PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — Sun, clouds, fog, and snow. At the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Center on Saturday, the men’s 50-kilometer classic mass start transpired like a 50 k should. There was the break-the-pack pace from the start. There was the hard-man up front trying for a solo break. Of course there were chasers: one of whom blew up and faded and another that latched on for a silver-medal ride. And eventually there was a group of four that closed in on a single medal that eventually left three athletes unsatisfied. This was solid Olympic 50 k racing.
For Finland’s 26-year-old Iivo Niskanen, the plan worked. Burning through the 68 other starters began right away. As the 2 p.m. unfettered sun warmed the tracks, the kilometers ticked off with the favorites coalescing in the front. They included Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway, Kazakhstan’s Alexey Poltoranin, Alex Harvey of Canada, and the Olympic Athletes from Russia’s (we’ll just call them Russians) Alexander Bolshunov — a 21-year-old star of the Games, if you’re a medal counter (with two silvers and a bronze before Saturday’s race).
This is the 50 k classic, a race usually suited for the well-established and the well-conditioned. This was Niskanen’s day.
The switch flipped at 17.5 k when the Finn was set to fly. Sundby skied 1.4 seconds back, Poltoranin +2.3, Russia’s Alexey Chervotkin +3.4, Bolshunov +4.3, Russia’s Andrey Larkov +5.4, Norway’s Hans Christer Holund +5.7, and Harvey +6.0. These were the names that topped the course’s time checks.
Bold. Daring. Tempting fate. All these words could describe the noticeable uptick in effort from Niskanen at 22.36 k that cracked the field. Unike the tale of the frog in boiling water unaware of it’s slow demise — Niskanen’s pacing shakedown was abrupt. Although not exactly a punch of effort, there was no subtlety to it.
Passing through 27.2 k, Bolshunov trailed the Niskanen-Poltoranin duo by 20.9 seconds. Niskanen soldiered as the consummate soloist except Poltoranin was velcroed on. A look to the side here, another look to the side there from Niskanen could not convince Poltoranin to take a pull up front.
A second and third plot line developed behind. Bolshunov surged. Sundby, Holund and Harvey solidified into a core that would slowly bleed time to the leaders. In their own eventual fight for bronze, Harvey’s group fended off every racer except for Russians Larkov and Chervotkin.
Up ahead, Bolshunov flaunted his 21-year-old verve. There was no stage fright. He caught, passed, and gapped Poltoranin. At 33.32 k, only Bolshunov could muster the fight and locked in on Niskanen. As much as Bolshunov was the 50 k’s yin at this point, Poltoranin was its yang. His valiant chase of Niskanen early on smudged out by his crash and burn. Poltoranin was eventually caught by the Harvey group and finished 15th (+5:15.0).
Late in the race, the temps had cooled below freezing and flurries fell. The sun-to-cloud swap also came with a fog bank reminiscent of March in Holmenkollen. Through the stadium at 37.5 k, neither Niskanen nor Bolshunov exchanged skis. Again, like with Poltoranin, Niskanen pulled up slightly. Bolshunov wouldn’t take the invite. He continued drafting the Finn.
That dynamic changed as Bolshunov led down the sweeping turn into the stadium area around 40 k. With the Russian 0.6 seconds ahead, Niskanen changed into his third pair of skis for the day, taking advantage of his ability to swap skis twice during the race. (This is important and we’ll come back to this point: Bolshunov exchanged skis only once.)
With Niskanen’s gear swap and Bolshinov’s power-double-pole, the Russian led out of the stadium.
“I saw the gap appear,” Niskanen said in the post-race press conference. “There’s is no penalty loop like in a normal exchange area — often there is an extra meters when you are going to change skis. So of course, it’s a guess about the dirty snow, and here the snow is so dirty that it’s a big difference between fresh and old skis.”
Niskanen gambled. So, too, did Bolshunov. Eleven seconds opened as they both rolled the dice. This was not, as it first appeared, a gold-medal move for Bolshunov. Less than two kilometers later, Niskanen was there to taunt Bolshunov with noticeably faster skis.
“I could catch him quite easily,” Niskanen recalled. “Then the only tactical plan was to wait and wait and use better skis when it is possible and the best place to use them.”
