Chris Iorfida - Monday Feb. 10, 2014 17:15 ET

Alex Harvey looks to make history for Canada in cross-country

Chandra Crawford tries to get back to podium

Alex Harvey
Alex Harvey during the men's freestyle 1.5 km sprint qualification at the cross country Tour de Ski competition in Oberhof, Germany, Sunday, Dec. 29, 2013. (Jens Meyer/The Associated Press)

Canadian cross-country skier Alex Harvey knows what’s at stake over the next 12 days, and he welcomes the challenge.

“If I leave Sochi without a medal, I'll be disappointed,” he told CBC Sports before the season started.

Harvey, of Saint-Ferréol-les-Neiges, Que., leads eight Canadians into competition in the men’s and women’s sprint competition at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center.

Since a disappointing 2006 Olympics for the men’s team, Harvey, Devon Kershaw and Ivan Babikov have raised expectations for the men’s group with a string of successes.

There was a trio of top-five results at the Vancouver Games to suggest the team was on the right track, but that kind of result won’t be so pleasing this time round.

Coach Justin Wadsworth has stated he expects Canada to win at least two medals in cross-country in Sochi.

That would be historic, as no Canadian man has ever won an Olympic medal in the sport.

Bring it on, says Harvey.

“I don't think any external pressure could compete with the kind of pressure I put on myself,” said Harvey. “So from there it's just easy.”

Since Vancouver, Harvey has slowly taken over from Kershaw as top dog. The pair won a stunning gold over the Norwegians at the 2011 world championships, and Harvey took bronze last year in individual sprint at the worlds.

Family legacy

The team started slowly this season, but has picked up the pace.

Harvey was fourth after six stages of the Tour de Ski on the strength of a win and two other podium finishes. For his part, Kershaw finished second in one of the stages.

Harvey now looks to take the next step, which would further enhance the family legacy in Canadian sport. Pierre Harvey, his father, represented Canada in the Olympics in both cross-country skiing and cycling from 1976 to 1988.

Kershaw, from Sudbury, Ont., Len Valjas of Toronto and Jesse Cockney of Yellowknife also compete for the Canadian men.

The sprint competition consists of a qualification round, followed by quarter-finals of the 30 top competitors, then semis and finals. The entire competition takes place over a span of four to five hours.

The women compete over a distance of 1.3 kilometres, while the men cross the line 1.8 kilometres from the start. Skiers start in intervals, unlike a mass start competition.

Crawford, Randall friends as well as rivals

In the women’s event, Chandra Crawford of Canmore, Alta., is back and re-energized this season after taking a break from the sport last season.

The sprint is Crawford’s best discipline, and her 2006 gold medal in the competition was the most recent of three medals won by Canadian women in the sport over four years. Beckie Scott won 2002 pursuit gold, while Scott and Sara Renner took silver in team sprint four years later.

Russian-born Daria Gaiazova of Banff, Alta. sees her first race competition in Sochi, while Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont. and Heidi Widmer of Banff, Alta. are also entered.

Valjas, Cockney and Widmer will be competing in their first Olympics.

Elsewhere, Kikkan Randall is looking to become the first American, man or woman, to win Olympic gold in the discipline.

Randall, who posted two sprint wins in January, is good friends with Crawford and has been inspired by the success of the Canadian women this century.

“When I was just getting on the international scene, Becky, Sara and the Canadian women’s team was starting to be a force on the World Cup,” she told CBC Sports before the season.

“For a young skier looking up to them, it showed that it was possible coming from North America, overcoming those challenges and inspired me to want to compete for my country, so I certainly credit the Canadian women for getting a lot of things rolling.”

The North Americans will have their hands full with Marit Bjoergen, 2010 sprint champion and winner of the opening skiathlon in Sochi. The Norwegian is going for her fifth career Olympic gold medal and ninth overall.

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