The decision by Canada’s Alex Harvey to skip Friday’s World Championships relay left a train of his disappointed teammates passing through the mixed zone after the race. Of all four athletes, Len Valjas probably summed it up best: “It’s probably a good call—it just sucks for us.”
Each of the Canadian starters had his own take on the situation, ranging from relative indifference to stern disappointment. But while it was clear that many of them were let down, veteran George Grey maintained that the men’s team, an especially tight-knit group, would move past what has become a small controversy.
“It hurt us a little bit short-term,” Grey said. “I’m confident we’ll all come out of it, and be a stronger team for it.”
Harvey announced Thursday that he was skipping the relay, one of cross-country skiing’s most storied events, following a victory in the team sprint earlier in the week that left him drained and exhausted.
With the Canadian relay squad a long shot for medals, Harvey decided to pass on the event in order to be fully rested for Sunday’s 50 k freestyle—a race in which the 22-year-old Quebec native has a more realistic chance at a podium.
The decision was pragmatic: In an e-mail Thursday night, Harvey said that his effort to help his teammates to seventh place in the relay four days before the Olympic 50 k last year in Vancouver had ruined his hopes for individual hardware.
But while Harvey looked at his options rationally, his teammates viewed the relay in more emotional terms.
Stefan Kuhn, who ended up scrambling for the Canadians, said that the relay was “the biggest race in cross-country,” and that “if you want to prove you’re a good nation, you do it in the relay.” Grey, who anchored, called the race “something special…the most prestigious event in cross-country skiing.”
Harvey had said he thought the Canadians didn’t have a “reasonable chance” at a podium. But while Grey acknowledged that his form was off from last year, when he’d helped the Canadians to seventh in Vancouver, both Babikov and Kuhn maintained that the team still had a shot at the top three.
“That could have been my chance for the medal—maybe ever, you know? It’s just really sad to see him throwing that out like that,” Babikov said.
Both Babikov, 30, and Grey, 31, noted that the decision was especially disappointing coming from an athlete at Harvey’s point in his career. Babikov called Harvey’s move a “disrespect for the team,” while Grey said that “at such a young age, it’s a bit of a statement.”
“He felt that we didn’t have a good medal chance, and so he’d save it for the 50,” Grey said. “We respect that, but it’s hard not to feel it deep down, when we’re all friends, and we want to be on the line with our friends and teammates.”
For his part, Valjas, who trains with Harvey in a regional development program in Quebec, said he was “sure” that the decision was the right call. And both Kuhn and Grey said that they did respect Harvey’s position, even if left them disappointed.
As far as Grey was concerned, he said that he’d be supporting Harvey in the 50 k regardless—and that he didn’t have to cross the line in the top three to vindicate himself.
“I don’t think he needs to—we make decisions hoping for the best, and it often works in reverse,” Grey said. “Our team’s still strong—we still have a tight men’s group, and of any team on the World Cup, one of the tightest.”
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.