It isn’t all that common, these days, to see Johan Olsson on the World Cup.
After a strong start to this season, Olsson took a two-month forced hiatus due to illness. Last year, after the November World Cups he didn’t return to the top level of competition until World Championships in March. In 2010, he skipped the entire month of January to prepare for the Olympics. Injury and illness are sadly par for the course for the tall Swede, who is just a month shy of his 32nd birthday.
But when Olsson does show up, he gets noticed.
In Szklarska Poreba, Poland on Sunday, Olsson picked up his third win of this World Cup season in just five individual starts, leading from the very first time check through the finish of the 15 k classic individual-start race.
Olsson’s victory came in challenging conditions: kickwax was far from straightforward, and athletes’ skis seemed to be either slipping or icing. Some racers ended up herringboning even the more moderate hills on the course, unable to make their skis do the work for them.
“Conditions were very tough as you can win or lose everything,” Olsson explained. “You can lose a lot of time if you do not have the right skis.”
That wasn’t a problem for the Swede, however.
“I had extraordinary skis,” he told FIS after the race. “It was really difficult before the start and I waited as long as I could to pick skis, but I made the right decision and I’m very happy about that.”
Olsson has now won his last two races, both of which were long, classic affairs; in Nove Mesto, Czech Republic last week, he squeaked out a victory in a 30 k mass start.
“It feels really, really great today, just like last week,” Olsson said after the race.
Second place went to Dario Cologna of Switzerland, who maintained his huge lead in the overall World Cup standings but was unable to touch Olsson today. Cologna also finished second to Olsson a week ago in the Czech Republic, but today the margin of victory was larger, due partly to the interval start. Both skiers showed even pacing; halfway through the race, they were separated by ten seconds, and at the finish the gap was 19.
“I tried to fight a lot but there was always a ten-second margin,” Cologna said after the race.
Russians Alexander Legkov and Ilia Chernousov were third and fourth almost a minute behind Olsson. The pair trains on their own under the guidance of Reto Burgermeister, and their joint success today – the next Russian, Maxim Vylegzhanin, was 50 seconds behind them in 13th place – may make the Russian federation more sympathetic to their cause.
Then again, it might not. In 1947, the Russians convened a meeting of Soviet governments in Szklarska Poreba to decry the Mashall plan, which they described as “the American plan for the enslavement of Europe.” There’s a certain irony that here at the same venue, their most successful skiers were a pair of Russians who train mainly in Switzerland with a Swiss coach and support staff.
But regardless of what the federation thinks, the two racers were giddy with their success. Legkov may have beaten his teammate, but he noted that the day was truly a success for both of them.
“Ilia is my friend and I am happy for his good result,” he said. “We will divide the prize money.”
All of the top finishers praised the Szklaska Poreba venue, which is new to the World Cup circuit. Olsson, for example, said that the change of scenery was refreshing – and that even though the culture is vastly different than his native Sweden, he heard fans screaming his name as he skied past.
“When you’re in the World Cup circus for ten years as I am, it’s fun to come to a new location,” he said. “The courses here are really good, too, as is the audience.”
Cologna agreed, and thought that the races would bolster the sport’s fanbase, which has been fueled by Justyna Kowalczyk’s success.
“It is good to have World Cup in Poland, as cross-country skiing is very popular,” he told FIS. “I like to be competing here. The fans were great and were cheering on everybody.”
-Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan finished sixth, collecting his first top-ten result since December. It was a good day for the Kazakhs: teammate Sergey Cherepanov finished 11th, the first top-20 result of his World Cup career.
-Germany’s Franz Goering finished eighth, representing his first top-ten finish in over a year. He last made the cut in Rybinsk, Russia in February 2011.
-The top Pole was 31-year-old Maciej Kreczmer, who placed 58th, over four minutes behind Olsson.
-Cologna was the only one of the top-ranked World Cup racers to have a strong race. Second-place Petter Northug did not compete, while third-place Devon Kershaw placed 26th and fourth-place Marcus Hellner 21st.