OlympicsRacingBolshunov Dominates Men’s 30 k Skiathlon to Win First Olympic Gold; Patterson Matches Olympic Career Best in 11th

Rachel PerkinsFebruary 6, 2022
The first podium of the 2022 Olympic Games following the men’s 30 k skiathlon. Alexander Bolshunov (ROC) dominated the event for gold, ahead of teammate Denis Spitsov who took silver, and Iivo Niskanen (FIN) bronze. (Photo: NordicFocus)

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On the heels of the women’s opening Olympic race, a colorful lycra field in their Sunday best lined up to race the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon. While the women raced a four-lap 15 k event, men faced double the distance – over 75% longer by finish time – though they were greeted by much more favorable weather. It was sunny, still, and clear. Classic tracks were crisp and firm, and the familiar sound of poles powerfully planting and pushing off from cold snow, akin to the blasters of Storm Troopers in the classic Star Wars films, was not obscured by wind ripping through the stadium. 

A quick nod to the start list for North American fans: Scott Patterson and Gus Schumacher were the only men racing in stars and stripes today, while Olivier Léveillé, Antoine Cyr, and Rémi Drolet raced for Canada. 

Athletes take to the course for the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, the opening event of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

To review the last two Olympiads, the 2018 Games saw a Norwegian sweep of the skiathlon podium, with Simen Hegstad Krüger breaking away to win gold by eight seconds ahead of his teammates Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund. After testing positive for COVID-19 shortly before his scheduled departure for Beijing, Krüger is currently riding out his  quarantine in a hotel room, resolutely training on a spin bike in hopes of making it to the 2022 Games in time for the final event, the men’s 50 k freestyle. Sundby retired from World Cup level racing after the 2021 World Championships in Oberstdorf, Germany, in which he earned an auto start as the reigning champion in the 15 k classic. This season, Sundby raced a series of marathon and longer races in Italy during January. This leaves only Holund returning to the Olympic skiathlon in 2022.  

In 2014, it was a dog fight to the finish, with Dario Cologna of Switzerland taking gold by just 0.4 seconds over Marcus Helner of Sweden. Near the peak of his career, Norwegian powerhouse Sundby was one second behind Helner in third. 

Athletes take to the course for the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon, the opening event of the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Over the first 15 k of classic racing, two names that have not yet been mentioned, from countries who have not been on the podium in the last two Olympic competitions, pulled away from the field. Leading the charge was the king of the 15 k classic, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen. Niskanen has won seven World Cup 15 k classic events, including a grueling race through falling snow in Lenzerheide, SUI at the beginning of the 2021/22 Tour de Ski. The Finn was second to Johannes Høsflot Klæbo (NOR) a week later in Val di Fiemme, ITA, near the other end of the Tour. 

On Niskanen’s tails over the first four laps was Alexander Bolshunov of the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC). Bolshunov was fifth and seventh in the two most recent 15 k classic events, amidst a start to the 2021/22 World Cup season that did not match his previous three seasons of racing. Bolshunov was the World Cup distance champion in 2019, 2020, continuing his dominance to win both the distance title and the overall World Cup title in 2021. He also earned three silver medals in the 2018 Games – he was the runner up in the 50 k classic, and supported the ROC to second place finishes in the relay and team sprint – in addition to a bronze medal in the classic sprint.

Iivo Niskanen (FIN) leads Alexander Bolshunov (ROC) as the pair drops the field during the classic leg of the 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Leading into this season, Bolshunov has had a less than ideal buildup. The 25-year-old experienced a bike crash in addition to a tooth infection that required multiple surgeries, interrupting his ability to train with the consistency and volume – rumored to be over 1,200 hours annually –  that has contributed to his strength over the last quadrennial. 

At the 5 k checkpoint, the top-10 racers were spread by less than 5 seconds, before Bolshunov and Niskanen began to pull away. At 10 k the duo had built a 12 second lead to the chase pack, led by Denis Spitsov (ROC), and between 10 k and the pit-box at 15 k where athletes switched from classic to skate, this lead more than doubled to 30 seconds. 

The chase group of Hans Christer Holund (NOR), Denis Spitsov (ROC), and Pål Golberg race the classic leg of the men’s 30 k skiathlon in Zhangjiakou. (Photo: NordicFocus)
Alexander Bolshunov (ROC) begins to pull away from Iivo Niskanen (FIN) at the start of the 15 k skate leg of the men’s skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Niskanen and Bolshunov left the transition from classic to skate together, but over the next lap, Niskan’s wheels began to fall off. At 16.3 k, Bolshunov was already 13.5 seconds ahead, with Spitsov racing on his own, nearly 18 seconds behind Niskanen and closing fast. Originally podium favorites, two Norwegian chasers worked together roughly 1:06 behind Bolshunov, sitting well over 30 seconds out of third place. 

Looking like his body had flooded with lactate and his matchbox was suddenly empty, Niskanen was unable to respond as Spitsov reeled him in, eventually leaving the Finn in his wake by the end of the first skate lap. From then on, the podium story looked to be pre-written.

