Norwegian cross country skiers Marit Bjørgen and Ingvild Flugstad Østberg were unstoppable in the women’s classic team sprint final at the Sochi Olympics on Wednesday, powering home to take the gold medal. There was no joy for the men however, who finished fourth in a controversial showdown.
In the ladies’ sprint, Østberg took the lead early and stayed within the top two on the first lap. At the first exchange she tagged in Marit Bjørgen, who forged ahead.
Bjørgen reached the second exchange with a comfortable lead, and she and Østberg never looked challenged by the other teams for the next four laps. They took gold nine seconds ahead of Finland, with Sweden taking the bronze medal position after a showdown with Germany in the final metres.
“We’re back in the ballgame! I love it!” cried TV2’s commentator as Bjørgen crossed the finish line and ran into Østberg’s arms. It was a welcome return to form for the women, who struggled on Saturday in the 20 kilometer relay and finished fifth, with rivals Sweden taking the gold. There was much blame-shifting and criticism of Norway’s ski waxing team for misreading the spring-like conditions after both the men and women tanked over the weekend. The Norwegian team had better luck yesterday, winning two gold medals and a silver in the men’s Nordic Combined and biathlon races.
It was Bjørgen’s second gold medal of the Sochi Games, and the first of Østberg’s career. “This is so incredibly good,” exclaimed Bjørgen after the gold medal run. “It’s all thanks to the guys in the waxing hut. We had fantastic skis today. It has been painful to see all the criticism they’ve gotten these last days. They work around the clock. Now we’re incredibly happy that it went this way. This goes well for the waxers and the whole support team.” Bjørgen suspected the women had a secret weapon, however. “I wonder if our luck turned when the king came to Sochi yesterday,” she told Norwegian Broadcasting (NRK), referring to the presence of King Harald and Queen Sonja in the grandstands.
Men just made the cut
In the men’s event, Ola Vigen Hattestad and Petter Northug made the finals as the “lucky losers.” They only came fourth in their heat, but recorded a good enough time to get through to the gold medal race.
The pair kept pace with the pack for most of the race, despite drama after Northug snapped a pole halfway through his first lap and dumped it in the middle of the track in the path of his competitors. He was given a new pole and surged ahead to hand Hattestad the lead at the second exchange. Hattestad fell back and Northug made up the distance each lap, before Hattestad lost too much time in his final leg and Northug couldn’t catch the leaders, 10 seconds ahead.
It came down to a sprint to the finish line. Russia, Germany and Finland were in front when the German slipped and tumbled into the Russian competitor, who didn’t fall but was knocked off balance. Finland men took the gold in front of Russia, Sweden took bronze and Northug crossed the line fourth for Norway. Germany protested they were cut off by the Finnish, but the protest was rejected.
“I felt I was in alright form today also, maybe not as fresh as last week,” a disappointed Hattestad told NRK. “When they picked up the speed, I didn’t have anything left to answer with.” The result means Northug, who is usually one of Norway’s brightest cross country stars, has yet to win a medal in Sochi. He told NRK he could have overtaken Sweden if Hattestad had been able to match pace. “I almost did them in, but I also felt it in my arms and legs,” he said. Northug said he still has plenty left in him ahead of the men’s 50 kilometre race on Sunday.