The 4×10 relay. It is rarely raced outside of major championship events, yet is still the most prestigious cross-country event in existence. There are no World Cup points to be won, no individual glory, just the hopes and dreams of an entire country resting on the shoulders of four men.
Who can forget 1994, when Italy spoiled an otherwise perfect Games for host Norway in a race for the ages? Or the rematch in 2002 when Thomas Alsgaard prodded Christian Zorzi with his pole exhorting him to take the lead. Zorzi refused and Alsgaard took the time to stare the Italian anchor down in the finish pen before starting his gold medal celebration.
And of course Petter Northug has already put his stamp on the event, abusing Axel Teichmann in a come from behind win last year in Liberec.
Today’s field is deep and strong, with nine of the 14 teams starting having at least an outside chance at a medal.
It is hard to pick against Norway and Northug, but the this is not the same team that won last year in Liberec. Scramble skier Martin Sundby has not skied well during the Olympics, veteran Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeset has not race at all in Whistler and is no longer a dominating skier. He is a classic specialist, but will not be able to ski away from the other teams.
Lars Berger, the biathlete, on the third leg, is most critical. Sundby and Hjelmeset will be expected to keep Norway in the game. It will be up to Berger to be sure Northug is close enough to make his move. Berger also has not raced in some time. An excellent skater, he will need to be in top form as he could have some ground to make up.
Berger told Norwegian media that his selection to the team was because other skiers had “failed.” Most top teams have one potential weak link. The problem for Norway is that they have three.
Sweden looks to continue an excellent Olympics, the only disappointment being Emil Joensson’s result in the sprint. If 1st skier Daniel Richardsson stays with the leaders, the trio that dominated the pursuit – Olsson, Soedergren, and Hellner – will be in position to make a run for the gold.
A Hellner-Northug battle would dramatic to say the least. Northug has talked trash about the Swede’s ability to hang. This would be an opportunity to see if that is true.
Germany lacks the flash of the Scandinavian teams, but is quietly solid 1-4. For the first time in several years, Axel Teichmann will not close for the Germans, meaning another matchup with Northug will not come to be.
Tobias Angerer, just off a medal in the pursuit, has been handed that task. He cannot finish with Northug, so the Germans will have to hope they are clear entering the final 10km.
The Canadians seem to be taking a similar strategy. George Grey is anchoring, but even after his 8th place in the pursuit, he is still is not the obvious choice. With Kershaw, always very strong in the opening leg, Harvey, and Babikov, the Canadians will look to get free of Norway early, and avoid a sprint finish.
With four skiers in the top-16 in the pursuit, Canada should be very competitive for a medal. The men are skiing very well and will have the crowd on their side.
France, Switzerland, Italy, Russia and Finland will also be in the hunt.
Italy has DiCenta and Piller Cottrer but are weak in legs 1 and 4. Checchi is not as strong a classic skier in the opening leg, and it is hard to imagine the ageless Christian Zorzi having pulling another one out. Zorzi anchored the gold medal team in 2006, but he will need a big lead to hold of Norway and Sweden.
France could be a dark horse. Vincent Vittoz has been shut out so far, and has something to prove. Jean Mar Gaillard, Maurice Mgnificat and Emmanuel Jonnier are all top-10 World Cup skiers. The French have not performed yet and have been the victims of bad luck. It is beginning to seem like 2010 is not their year.
Switzerland will be held back by Remo Fischer, who is clearly not in top form. If he can break out of his slump, Dario Cologna skis the anchor. Cologna won the 15k, but has not been able to do anything since.
Finland surprised last year at World Championships, but the Olympics have been a disaster for both the men and the women. On paper they are strong, but they are not in Olympic form right now.
And finally, there are the Russians – Pankratov and Sedov in the first two legs are the key. Sedov is a talent, but very young, and Pankratov not at the level of teammates Legkov and Vylegzhanin.
1. Sweden – They are all skiing well, and Olsson, Soedergren get the gap on Norway.
2. Norway – Northug starts back in 5th, and puts the hurt on Germany at the end.
3. Germany – Deep, solid team needs a brilliant performance from one skier for victory. They won’t get it.
4. Canada – They make a run for it, but it comes down to the last 5k, and they can’t hold on.
5. Russia – Need career performances from Sedov and Pankratov. Too much to ask.
6. Switzerland – Cologna will kill it, but Fischer will dig too big a hole.
7. France – While deep, luck is not on their side. Vittoz will continue to be disappointed.
8. Italy – DiCenta and Piller Cottrer will get it done. Zorzi won’t.
9. Czech Republic – A solid team, and one that could surprise. Bauer is racing, the 3rd leg, and Koukal closing. They could easily be in the hunt if the other guys race well.
10. Kazakhstan – These guys could finish higher. They need one more, and Poltaranin is young.
11. Finland – They are not racing fast, and there is no reason to think that will change.
12. Estonia – No Veerpalu means no result.
13. Slovakia – Two good skiers in Batory and Bajcicak.
14. USA – without Southam or Freeman, these guys will be off the back early. They will be lucky to avoid getting lapped.
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.