Norway’s cross-country skiers enjoyed a phenomenal return in the men’s events at PyeongChang 2018, not least thanks to a dazzling debut Games of Johannes Høsflot Klaebo, who won three gold medals. There were also two golds apiece for his compatriots Simen Hegstad Krueger and Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who helped secured a Norwegian podium sweep in the skiathlon along with Hans Crister Holund. Meanwhile, Switzerland’s Dario Cologna made his own mark with a third successive victory in the 15km, while Iivo Niskanen of Finland took gold in the 50km classic mass start.
Norwegian 1-2-3 in the skiathlon
Norway’s cross-country skiers got off to a flying start at Alpensia, as they made light of windy conditions to secure a clean sweep of the men’s skiathlon podium. Simen Hegstad Krueger bounced back to claim gold after being caught up in a crash in the first kilometre of the race, which had left him 40 seconds adrift of the leading group with a broken pole.
However, a phenomenal last lap saw him break away from the rest of the pack to cross the finish line alone, ahead of Sundby in silver and Hans Crister Holund in bronze.
Finland’s Iivo Niskanen led the pack initially, pushing the pace in attempt to break the race apart, but as they reached the halfway mark he slowed and the leading skiers came together. A group of 18 skiers, including eventual winner Krueger, were still in contention as they headed out on the freestyle portion of the race.
Some 4km from the finish, Krueger attacked. When he had opened up a lead of 20 seconds over the rest of the group, Sundby and Holund accelerated in turn, breaking apart the rest of the group. Left in their wake were Cologna, Alex Harvey of Canada and Maurice Manificat of France.
Krueger crossed the line in first with a huge smile on his face, followed eight seconds later by Sundby and then Holund, to give Norway a first ever skiathlon clean sweep.
World junior champion Denis Spitsov (OAR) finished a respectable 4th place after getting caught up in the same crash which took down Krueger, just ahead of Manificat and Cologna.
Klaebo crowned king of the sprint
Johannes Høsflot Klaebo came into the Olympic Winter Games as the clear favourite in the sprint after dominating on the World Cup circuit this winter. Just 48 hours after a disappointing 10th place finish in the skiathlon, the 21-year-old became the youngest Olympic gold-medal winner ever in men’s cross-country skiing.
Making up the podium were Federico Pellegrino of Italy who took silver and Olympic Athlete of Russia Alexander Bolshunov in bronze.
As the athletes headed out of the stadium in the final Klaebo was initially corralled in behind Bolshunov, but he attacked on the main hill to launch a huge break over the rest of the field. Behind him, Pellegrino and Bolshunov battled it out in a photo finish for bronze and silver.
“It means a lot. I think there’s been a lot of external pressure in the last couple weeks and to be able to win here is unbelievable,” said the young Norwegian, who replaced compatriot Gunde Svan as the discipline’s youngest ever Olympic champion.
It’s so cool to cross the finish line first. It is difficult to describe. Everything happens so fast and you feel so happy!Johannes Høsflot Klaebo Norway
Cologna makes Olympic history over 15km
Swiss skier Cologna powered his way into the record books in the 15km event, becoming the first ever athlete to win three successive titles over the distance. His first victory at Vancouver 2010 came using the free technique, at Sochi 2014 he won in classic, and it was back to freestyle for his historic third win at PyeongChang 2018.
Leading at every time check from 6km to the finish, the Swiss legend ended up with a comfortable 18-second victory. The victory, which gave him his fourth Olympic title in total, means he moves alongside gymnast Georges Miez and ski jumper Simon Ammann as one of the three most decorated Swiss Olympians of all time.
Five days after his spectacular victory in the skiathlon, Krueger put in a strong final surge to finish second. Meanwhile, world U23 skiathlon champion Spitsov also skied a strong second half to pick up the bronze.
Cologna, who also has four overall World Cup titles and one world championship crown, can now lay claim to being one of the most successful male cross-country skiers of all time. Only Norway’s Bjorn Daehlie has more individual Olympic titles.
“It was just amazing,” said Cologna, arrived in PyeongChang in peak form off the back of a win at the Tour de Ski. “It was really hard work and I really wanted to win here after Vancouver and Sochi.
