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SOCHI, Russia — It didn’t take long to get the men’s cross-country skiathlon medalists down to the adjacent biathlon venue for their press conferences on Sunday, before busing them down to Sochi’s Olympic Park for their medal ceremonies that night.
But there was plenty to tend to in between, especially for jury officials, the Russian team and initially Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who received a written warning for obstructing Maxim Vylegzhanin in the final meters of the 30 k skiathlon. Technically, that meant he deviated from the optimal racing line. According to RIA Novoski, the International Ski Competition Rules No. 343.9 states that: “In all competitions obstruction is not allowed. This behavior is defined as deliberately impeding, blocking (by not following best line), charging or pushing any competitor with any part of the body or ski equipment.”
Sundby, 29, nearly crossed skis with Vylegzhanin as he staggered to the left while sprinting to the finish. The Norwegian took third by one-tenth of a second for his first medal at his second Olympics, and Vylegzhanin, 31, left empty handed in fourth.
Yet it’s never over ’til it’s over, and the Russian Cross-Country Ski Association President Yelena Välbe made sure that their case was heard — twice if necessary.
After Russia filed a protest, Sundby left the jury’s office with a warning for cutting off Vylegzhanin before the finish. The Norwegian claimed it was unintentional: “The fight was close,” Sundby said. “I can’t remember so much about the last 100 meters. When I see the pictures, I think the last 10 meters there was not fair play. I changed lines when there was 4 or 5 meters to go. This was never ever my intention. Luckily, it didn’t influence the result. I was in front of Maxim and I would have been in front even if I stayed in my line.”
Sundby said he spoke with Vylezhanin afterward, who told him he didn’t feel he was obstructed. “He didn’t notice when he came to the finish line,” Sundby added.
“I don’t think I obstructed or touched the skis of Maxim so hopefully he doesn’t feel like I destroyed his finish,” he said. “For sure, from me, it was not the purpose.”
According to RIA, Vylegzhanin was ambiguous.
“Was I cut up? Everyone who watched the race saw that we fought to the end,” he said. “What happened, happened.”
They jury made its decision and the results stayed the same, but Välbe told RIA she was taking the case to another round of International Ski Federation (FIS) appeals.
“Nothing is finished. Everything will continue,” she said on Sunday afternoon. “We will submit an appeal to the FIS and we have 24 hours to do that.”
Her next step was to present the protest to the federation, not the on-site officials. Otherwise, “it would be considered by the same people,” Välbe said, the ones that overruled the assertion that Sundby impeded Vyleghanzin in the first place.
On Sunday night, the Russians followed through with a second appeal.
“Maxim Vylegzhanin told me that he noticed that I came into his tracks,” Sundby said after the medal ceremony.
Later Sunday night, NRK reported that Vegard Ulvang, chairman of the FIS cross-country committee, confirmed that the Russian national team submitted the appeal, which called for stripping Sundby of his bronze.
“The case will now be considered in FIS ‘Appeals Committee,” Ulvang said, which could take 72 hours, or three days, to hear. However, a decision was expected sooner.
“I think Martin will retain the bronze medal,” Norwegian International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Gerhard Heiberg told NRK. “I do not think there is any danger that he will lose it. The Russians may take the case to CAS [Court of Arbitration for Sport], but it will take a long time.”
Norway’s Petter Northug spoke to the greater context of the issue, likening it to war.
“This is typical … they will have more to protest in the future,” he told NRK, according to a translation. “There are certainly wars with them both sprint and relay.”
Anastasiya Kuzmina, a Russian-born, Slovakian passport holder and national-team biathlete who won the women’s 7.5 k sprint, said in a Sunday night conference that she dedicated her win to Vylegzhanin.
“I felt for him, I was rooting for him,” she said. “Unfortunately it was not his day. Today when I approached the starting line I said to myself, ‘If this is my day I will dedicate it to him.’ I hope he has heard my message and I help his feelings.”
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.