With three men lined up in the final, including perhaps the most dominating sprinter in the short history of the event and his teammate, the best all around skier in the world, Norway looked good to put the ghosts of 2006 to rest for good.
With Marit Bjoergen winning the women’s final, the team had already captured their first Olympic Gold since 2002 – a drought of unacceptable proportions for the ski powerhouse. But the men had something to prove as well.
The sun was bright, the weather warm, and the crowd fired up.
“It is like Christmas eve for a cross-country skier,” said Oeystein Pettersen, one of the Norwegians in the final. “You are at an Olympic event in a beautiful area with beautiful mountains, beautiful weather, lots of people watching.”
But the Norwegian party was not to be. Russians Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy blew the race apart on the first big climb and battled each other for the gold.
Panzhinskiy was in fine form from the get-go, winning the qualification for the first time in his short World Cup career. A month shy of 21, last year’s World Junior Champion continued his success in the heats. He won his quarterfinal, biding his time over the first half of the course before charging up the final climb and into the lead. He then won a tight semifinal in a three-way photo finish with Petersen and Kriukov to advance to the final.
“I tried to keep track of my opponents in the quarterfinals and semis so I could try to save my energy and strength,” Panzhinskiy told media.
Kriukov’s road to the final was somewhat less certain. He barely squeaked through his quarterfinal, edging out Cyril Miranda (FRA) in a photo finish behind Petersen, and then advancing as a lucky loser from the semis.
Petter Northug, Ola Vigen Hattestad, and Pettersen all qualified well, and all won their quarterfinals. The second semifinal may have been the toughest heat of the day, with Hattestad, Northug and pre-race favorite Emil Joensson of Sweden.
Hattestad won just about everything last year on his way to his second consecutive World Cup sprint title. And while he has been slightly less dominating this year, his results would be the envy of everyone else.
Joensson has been on fire of late, and won the classic sprint in Canmore by a ridiculous margin. And Northug? After a disappointing 15k due to bad skis, he was back at it with a vengeance.
Joensson led out hard as he is wont to do, but couldn’t shake his competition. Northug took over on the last climb and the top-4, including Mickail Devjatiarov (RUS) came roaring around the turn at the stadium in a tight pack. Hattestad and Northug had a little bit more and the Swede was left standing in the finish corral waiting to see the lucky loser times. When the bad news was posted, he dropped his head, the day ended too soon.
And though Norway sent two more to the final, some damage was done. The hard pace and tight finish left their top contender exhausted.
“I was really tired,” Hattestad told FasterSkier. “I pushed really hard in the semifinal and felt like I needed some more minutes break before the final. I was already tired after just a few meters in the final, so it was impossible to follow the Russians.”
The Russians had eight more minutes than the Norwegians after racing in the first semifinal.
Regardless, it was impossible for anyone to follow the Russians today. Panzhinskiy, an excellent climber set a strong pace up the first climb.
“I was able to save my strength in the previous rounds, so I had plenty of energy, and my skis were very good. So I decided not to play any games and go for it from the start,” said Panzhinskiy. “The others – Petter Northug and Kriukov – are very good in the finish stretch, so I decided to take advantage of my strength, which is on the uphills. So I went, and only Kriukov was able to go with me.”
The field strung out amazingly quickly for an Olympic sprint – with a sizable gap by the top of the first climb. Alexei Poltarnin (KAZ), Northug and Pettersen stayed within striking distance – barely – as they entered the downhill – and then disaster for Pettersen. Taking the inside line on the hard corner at the bottom of the course, he skated through the turn as all the racers did. But Poltaranin was on his outside and skied over Pettersen’s right ski taking them both out.
“It is like you’re a child and you are ready to open your presents, and you find out that there is no present for you,” said Pettersen continuing with his Christmas analogy.
“Entering the final I felt like that this would be my day, but I had the crash, and that was it.”
The Russians, knowing two athletes were down, accelerated into the climb and put the race out of reach.
Northug, behind Pettersen, was able to stay on his feet, but lost valuable time getting around.
“I was 5th on the first hill, and had to use a lot of power to stay in the race, but then I started feeling good over the top. But I had to move around the Kazakh and Oeystein [Pettersen} and lost a lot of speed. I basically had to start over to build up new speed. I tried to get contact with them, but there was still five meters at the top.”
Northug tried to call on his powerful double pole in the backstretch, but couldn’t close. As the racers came around the final corner for the finish run, Northug, clearly spent, and still 20 meters back slowed up, and coasted in for the bronze.
Kriukov proved Panzhinskiy correct, showing off his impressive finishing power, overtaking his teammate and outstretching him for the gold.
“It was really a difficult race for me. I knew that Panzhinskiy was the main guy to beat. We didn’t have a strategy for the finals, but our coach warned us that there would be three Norwegians racing with us and we needed to get ahead. When I saw Alxander [Panzhinskiy] speed up on the first hill, I tried to keep up and for some reason the Norwegian guys didn’t come with us.”
Age Skinstad, the Norwegian Team Leader was not surprised by the Russian performance.
“They took command of the race from the start, and they skied very good diagonal technique up the first hill and they tired out our athletes. It was extremely work for them.”
Skinstad still pleased with Norway’s performance, also noting that they were very pleased with their skis.
“This is a great day for Norway, we have a bronze and a gold medal [Bjoergen’s], and we also had five athlete in the final among the twelve best here today. We have now won three medals in four events and are very satisfied with that.”
When asked if not winning a gold in the men’s sprint was disappointing, Skinstad replied, “no we have to accept that other skiers ski faster than us, so we have to really be satisfied with Bjoergen’s gold and Petter’s bronze.”
“The Russians were really strong,” added Pettersen. “But we knew the Russians would be strong. The US skier fell down in qualification – he may have been one of the fastest guys today and he finished in the 40s – so there are a lot of good skiers out there. The Russians were the strongest today so there is nothing to do but congratulate them and hopefully beat them next time.”
Hattestad agreed. “I knew they would be strong, especially Kriukov. He has been in every final in the classic sprint this year, when he raced, so I am not surprised, but of course I hoped to fight with them to the end.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.