At 20 k, Bolshunov had more than 40 seconds on Spitsov, with Niskanen in no man’s land 1:03 behind the leader, and 50 seconds ahead of the Norwegian chasers. At 25 k, Bolshunov had grown his lead to nearly a minute over his countryman, and 1:50 to Niskanen.

With well over a minute lead on second place, Alexander Bolshunov (ROC) takes a bow as he enters the stadium to win the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Entering the stadium, Bolshunov had all the time in the world to savor the victory of his first Olympic gold medal.

Before rounding the bend into the final straight, Bolshunov took a deep bow. He accelerated around the final bend toward the sidelines, where he collected a ROC flag. Coasting down the lanes, Bolshunov waved this flag over his head with one hand, while pumping his left fist into the air, basking in the glory of a dominant performance on the world’s most prestigious stage. 

Alexander Bolshunov celebrates a dominant victory, earning his first Olympic gold medal at the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)
Olympic champion Alexander Bolshunov welcomes his teammate Denis Spitsov (right) to the finish of the men’s 30 k skiathlon, going one-two for the Russian Olympic Committee. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Bolshunov took off his skis, unable to stop smiling, as he turned around to greet his teammate Spitsov, who crossed the line for silver 1:11.0 behind. Niskanen had padded his lead enough over the first half of the race so that his hold on a medal was never threatened. Regaining his form over the final kilometers, he skied smoothly through the stadium to collect the bronze medal in third (+2:00.2). 

“I just couldn’t keep pace with those Russians,” Niskanen told the Finnish news outlet Yle after the race. “They were just ridiculously fast today. Unbelievable, the speed they can ski at. It was even a little bit surprising that I wasn’t able to respond to them at all.”

Iivo Niskanen pushes to the line for a bronze medal in the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Spread over the next minute, Holund took fourth (+2:30.9), with Golberg in fifth (+2:52.5). 

While a glance at his FIS profile this season might not have identified Spitsov as a favorite, the 25-year-old was fourth in the event in the 2018 Games in Korea, where he also collected a Bronze medal in the 15 k freestyle. Spitsov collected a slew of top-10 World Cup results over the subsequent seasons, and was named to the 2021 World Championships, before he crashed while training at the venue in Oberstdorf, sustaining a fracture in his left hand that left him unable to compete. Racing back into form this season, Spitsov was fourth and seventh during the 15 k classic stages of the Tour de Ski, where he finished 4th overall. 

Whenever the podium is dressed predominantly in Russian Red, speculation arises that the state sponsored doping that overshadowed any Russian performance at the 2014 Sochi Games has continued through 2022. This is especially true when an athlete runs away with a race, despite facing a field made of the top athletes in the world who have all, presumably, prepared in a way that maximizes their potential on the race course. FasterSkier’s Nat Herz voiced this speculation during Bolshunov’s post-race press conference, asking if there was anything the Russian champion would like for people to know regarding his performance on the day.

“Well, people don’t become Olympic champions all of a sudden,” Bolshunov stated matter of factly. “In the past several years, I have been proving this in every race that I participate in, and I achieved distinguished results and I fight to the end. As to doping – you’re hinting at doping – when I hear about this, I don’t feel good at all. When I hear these words, I want to turn and just walk away because I just hate hearing this, because this should have nothing to do with sports. 

“We have clean sportsmen, clean athletes here at the Olympics. We go through doping tests almost every day and we have to fill out these forms where we indicate where we will be training from which hour to which hour, when the training session starts, when it finishes and so on…”

Alexander Bolshunov takes the men’s 30 k skiathlon win in Zhangjiakou. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Bolshunov continued to explain a system akin to American doping control, where athletes need to report their whereabouts daily, including all details on training, travel, and even times of day when they might be running errands, or otherwise not at a location where an anti-doping agent could arrive unannounced to collect a sample. In his mind, this level of testing makes questioning whether or not the Russian program is competing fairly a moot point.

“I believe that it’s wrong to ask us these questions. Well you don’t achieve these results all of a sudden — you don’t become an Olympics champion because it takes years and years of training. This is very hard and if you personally want to see how we train, please, we invite you. You are welcome. And these training sessions are very difficult — believe me. And after you will have seen how we train, I believe that you and your audience will never have these questions again. So I believe these are not the best questions to be asked. They’re irrelevant.”

Scott Patterson tucks in behind Alexey Chervotkin (ROC) during the 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Off screen, yet another impressive comeback was underway. At the transition from classic to skate, Scott Patterson sat in 19th place, 2:15 behind the leaders. Steadily picking skiers off, Patterson moved into 16th by 20 k, and was tied with Germany’s Lucas Bögl in 11th at the 25 k checkpoint. Jules Lapierre and Clement Parisse of France were within reach in 9th and 10th, only a few seconds ahead. 

