashed in the finals, Pettersen was initially passed over in favor of World Cup sprint leader Ola Vigen Hattestad. But Hattestad came down mildly ill, and gave Pettersen his start spot, feeling that the Norwegian, affectionately known as “the Sausage,” would have a better shot of leading the team to victory.
“After the individual sprint I understood I would not make the team. Hattestad trained yesterday, but he did not feel that good…if he is not sick he could do as good a job as I did. But he felt that I could do a better job, so he gave the spot to me. I am very thankful, and Hattestad has shown he is a very good teammate.”
Harvey and Poltaranin had been unable to stick with Northug and Petukhov, staging their own battle for 4th. Harvey out-lunged the Kazakh in a photo finish, once again setting a new Olympic best for the Canadian men’s team.
“We knew today was a good shot for a medal, but it is so hard,” Harvey said in the finish area. “Those guys are all really fast sprinters, and I know I have endurance, but I didn’t have enough speed to match what those guys were putting on the track.”
And matching up head-to-head with Northug was too much for the 21-year-old too handle. “Northug went around me on the first climb to catch the German team. He is really fast!” Harvey continued. “I was going as fast as I could, and I was recovering well between each round. But I just didn’t have the speed that the top-3 had.”
The US, in the mix for most of the race, faded on the last two laps. Koos getting the tag toward the back moved up on the first climb, but ran out of gas in the last 500 meters. Newell was in no position to make up ground at that point, and the team finished 9th out of 10 teams.
“We both hung in there right up until the last lap…we gave it our best shot,” said Newell.
Tscharnke became the youngest cross-country Olympic medalist ever. With just ten World Cup starts to his credit, he didn’t even make the Olympic team until his 9th in the diluted Rybinsk sprint exactly one month ago.
When asked how he felt the grinning Tscharnke could only reply “Very good!”
Teichmann did not crack a smile at the post-race press conference, and responded with anger to a question asking if he felt like he won silver or lost the gold. “What a stupid question,” he said. “For us, we have won the silver.” When asked about Northug breathing down his neck, he replied “I try to focus on my race and my technique, so I didn’t focus on him. You always have to keep your mind on your strength and do the best to the finish line.”
Despite his affect, he did make it clear he was very pleased with the day. “It’s amazing to win my first Olympic medal. For me it is a dream come true.”
The impressive move by Tscharnke was not a surprise to German men’s coach Cuno Schreyl, who also defended the decision to run the veteran in the anchor position. “Tscharnke is the youngest. Teichmann has more experience and so for us it is a better team to place him last.”
But he did admit that in the future we will likely see Tscharnke closing for the Germans, eliciting memories of the 1994 relay when Norway opted for experience over youth to anchor the team in the 4x10km relay, only to see Bjorn Daehlie lose the final sprint to Silvio Fauner. From then on, Daehlie skied 3rd and the young Thomas Alsgaard 4th.
“Tschanrke is very strong,” Schreyl concluded. “I hope he skis in the fourth position in the relay, but I don’t know. We’ll see.”
Despite the German youth’s strength, Norwegian coach Age Skinstad was not concerned that the gold was out of reach. In reply to the question asking if he had any doubt in Northug’s ability to close, he answered a simple “No.”
Northug’s partner, Pettersen, was not as confident as his coach.
“I know Peter is a good skier, but Axel is a good skier, and Petukhov has shown he is a good sprinter,” he said. “So I was maybe a little disappointed by own performance that I couldn’t give Petter a better position. But I gave it my best, and Petter was strong.”
Northug did not rise to the bait, as several media members tried to get him to say something controversial. He was clearly relaxed and happy, and seemed to enjoy not giving the press what they wanted.
“After the pursuit, the motivation for this race was very high,” the usually brash Northug said. “I knew with Oystein that we would have a great team. When you race for Norway you hope to fight for a medal. To make it is just amazing – for me the biggest goal at the Olympics – to reach a gold medal.”
Morilov was extremely gracious as the bronze medalist, saying “It’s a beautiful day, beautiful sun, beautiful snow, and we are happy in our hearts. We would like to compliment our fine competitors.”
Added his teammate Petukhov, “It is not a trifle to win an Olympic medal…It is something I will remember for a lifetime.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.