Olympic cross-country skiing storylines to watch
Canada feeling confident about medal chances
Cross-country coach Justin Wadsworth has laid down the challenge, and we will soon see if the Canadian team can perform up to the expectations at the Sochi Olympics.
At the official announcement of the 11-member cross-country team in January, Wadsworth said he’d be disappointed if Canada didn’t win two medals in Russia, and that the total could be as high as four.
Consider that Canada has only ever won three Olympic medals in the sport, all achieved by women at the 2002 and 2006 Winter Games.
The optimism has been created by medal performances from the men at big events in recent years. Alex Harvey of St.-Ferreol, Que., and Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont., won gold in the team sprint at the 2011 worlds, while Harvey took bronze in the individual sprint at last year’s world championships.
In addition, there have been World Cup and Tour de Ski successes in recent years from those men, and on occasion, teammates Ivan Babikov of Canmore, Alta., and Len Valjas of Toronto.
Wadsworth and the team made a calculated gamble to train a little bit less than the previous summer, in the hopes of peaking at the right time.
“If we don’t get things rolling by Tour de Ski, then we need to dig in there and re-assess things,” he told CBC Sports in mid-November.
The words were prescient. After some poor early season results, Canada went 1-2 in the first stage of the Tour and generally picked up the pace.
Harvey was fourth through six stages of the Tour de Ski, Kershaw got a boost of confidence after some distressing early season results with a second place showing behind Harvey in Germany on Dec. 28, and Babikov was top 10 in the excruciating uphill test of the final stage on Jan. 5.
The expectations from the women’s skiers are a bit more tempered. It would take some career-best performances and a bit of luck to reach the podium.
The potential is certainly there. Chandra Crawford of Canmore, who won Olympic gold in the sprint in 2006, is re-energized after taking a sabbatical from the sport last year.
The combinations of Daria Gaiazova of Banff and Perianne Jones of Almonte, Ont., as well as Crawford and Gaiazova, have each reached the podium in the past in team events.
Future is now
As always, it will be interesting to see if there are potential Olympic stars in the wings. In addition to Valjas, Jesse Cockney of Canmore, Graeme Killick of Fort McMurray, Alta., Heidi Widmer of Banff and Emily Nishikawa of Whitehorse are all first-time Olympians.
Canada is bringing a diverse crew rich in storylines to Sochi. Gaiazova and Babikov return to their country of birth, Cockney is an Inuit originally from Yellowknife, and Nishikawa, whose father is Japanese-Canadian, is the first athlete to represent the Yukon at the Winter Games in 22 years.
As well, Nishikawa and Widmer each had the bittersweet experience of qualifying while their brothers narrowly missed making the team.
Elsewhere, there are three women who are strong contenders to scoop up multiple medals. In fact, two have done it before.
At least one of Justyna Kowalczyk or Marit Bjoergen was on the podium in five of six medal events at the 2010 Olympics.
Kowalczyk won Poland’s first ever cross-country ski medal in Vancouver, in the 30K classic, to go along with three other medals. She’s won four Tour de Ski titles and this season started strongly with four classic race wins before 2013 was done.
Bjoergen of Norway has won seven medals dating back to the 2002 Winter Games, three of them gold.
Therese Johaug, considerably younger than Bjoergen and Kowalczyk, has muscled her way into medal contention in individual events after being part of Norway’s 2010 team pursuit gold medal winning team. Johaug has three victories and 10 World Cup podium appearances this season while winning the seven-stage Tour de Ski.
Several men contend
The men’s slate of events looks to be considerably more wide open, with several more unique World Cup winners this season than the women’s circuit.
Petter Northug, a four-time medallist in Vancouver, can still win on any given day but has ceded his spot as pre-eminent male skier on the Norwegian team to Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who has hit the podium on seven occasions this season.
How seriously does Norway take cross-country skiing? After suffering a stunning shutout in the sport at Turin in 2006 (no gold, three silver, one bronze), the country was in a tizzy when none of their men finished in the top 20 of the 15 kilometre freestyle race near the beginning of the Vancouver Games.
"A collapse, a fiasco, a flop, a miss, a scandal," one newspaper columnist wailed.
The Norwegians eventually recovered to the tune of 11 total medals, and it will be worth watching to see if the team as a whole matches or exceeds the five gold medals won at the 2002 and 2010 Games.
Ready to make history?
Beckie Scott was the first from Canada/North America to win Olympic gold in cross-country, followed by Crawford.
Kikkan Randall can become the first American, man or woman, to win cross-country gold. The Anchorage native was tops in the sprint discipline last year, finishing third in the overall standings. She appears to be peaking at the right time this season, with the two victories that mark her four sprint podium appearances occurring in January.
Scott, who incidentally is Wadsworth’s wife, had to wait two years to get her gold medal after two competitors who finished ahead of her were stripped of their medals for using performance enhancing drugs.
There tend to be fewer drug issues in the Winter Olympics for a variety of reasons, but cross-country skiing and biathlon unfortunately are the most likely to have cheaters.
Kowalczyk nearly missed competing at the Turin Olympics after serving a suspension for testing positive for a steroid hormone.
Wadsworth believes the net is being cast far enough back in the calendar, or that the best in the world are targeted.
“Three, four, five weeks before the Olympics, [an athlete can] skip World Cups and do EPO, there’s only a three-day window that you can get caught,” the Canadian coach said. “You can be clear through the Games even though their blood passports will show a huge jump in red blood cells, and there’s nothing you can do at that point.”
Sochi Olympic cross-country schedule:
Feb 8: Women's skiathlon
Feb. 9: Men's skiathlon
Feb. 11: Men's, women's sprint
Feb. 13: Women's 10 km classical
Feb. 14: Men's 15 km classical
Feb. 15: 4 x 5 km relay women
Feb. 16: 4 x 10 km relay men
Feb. 19: Men's, women's team sprint
Feb. 22: Women's 30 km mass start free
Feb. 23: Men's 50 km mass start free