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KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — It was the kind of race Russia had been dreaming of since it won the bid to host the 2014 Winter Olympics nearly six years ago.
President Vladimir Putin vowed that his athletes would be clean in their home Olympics, and in the leadup to the 2010 Vancouver Games, at least 10 Russians in various sports were disqualified for the use of banned substances. In Vancouver, Russia went on to win three total golds for their worst Olympic showing.
Sochi had to be different. Putin put it delicately the week before the Opening Ceremony, telling his athletes, “We’re all counting on you.”
Before the men’s 50-kilometer freestyle mass start on Sunday, the final day of the Sochi Games, the Russians led the medal count with 28 — 11 golds, 10 silvers and seven bronzes — two of which had come from cross-country skiing, both silver, in the men’s 4 x 10 k relay and men’s classic team sprint. The U.S. ranked second in the standings through Saturday, two medals behind with a total of 27, one medal ahead of Norway.
As of Sunday, Russia was up to 32 medals — out of reach for teams like the U.S., with 27, and Norway, with 26. That afternoon, the host nation’s golden moment finally came in cross-country skiing, less than a day after biathlete Anton Shipulin anchored Russia to gold in the 4 x 7.5 k relay on Saturday night.
And the 50 k victory didn’t come easy, or without some serious tactics and a gut-wrenching four-way race for first after five long laps, each of which included a trip to the stadium halfway through.
Russia’s Alexander Legkov had led the charge — truly turning it up over the last two kilometers to the finish. With a pack of nearly 30 sticking together for the first 45 k of the race, several ambitious hopefuls tried their luck at dropping the field, including Finland’s Lari Lehtonen on the second of five laps, then Michail Semenov of Belarus from around 28 k to 30 k. Finland’s Matti Heikkinen took control from about 32 to 38 k, as another teammate, Iivo Niskanen, tried hard to keep Heikkinen’s pursuers at bay.
If this was going to be a game of cat and mouse, somebody had to help the little guy get away. Unfortunately for the Finns, the hungriest competitor at the front of the chase pack was Legkov. Four years ago, he had let his first individual medal slip away in the 30 k skiathlon when two Swedes, Marcus Hellner and Johan Olsson, and Germany’s Tobi Angerer bested him.
Olsson had forged ahead and Legkov reined them back in, but couldn’t quite close the gap in time for the finish.
Hellner won, Angerer took silver by 2.1 seconds, Olsson was right there in third, and Legkov was another second back in fourth.
No way was he going to let that happen again.
Olsson led a pack of more than 50 early in the race from about 10 to 15 k. He never made any bold moves, and by 18 k, he was back to 20th, five seconds behind two of his teammates, Anders Södergren and Daniel Richardsson toward the front. Hellner did not race because of illness.
An hour into race, which started at 11 a.m., three hours earlier than most of the Olympic races in Sochi, the 30 k mark seemed to be the defining moment — as it presented the third opportunity for racers to change skies. Nobody in contention had opted to go in for a fresh pair yet, with the exception of Lukas Bauer of the Czech Republic. Bauer did so at 20 k, and caught back up to the group by 30 k.
There, Legkov was first over the top of the steep climb before the downhill stadium approach, making a point to lead toward the exchange — and then went in. Most everyone followed him, with the exception of Semenov, Austria’s Bernhard Tritscher and Spain’s Imanol Rojo up front.
Five kilometers later, Heikkinen had blasted off the front, 22 seconds ahead of the Semenov-Tritscher-and-Rojo trio. Legkov was up to fifth behind them, forging ahead with Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby and American Noah Hoffman over the next lap.
Legkov kept Heikkinen within range, blowing past Niskanen on the descent into the stadium around 35 k — despite Niskanen’s persistent attempts to stay directly in front of him and slow the pace. Three kilometers later, Legkov and Sundby had shaved eight seconds off the gap to come within 14 seconds of Heikkinen.
By their next time into the stadium at 40 k, Legkov had caught him, and 2.5 k later, Heikkinen was down to 13th, nearly 9 seconds back. He ultimately placed 15th.
Sundby and Hoffman followed Legkov as he led them into the stadium for the final opportunity to change skis — which most had already taken advantage of one full lap earlier. They continued down the long descent before the several-kilometer sufferfest back to the top. At the bottom, Legkov again upped the pace in an attempt to break the pack, which included frontrunners like Sweden’s Daniel Richardsson, Legkov’s teammate Maxim Vylegzhanin, and Switzerland’s Dario Cologna.
