Canadians React to Harvey’s Relay Decision

Nathaniel HerzMarch 5, 20119
Alex Harvey skiing in Estonia earlier this year.

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

Nat Herz is an Alaska-based journalist who moonlights for FasterSkier as an occasional reporter and podcast host. He was FasterSkier's full-time reporter in 2010 and 2011.

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  • D. Diehl

    March 6, 2011 at 7:29 am

    If I remmeber correctly Vladimir Smirnov would always skip out on Kazakstan’s relay in big events to concentrate on the individual races. Stories weren’t devoted to it in the 1990’s. Fans wanted to see Smirnov race head to head with Daehlie in a 50km. Remember who won the 50km classic in Lillihammer? His last name begins with a S.

  • Lars

    March 6, 2011 at 8:42 am

    And if i remember correctly Smirnov didn`t have the team that Harvey got backing him up and when he did racing for the soviets then he did race the relay. Now whatever is said i doubt dropping the relay could be good for team chemistry.

  • D. Diehl

    March 6, 2011 at 9:05 am

    Is there any skier on the current Canadian Men’s Team besides Kershaw and Harvey who crack the top 30 on the WC on a regular basis? Just not happening. I understand the nation and team pride thing as well. Also the relay being the premier event at the World Champoinships. However why second guess Harvey on his own decision which is his prerogative. It’s not like he pulled a Muelegg claimed there was a conspiracy against him on his own team and joined another nation. Harvey knows his own limits and fitness better than anyone. I’m watching the 50km live from Oslo right now on FIS and Harvey is in the top 5 at 35km.

  • davidf2d

    March 6, 2011 at 9:37 am

    And Babikov who did the relay is right with him.
    Everyone who beat Harvey skiied the relay.
    Perhaps Marty Hall is right; time for Wadsworth to crack the whip and be the boss. I remember there were comments a few years ago that a previous coach didn’t fit it because he was a hardass and it didn’t go well with the atmosphere on the Cdn. team.
    Hmmm. More politics all the time

  • Martin Hall

    March 6, 2011 at 1:49 pm

    Look, the big deal here is that this is new territory for these guys and they let this all get to far outside the team. With all the conjecture about the start order for the Norskis you didn’t get the full story from them—why did they run the 2 guys the way they did and you still don’t know! Team decision and it stays there.
    Justin will learn and most importantly the skiers will learn—all that stuff stays with the team when they had the discussion and took a direction—it stays in that room. When approached by the press the skiers have to say they’re in agreement and go talk with the coach.
    I think this will be a little bit harder to accept then George thinks.
    I haven’t heard any one say anything about Babikov’s great effort in the relay—6th place on his leg—as the rest of the guys stunk the place up—-one of those 3 skiers was going to be the 4th man—and a leg like any of those guys was the death knell for that team’s medal chances. There is only one guy in that team that had the potential to make this a medal contender—last years 4th man—George Grey—but it was know weeks ago that only a shadow of that person was going to be in Oslo.
    Also, the celebration after the gold was a bit more extensive then it should have been and may have had a bearing on the outcome of the 50km today.
    This is a 3 man team right now–Kershaw, Harvey and Babikov—who is going to step forward and make this a true contender in the relay for a medal—as this situation will be a front burner topic of conversation for another year or two!
    I like the saying—“What happens in Las Vegas, Stays in Las Vegas” got it !

  • davord

    March 6, 2011 at 2:18 pm

    And it’s not like Harvey blew the competition away in the relay last year. He didn’t have a horrible leg, but Babikov was the one that brought them back into the mix for a top 5 placing. Kershaw didn’t have a great opening, and Harvey lost them a bit more time. I understand Babikov’s frustration, and he is a guy that just loves to race, no matter what, and all power to him. I also understand Harvey’s motives, he wanted to save strength and fight in a race where he thought he had high medal chances, and he did, he was seconds away from a medal, but missed that crucial split there in the last 800 meters. Hopefully Babikov will have his day in future championships, that guy deserves a medal, maybe even more so than Harvey (at this stage). BTW, Martin, what’s with the lines?

  • bbrooker

    March 6, 2011 at 4:39 pm

    Good move Alex. Lots of time for your team to catch up. Don’t burn out we want to see you race well for a long time!

  • Nitram

    March 7, 2011 at 3:12 am

    Martin is spot on!

    The coach has gotta keep it together!

    Right move for Alex. Surprised that Justin didn’t back him up more solidly.

    Like I’ve said earlier, a team has gotta make tactical decisions that will produce RESULTS! Getting Alex to a top 5 placing in the 50 is bigger than a top 5 placing in the realy. Come on people!

  • jmathieu

    March 7, 2011 at 6:32 am

    Hey, let’s get some perspective here. This is a ski race. Adults who play on snow with sticks on their feet. They can make a living at it simply because a piece of the public views this as entertainment. The Harvey decision as well as the Northug antics are just part of the package that will keep us entertained and the hits high on YouTube. Harvey’s decision reminded me of what cyclist Bernard Hinault told the press at the Worlds one year: first, he wanted to win for himself. Second, he will work for his team, Le Vie Clair, which includes riders not from France, and finally, he will work the race for France but only if the first two options do not work out. Harvey made the right decision. No coach can make make the horse drink water.

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