Over the final kilometers, Patterson passed Parisse and pulled ahead of Bögl, but was passed by Artem Maltsev (ROC) to maintain his position in 11th place (+4:00.2) at the finish. This result matches Patterson’s Olympic career best result; he was 11th in the 50 k freestyle in the 2018 Olympics, after finishing 18th in the skiathlon earlier in the Games. 

If you’ve followed Patterson’s trajectory this season, you’re aware of two things: first, that he sustained a wrist injury from a mountain bike crash that left him in need of surgery just five weeks before the opening World Cup races in Ruka. He joined the team a week late for the Lillehammer mini-tour, racing in a brace that left him unable to fully utilize his poles. 

Patterson finished 70th in the 15 k free in Lillehammer, followed by a 75th place finish in the same event the following weekend in Davos. 

The second thing you’ll have noted about Patterson’s season is that the trend from that moment forward pointed toward a very different result. Stepping back to the summer, Patterson had put together several impressive trail races, including breaking a storied course record at the Crows Pass Crossing in August, in which he had competed in seven previous summers. It was evident that his fitness was at an all time high before the crash.

At the U.S. Cross Country Championships in Soldier Hollow in January, Patterson broke away to win the men’s 30 k skate by over 11 seconds, and was second in the 15 k classic two days later racing in a perfect storm of above freezing temperatures with mixed precipitation, on skis that perhaps were not up for the task. 

Scott Patterson races to 11th in the men’s 30 k skiathlon during the 2022 Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Speaking to FasterSkier after the race, Patterson called a spade a spade, acknowledging that he had a “slow start to the season.” However, he found confidence in his racing in the years prior, where he came into peak form surrounding February championship events, regardless of what his Period 1 results looked like. 

“[The Olympics] also get right into the races that I really like – a 30 k, then towards the end the 50 k. I think also the little bit smaller fields at the World Champs or Olympics kind of help. It’s a little less chaotic, where I can just kind of get in my groove and ski. So, [how prepared I am] was a little unknown going in. I had some confidence coming off Nationals, and I had a good training block [afterward], so I was optimistic, but it definitely was a big question mark how it would go. Obviously, it started out pretty strong, and I’m looking forward to more racing.”

Scott Patterson takes 11th in the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Patterson was asked to quantify the extent to which the cold and the challenge of the course factored into the time gaps seen at the finish. Patterson acknowledged the altitude, and the speed of the snow, but ultimately concluded that at an Olympic event, the results are not unexpected.

“It’s the Olympics like people just go hard,” he said simply. “I think we saw that in 2018 where no one sits around at an Olympic race. And we saw that for sure today with Iivo and [Bolshunov] – really strong off that classic leg. And I don’t think there’s any way to hide out here with these long hills and tough course – especially with the way they groomed it, where you don’t have tracks on the downhills. It’s hard to recover, so you have to work for a lot of it. And a lot of these hills are just that grade kind of in between V2 and V1. Or if you switch early to V1, you’ll be V1-ing for a long time.”

With that, Patterson headed out to “go pee in a cup”, acknowledging that he was heading to doping control, and in response to a question on the winners, that they likely were too. 

Gus Schumacher races the men’s 30 k skiathlon during the 2022 Beijing Olympic Winter Games. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Schumacher, in his first Olympic performance, was 39th (+9:04.5). The 21-year-old gave an emotional response in the mixed zone, saying felt “depleted and empty” after his race. Showing maturity beyond his years in the sport, Schumacher fielded questions from the media regardless, stating that he felt he had paced the race well, but his energy was not what he had hoped for, and he took pride in simply finishing the race. His next statements, uttered while clearly choked up behind his N95, were powerful. 

“I think when I was younger, I would have seen someone like myself have a tough race on a big stage and kind of be disappointed [in them]. And I am disappointed. But I want younger people to know that it’s a long process, and there are going to be bad days. And sometimes there are going to be a lot of bad days – this season hasn’t been my best. But I know I’m doing the right things, and more years of doing that, it’s just going to get better. I don’t want people to doubt me – I don’t really care that much [if they do] – but that is something that’s on my mind, because I’ve doubted people before. But I know there’s a lot of people at home that believe in me, and that have supported me to get to this point. And I know that they’re proud of me. And that means a lot.”

Gus Schumacher races in his first Olympic event, the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)
Olivier Léveillé leads the Canadian men in 31st in the men’s 30 k skiathlon. (Photo: NordicFocus)

Just outside the Top-30, Olivier Léveillé was the top Canadian finisher in 31st (+7:32.2), with Antoine Cyr a minute and a half behind in 42nd (+9:16.2). Drolet was lapped just before the 20 k checkpoint and did not finish the race. 

 

Men’s 30 k Skiathlon Results

Rachel Perkins

Rachel is an endurance sport enthusiast based in the Roaring Fork Valley of Colorado. You can find her cruising around on skinny skis, running in the mountains with her pup, or chasing her toddler (born Oct. 2018). Instagram: @bachrunner4646

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