In the accordion-like reaction that followed, Cologna was involved with an untimely tangle, where he and another competitor collided, breaking his ski. Unable to find an immediate replacement, Cologna, who had already won two golds at these Olympics (in the skiathlon and 15 k classic) slipped to 27th by the finish.
“I’m disappointed,” Cologna told reporters. “It was a big chance to get another medal.”
Hoffman went from 12th to 26th with a broken pole at the bottom of the climb, yet the Russians stayed out of trouble up front.
Legkov led Vylegzhanin up toward the stadium for the final kicker of a climb, with Sundby and another Russian, Ilia Chernousov, right behind.
On the steepest portion of the hill, Legkov found another gear and launched another attack over the top to continue to lead into the finish. He outlasted the three others for gold, his first individual Olympic medal, by 0.7 seconds in 1:46:55.2. The two other Russians and Sundby battled for silver, with Vylegzhanin edging Chernousov by 0.1 seconds, and Sundby placing fourth another 0.2 seconds back.
It was Russia’s first-ever podium sweep at the Olympics, and the first time in 78 years that any nation had swept the podium in the 50 k. The race also set a record for the fastest 50 k, surpassing the previous Olympic best of 2:03.
“This victory is special for me because I became an Olympic champion,” Legkov said in a translated press conference. “I congratulate my teammates on their second and third place — this is very good result.”
Legkov explained that he hadn’t thought of the potential for a podium sweep before the race, which came a day after the Norwegian women did just that in the 30 k mass start.
“I thought we could compete for the medals, but when it happened all of a sudden it was a huge success and luck for us,” he said.
Vylegzhanin won his third medal of the Games after taking silver with Legkov, Alexander Bessmertnykh, and Dmitriy Japarov in the relay a week earlier. On Wednesday, he teamed up with Nikita Kriukov to place second in the team sprint.
“I’m happy to make the people happy,” Vylegzhanin said. “Even though we’ve lost in the past, we’ve won now.”
And just as expected, the crowd erupted, volunteers danced around the Laura Cross-Country Ski Center and nearby biathlon stadiums, and the team celebrated with as much excitement as they’ve shown all week.
“Russia power, Alexander Legkov, the power of Russia!” forerunner Sergey Gamuzov, 20, exclaimed.
“It was wonderful day! This day is celebration in Russia — Man Day!”
And thus, the timing couldn’t have been better on the closing day of the Olympics, Men’s Day (formally Defender of the Fatherland Day) in Russia.
Russian Ski Federation President Elana Vyalbe told reporters that while she was confident in her team, she didn’t think that kind of podium dominance was possible.
“Yesterday lots of people said we will have the podium, but I was thinking it was a joke,” she said through a translator.
Pleased with her team, specifically Legkov who “proved he is the king of skiing for at least four years,” Vyalbe said their total medal haul didn’t meet the federation’s expectations.
“We didn’t manage to fulfill our medal plan,” she said. “In sprints, we should have had completely different results.”
Still, some like Norwegian coach Vidar Lofshus, gave credit where it was due.
“It was just a magnificent race by the three Russians,” Lofshus said. “I just feel bad for [Sundby] that he didn’t get his medal.”
“It’s impressive, of course, like when any country sweeps the podium at the Olympics,” Canadian Ivan Babikov said after placing 20th. “It’s amazing, but they are hosting, it’s their Olympics, it’s their course, and they’ve been strong through the whole Olympics. I’m not surprised. Dario crashed at the end and that threw some people off, but those guys were just the strongest at the finish.”
The Russians’ performances at the Olympics have drawn some skepticism from Canadian Head Coach Justin Wadsworth. He compared Legkov’s skiing on the final climb of his leg of the men’s relay last week to that of Johann Mühlegg, the Spanish cross-country skier who was caught doping at the 2002 games.
“Pushing that hard the whole relay and then jump-skating that hill is not possible. Period,” Wadsworth said.
In a press conference after the relay, Legkov declined to address Wadsworth’s allegations.
But Chris Grover, the American head coach, said he found the Russian performances at the Olympics to be plausible — noting that on Sunday, they were not far ahead of Sundby.
“To me, they look like they were in good shape, had good skis, and had really smart strategies during the games,” Grover said. “But they were digging deep like everybody else.”
— Nat Herz & Chelsea Little contributed reporting
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.