The best place was the final headwall. The body worked. The skis flew. Niskanen won the 50 k in 2:08:22.1 as he pulled away from Bolshunov in the race’s closing moments. A dejected Bolshunov earned his fourth medal of the 2018 Games (after silver in the relay and team sprint, and bronze in the individual classic sprint) placing second, 18.7 seconds back.
A medal still hung out there for Larkov, Harvey, Sundby, and Holund. Like Niskanen on the final climb, Larkov stung the group first while Harvey and Sundby punched too late. Larkov took bronze, 2:37.5 minutes behind Niskanen. Harvey shut down Sundby on the final stretch to secure fourth (+2:43.6). and Sundby placed fifth (+2:43.7).
The Russians were first to the press conference. Through an interpreter, Bolshunov hinted at his frustration at being so close to gold.
“Obviously I am a little bit disappointed because I could have won this race,” Bolshunov said. “There was a small problem that affected my result.”
That small problem, Bolshunov clarified, were his skis. “Basically the small problem was with the fact that it got much colder and the skis were not as slippery as they should have been. So my result was affected,” he said.
Larkov, too, said his skis were off. “Basically just like my teammate I am also a little bit disappointed,” Larkov, 28, said. “I had some problems with my skis because the weather got colder as we were racing and I had to change my skis. After I changed skis I thought I basically I had no chance but I managed to get to third place.”
Bolshunov and Larkov were the only two skiers in the top 31 to swap skis once. Every other racer took the two allowed ski exchanges. (Four other skiers total among the finishers changed skis a single time.)
Bolshunov entered the optional ski exchange area slightly ahead of Niskanen when the Finn swapped at 40 k. Asked by FasterSkier why he chose to ski on, Bolshunov claimed he wasn’t in position.
“Basically I was on the right and I was not in the right position to change the skis,” Bolshunov said. “I would have changed them but I could not do it in time, so I had to go on like that.”
During the press conference, neither Niskanen nor the Russians acknowledged each other. After learning that the Russians blamed skis as their demise and Niskanen’s gift, the gold-medal winner tried to set the record straight as he and Bolshunov share the same ski sponsor.
“Skis were really really good,” Niskanen said of his own planks. “Maybe you can see the reason here in the result list. The Russian guys have changed skis only once, but that has been their tactic. Also my tactic was to use third and second best pair at the beginning of the race and leave the best pair at the end. It’s the same series skis for me and one of them. We have brother pairs.”
Niskanen’s win was the first gold for Finland (across all sports) in PyeongChang. As the reigning 15 k classic world champion, Niskanen said that he has embraced a selective peaking strategy. For the last two years he has focused on two championship classic races: the 15 k in Lahti, and Saturday’s 50 k.
“Two years after Sochi, I trained so hard and tried to do too many things and have too much races and I got easily sick,” Niskanen said. “And then last two years I want to be the best shape at the right time. Maybe someday my main goal in the season is to win the World Cup overall, but last two years, the only goal has been one race because at the moment, I am so much better in classic. Everything, like the skiathlon [here], they have been preparation races for me to improve the shape.”
If the skiathlon was a training run for Niskanen, as he claimed, it worked. Yet his fortunes were much better Saturday. During the skiathlon, Niskanen strung out the field during the classic leg. He faded to finish in 19th. His hot start in the 50 k, Niskanen acknowledged, made for an anxious Finnish coach.
“Maybe my coach was a bit nervous to watch the race because I often start too hard too early,” Niskanen said. “This time I suffered well, but you just need to live the moment and play the game. If you don’t try you cannot win. This time I was the strongest man.”
The strongest man on Saturday was undeniably the strongest man. For the second consecutive Olympics, Russia has stepped onto the 50 k podium. With that comes the spectre of doping. Russia went 1-2-3 in the 50 k in Sochi amidst evidence later uncovered about state-sponsored doping. In PyeongChang the Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR) went 2-3. With that, of course, comes questions. At the 2018 Winter Olympics, even with the increased scrutiny since Sochi, two Russian athletes have been flagged for doping: a curler and bobsledder.
“I don’t know if I can answer this question because I’m only starting to compete on this level,” Bolshunov, who was invited to these Olympics as an OAR athlete because he was not associated with the Sochi debacle, said when asked if he and his 2018 Olympic teammates have any affiliation with Sochi’s taint. “I cannot really compare what happened four years ago with the athletes that are here. I am my own man and they were their own team. So we just do the best we can and we move ahead.”
— Gabby Naranja and Harald Zimmer contributed