Nations Cup Ranking: 2nd (7701 pts)
Men: 2nd (4180 pts)
Women: 2nd (3521 pts)
2010/2011 A Team
What You May Have Missed Last Season
Perhaps the biggest news about the Russians in the last year was how few of their athletes were busted for doping. The country takes a whole lot of flack for their less-than-stellar record with performance-enhancing drug use, but let’s take a step back and consider: Between 2007 and 2009, no fewer than 13 of Russia’s cross-country skiers were sanctioned for doping violations. That’s not even including seven other cases involving competitors in nordic combined, alpine skiing, and freestyle—although, to be fair, six of those were for marijuana metabolites. (Yeah, alpine skiers dope with the wacky tobacky. Really guys?)
Considering the number of cases in previous years, the winter of 2010 was a surprisingly clean one for the Russians. Alena Sidko was busted for EPO (although the head coach of the Russian Olympic team originally said that she had been left off the squad because she was too fat), and Elena Vedeneeva refused a drug test, but that was about it—nobody was caught at the Olympics, or even at World Cups. Nikolai Pankratov was stopped early this fall with some suspicious drugs on the Swiss border and likely faces a two-year ban, but he’s not on the national team, and was said to have been planning on competing for Belarus this coming year.
All the controversy surrounding the Russian doping problems is impossible to ignore, but it does overshadow an impressively deep program. Between their men and women, no fewer than 52 Russian athletes scored World Cup points last year—the most of any country. And their second place in the Nation’s Cup is especially impressive when you consider that they only had one athlete of each gender in the top 10 of the World Cup rankings—Maxim Vylegzhanin was the best-placed in eighth, with 532 total points.
At the 2010 Olympics, the team ended up with four medals: gold and silver out of a sensational performance in the men’s sprint by Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy, and two bronzes from the men’s and women’s team sprint. That tally would have pleased most nations, but it wasn’t nearly enough for Russia. After an angry letter sent by the country’s ski team to Russian president Dmitry Medvedev in the spring, the president of the country’s ski association ended up resigning, and a new one, Elena Vyalbe, took over. Vyalbe, a former Olympic gold medalist, was a certifiably nasty skier in her own right in the 1990s—she started in a national program at age 11, ultimately won dozens of World Cup races, and took five out of five gold medals at the 1997 World Championships in Trondheim, surely crushing the hopes of every Norwegian citizen alive. Vyalbe wasted no time turning things around once appointed president, ridding the association of a number of coaches tied to the doping scandals of the past.
What You Should Know For This Season
On the women’s side, the team has lost Irina Khazova, arguably the team’s third-best athlete, to pregnancy. But the rest of the team’s top five are all coming back. Yulia Tchekaleva appears to be on-form, judging from her seventh place in last weekend’s 10 k skate in Beitostolen (and no, banned former Olympic champion Yuliya Chepalova didn’t shanghai the International Ski Federation just by switching a few letters around—Tchekaleva is actually a different person), and Natalia Korosteleva will definitely be a force to be reckoned with in the sprints—she’s the one who almost knocked Kikkan Randall down to third place in Oslo last March.
On the men’s side, Sergey Shiriaev started his season strong in Finland, while the trio of Alexander Legkov, Petr Sedov, and Evgeniy Belov locked the Norwegians out of their own podium in the tune-up races in Beitostolen. Legkov surely has an axe to grind after his fourth place in last year’s Olympic pursuit—he could be a threat to pull World Cup points by the bundle, but to do so, he’ll have to race more often. Last year, his season was over after Vancouver.
One potential hurdle for the Russians to overcome if they want to contend for the Nation’s Cup is an issue with their visas, reported yesterday by the website SkiRun.ru. According to Vasili Parnyakov, a commentator for the site, the Russian visas for the Schengen-area countries—among them the Czech Republic, Estonia, Finland, France, Germany, Italy, Norway, and Sweden—are valid for only 90 days for the six-month period between October 1 and April 1. That could limit the amount of time each athlete spends in western Europe, which in turn could put a damper on individual World Cup point totals, but that’s only if the problem is not resolved before the end of the season.
One thing that the Russians have going for them is their sweet title system. As far as this reporter can gather, the country still bestows titles on its athletes and coaches based on a system developed in the Soviet era that has carried through to the present times. For example, Elena Vyalbe is an “honored trainer of Russia,” and an “honored master of sport.” Alexey Batalov, a member of the Russian Ski Association’s presidium, is the “head of the theory and methodology of skiing” at the Russian State University of Physical Education, Sports and Tourism. Natalia Korosteleva is a “master of sport, international class.” Such a classification system is likely the only thing standing between North America and cross-country skiing dominance. Just think: Beckie Scott could be the “supreme viceroy of Canadian skiing, mounted division,” John Caldwell could be “honored mogul of the old school,” and, well, you get the drift.
Who You Should Watch
Petr Sedov is more than one to watch. He’s one to whom you should keep your eyes glued at all times. (The International Ski Federation thinks so, too—they tested him six times in seven days in Vancouver. The young man has started nine races at Junior World Championships, won five of them, and missed the podium in just one. He’s only 20, can barely grow a moustache, and is 6’1” and a mere 165 pounds. He’s already got Olympic experience, and in his two individual World Cup starts, he placed eighth and tenth. With ten more pounds and a bit more international experience, it’s scary to contemplate just how fast Sedov will be. He is coached by his father, Nikolai, who runs a squad of promising young Russian athletes. Nikolai also coached Irina Khazova, who won a bronze medal for her third place in the team sprint in Vancouver—and who also was caught using a masking agent in 2007 and banned for two years.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.