Stupid, nonsensical, and “completely in the wrong.”
Those were the descriptions by elite cross-country skiers and coaches of German sprinter Josef Wenzl’s actions in the Dusseldorf team sprint on Sunday.
Wenzl’s aggressive attempt at passing Norwegian John Kristian Dahl in the race’s final corner ended with both athletes sprawled in the snow, watching a clear podium finish pass them by in the form of Anders Gloersen (NOR), Emil Joensson (SWE), and David Hofer (ITA).
“Everyone knows that it makes no sense to pass on those final corners; it is simply too dangerous. I can’t understand what
Wenzl was thinking,” wrote U.S. Ski Team Head Coach Chris Grover in an e-mail. “I feel bad for [Dahl’s team]. They deserved to be on the podium and receiving their prize money.”
Wenzl did not show any contrition afterwards—indeed, video from the finish pen showed him jawing with Dahl’s teammate Oystein Pettersen, even exchanging a few grabs and light pushes. But later in the day, Wenzl did apologize, according to Vidar Lofshus, the sports director for the Norwegian ski team.
“Wenzl showed great sportsmanship by taking all the blame for the incident, and has excused his behavior to Dahl,” Lofshus wrote in an e-mail to FasterSkier.
By Monday, tempers had cooled. Pettersen even told Norwegian media that he had lunch with Wenzl after the incident. But that didn’t change the result sheet—nor the fact that Dahl and Pettersen had missed out at a shot at the $12,000 check for the winning team.
The Norwegians saw the collision as a clear case of obstruction by Wenzl, Lofshus said. And indeed, International Ski Federation (FIS) rules state that it is the responsibility of a passing skier to avoid interference.
But according to the Norwegian newspaper Dagbladet, the race jury ruled that Dahl was equally at fault as Wenzl, because he took a step to the outside of the corner, towards the German. While the Norwegians disagreed, Lofshus said that “there will be no appeal or protest.”
Pierre Mignerey, a jury member and the assistant cross-country race director for FIS, declined to comment. The jury, though—which included two Germans out of five total members—was the only group willing to take any blame from Wenzl’s shoulders. In interviews and e-mails with four North American athletes and coaches, all took Wenzl’s actions to task.
“I don’t know what [Wenzl] was thinking. They had pulled away from the pack,” said U.S. sprinter Andy Newell in an interview
Sunday. “They went two wide into that corner—you don’t ever want to do that at any time in a race, not to mention if you have the podium already wrapped up.”
Canadian sprinter Devon Kershaw also placed responsibility squarely on Wenzl, saying that Dahl had the best line heading into the final turn. But he also said that he recognized it can be tough for sprinters to think clearly at the end of a race. Instead, they’re “completely blasted, stressed out, and amped knowing they have a chance to win the whole thing.”
Kershaw is no stranger to full-contact racing himself—in a Tour de Ski city sprint in Prague in 2008, he made his own Wenzl-esque kamikaze attack against Swedish skier Marcus Hellner.
“I moved in on him, when there was absolutely no reason to—and we both went down,” Kershaw wrote in an e-mail on Monday. “I had qualified first, and was poised to perhaps slot into the top three in the overall tour had I moved through my quarterfinal. Instead, even though Hellner and I had a gap, I took him out fighting for the best line for no reason, and it was a disaster.”
As his own actions demonstrated, “stupid things happen in sprint racing,” Kershaw said.
“With so many dudes, so little space and really only one ‘direct line,’ it’s not really a surprise when things like this happen,” he added.
Especially on the tight and technical Dusseldorf course, where, according to U.S. sprinter Kikkan Randall, “it’s a tricky course to stay on your own feet anyway, let alone with a bunch of people around.”
Add a home crowd and put thousands of dollars on the line, and you’ve got a potent mix for a 25-year-old German. Dusseldorf is Wenzl’s stomping grounds—it’s where he had his first and only victory, in 2007. But after he finished 46th in Saturday’s sprint and didn’t even make the heats, German Head Coach Jochen Behle ripped Wenzl publicly, telling the press that he “expected much more.”
So if there was any rational explanation for Wenzl’s actions on Sunday, it was that they were born out of desperation: over the last two seasons, he had only once finished on the podium in an individual sprint—and that was at a race in Whistler with a weak field.
And the crash notwithstanding, Wenzl still seemed to impress Behle with his performance in the team sprint, which left the Germans just one clean corner away from the podium. After the race, Behle told Die Welt newspaper that his men had skied well, “even if the results are not exactly what I wanted to see.”
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.