Niskanen shows fighting spirit to win 50km mass start
Finland's Iivo Niskanen saw off the challenge of Alexander Bolshunov (OAR) in a thrilling climax to the men’s cross-country 50km mass start on 24 February at the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre.
Andrey Larkov (OAR) edged out Canada’s Alex Harvey and Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway to clinch the bronze.
Tenth in the same event at Sochi 2014 where he also helped Finland win gold in the team sprint, Niskanen led for much of the race after launching a breakaway after the 20km mark, though Kazakhstan's Alexey Poltoranin remained hot on his heels.
At the halfway point, Niskanen and Poltoranin led with a gap of 11 seconds over the rest of the pack. Meanwhile, the Norwegian trio of Sundby, Niklas Dyrhaug and Hans Christer Holund seemed to be biding their time before making their move.
However, it was the 21-year-old Bolshunov who tracked down the Finnish frontrunner with just over 10km to go and he moved into the lead for several kilometres.
However, Niskanen then opted to change his skis, and it proved to be an inspired gambit. He managed to produce one last burst of energy and speed in the final kilometre, to which Bolshunov had no response. The Finn opened up a gap to finish in two hours 8:22.1, a full 18.7 seconds ahead of his closest challenger.
At the line, the normally reserved 26-year-old burst into a broad smile, lifting his arms as the crowd rose to their feet to applaud him as he became the first Finn to win the endurance event since 1960.
“I hope it's the first but not the last," a delighted Niskanen said of his gold medal. “For me it's always hard to save energy to the end but today I managed to be first at the finish line… I could handle the pressure, everything went perfectly today and that's the result.”
Explaining his bold decision to switch skis in the final stage of the race, the Finn said: “My tactic was to use the third- and second-best pair in the beginning of the race and leave the best pair at the end. My tactical plan was to wait and wait and use the better skis when it's possible and the best place to use them.
Niskanen’s gold meant that Finland became the 22nd different NOC to win an event at PyeongChang 2018, equalling the record set at Sochi 2014.
Finnish fighting spirit
The Finnish team coach Teemu Paasanen hailed the never-give-up attitude of his young protégé, who he said had given a perfect demonstration of the fighting spirit that the Finns call ‘sisu’.
“Sisu is the spirit of fighting -- it means you never give up,” he explained. “We decided that we would change the skis because fresh skis are so much quicker than skis that have been used for 20km.”
“That was an example of ‘sisu’- you get the 10 seconds that he was behind, and then you fight for the gold," Paasanen added.
“It's very important that we get [the gold] in cross-county skiing,” said Niskanen’s team-mate Ristomatti Hakola.
For me it's very important that one of my best friends gets the gold medal, and it's very important for Finnish cross-country. It's a very big thing.Ristomatti Hakola Finland
Bolshunov, meanwhile, was clearly disappointed to see the gold medal slip from his grasp, but admitted that, having claimed a fourth medal of PyeongChang 2018, he had every reason to be pleased with his Games.
“Overall I'm very happy with my results, after all I have four medals and I'm very happy that things turned out this way.”