I still can’t believe I’ve won the gold medal… Writing a page in the history books is great!Dario Cologna Switzerland
Norwegians storm to relay gold
Johannes Høsflot Klaebo spearheaded a formidable Norwegian quartet to gold in the men’s 4x10km relay on 18 February, as the OAR team and France took silver and bronze respectively.
Skiing the final leg, the tireless Klaebo launched an attack one kilometre from the finish which left his closest rival, Denis Spitsov (OAR) unable to respond. Norwegian flag in hand, he was embraced by team-mates Didrik Tønseth, Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Simen Hegstad Krueger who were waiting for him on the line.
Spitsov finished just over nine seconds later, while France’s Adrien Backscheider crossed the line 36 seconds off the pace. The two-time reigning champions Sweden could only manage fifth place behind Finland, over two minutes off the winning time.
At the halfway point, it was the OAR team who were in pole position, thanks largely to a strong leg from Alexander Bolshunov, but Simen Hegstad Krueger then reeled in Bolshunov’s team-mate Alexey Chervotkin, and by the final change over Norway were in front.
In the final leg, nobody could match the power of Klaebo, who accelerated away from Spitsov and Backscheider to secure the gold. The 21-year-old, who has fast established himself as the star turn of a strong Norwegian pack, was delighted with his second title. ”I felt strong going into the final stretch. My skis were so well prepared and I chose the right moment to attack on the penultimate hill… it’s an incredible feeling to win by such a big margin.”
Klaebo and Sundby surge to team sprint triumph
Three days later Klaebo and Sundby teamed up again to produce a brilliant victory in the men’s team sprint under the floodlits of the Alpensia Cross-Country Centre. Again the other places on the podium were taken by OAR and France skiers.
The Norwegian duo took charge early on, with Klaebo opening up a commanding lead by the halfway point. Sundby continued to widen the gap leaving his team-mate to finish the job 1.71 seconds ahead of Alexander Bolshunov (OAR), who took the silver with partner Denis Spitsov. The French tandem of Richard Jouve and Maurice Manificat edged out their Swedish counterparts to claim bronze.
The two Norwegians were keen to sing each other’s praises. “Martin Johnsrud Sundby was a real inspiration for me,” said Klaebo. “He’s been the best cross-country skier in the world over the last few years. You just have to watch how hard he works and how he trains.”
For his part Sundby hailed his young team-mate for the way he had taken the cross-country skiing world by storm. “He’s showing us what modern cross-country skiing should be like. The whole world can see his talent now. He’s still just 21, and with the right advice, he’s going to take cross-country to a new level.”
Niskanen flies the flag for Finland in 50km mass start
In a thrilling climax to the 50km endurance event, Finland’s Iivo Niskanen got the better of Alexander Bolshunov (OAR) in the final kilometre to secure Finland’s first and only gold of PyeongChang 2018. Andrei Larkov (OAR) took the bronze.
The 26-year-old Finn, who also won a gold medal at Sochi 2014 in the men’s team sprint, launched his first attack after 20km, but Bolshunov reigned him in and the two maintained their duel for supremacy until the dying stages of the race.
Niskanen pulled off a tactical masterstroke as he opted to change his skis at the 40km mark. This proved decisive as he found a final burst of speed going into the last descent. In the end he crossed the line 16 seconds ahead of Bolshunov, clocking a winning time of 1h17:55.0. Bolshunov’s silver was his fourth medal of the Games.
In the battle for bronze Larkov broke free of a group comprising Norwegian pair Martin Johnsrud Sundby and Hans Christer Holund, along with Canada’s Alex Harvey, to cross the line 2 minutes 43 after the winner.
It was a landmark victory for Finland, whose last winner in the event had been Kalevi Hämäläinen at Squaw Valley 1960. Their last title in any individual cross-country event had been Mika Myllylä, who won the women’s 30km at Nagano 1998.
“This was the event that I wanted to win gold in, and I waited many years for my chance,” said an ecstatic Niskanen. “I coped well with the pressure, everything went perfectly today… It’s a big thing for [Finland], as it’s been 20 years since our last Olympic champion in an individual event.”