Monday, June 16, 2008

Worlds 2013

In late May, at the International Ski Congress (held this year in that well-known ski village, Cape Town, South Africa), the FIS chose sites for the 2012 and 2013 World Championships. Val di Fiemme, Italy, was selected as the host for the 2013 Nordic World Ski Championships. By winning the right to host Worlds for the third time, the South Tyrol valley beat out some of the usual nordic candidate sites - Falun, Sweden, and Lahti, Finland - as well as Oberstdorf, Germany, and Zakopane, Poland.

Val di Fiemme - or rather, the hamlet of Lago de Tesero, where the ski stadium is located - has hosted the nordic worlds twice before: in 1991 and in 2003. The 1991 event was only the third time that the Nordic World Ski Championships were held outside northern Europe - in 1927, the championships were held in Cortina d'Ampezzo, Italy, and in 1950, they were held in the United States at Lake Placid, New York, and Rumford, Maine.

The 1991 championships were notable for being the first since 1939 in which a single German team competed, East and West Germany having reunited in 1989, and for being the last champs in which the Soviet Union fielded a team, the USSR breaking up later in 1991. No German cross-country skiers medaled, but Soviet skiers did quite well: Yelena Välbe won four medals (golds in the 10km free, 15km classical, and 4x5km relay and silver in the 30km free), Vladimir Smirnov won a bronze in the 15km free and a silver in the 30km classical, and two other female skiers medaled in the 10km and 30 km free. Not a bad way to go out.

The host country, by contrast, managed five medals by some of its great racers: Maurilio de Zolt took bronze in the 50km free, Manuela Di Centa took bronzes in the 5km classical and 30km free, Stefania Belmondo won bronze in the 15km classical, and the women's relay team earned a silver, 1:14 down to the winning Soviets. Predictably, the Norwegians and Swedes were very well represented on the podium. On the women's side, Trude Dybendahl took three medals (gold in the 5km classical by 7/10ths of a second over Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi of Finland, silver in the 15km classical, and bronze in the relay) and Marie-Helene Westin won a silver in the 10km freestyle.

It was on the men's side that one nation truly dominated: Sweden. Torgny Mogren collected an amazing haul - a bronze in the 10km classical, a silver in the relay, and a gold in the 50km free - and yet was outdone by his teammate Gunde Svan. Near the height of his powers, Svan took silvers in the relay, 15km freestyle, and the 50km freestyle and a gold in the 30km classical. Amidst all these medalists in Swedish white, a young Norwegian racer named Bjoern Daehlie asserted himself by skiing to a gold in the 15km freestyle and handling the anchor leg of the winning relay team. These were Daehlie's first medals at Worlds or the Olympics; he added 27 more medals before retiring after the 1999 Ramsau Worlds.

Twelve years later, Val di Fiemme's 2003 Worlds were notable for the fact that not a single Italian skier medaled in any of the twelve cross-country events. Fourteen medals were won by Norwegian skiers, including gold in the men's relay and silver in the women's. That women's relay was marred by doping: the Finnish team which finished second to a surprising German quartet was disqualified when Kaisa Varis tested postive for EPO. (Varis's violation only darkened the blot on Finnish skiing, which had been humiliated just two years earlier when numerous Finnish skiers tested positive at their home-snow Worlds in Lahti.) Individually, Bente Skari took golds in the two classical races, and her teammate Marit Bjoergen won the sprint event.

Bente Skari and Kristin Smigun on their way to a 1-2 finish in the 15k mass start classical

But the women's racing was reallly dominated by two racers. Winning gold in the 30km free and bronzes in the pursuit and 15km classical mass start, Russian Olga Savialova amassed a splendid collection of hardware, yet couldn't outdone the Estonian Kristina Smigun, who medaled in all but one of the five individual events: a bronze in the 30km free, silvers in the 15km classical mass start and 10km classical, and, after outsprinting Evi Sachenbacher and Savialova, a gold in the 5km+5km pursuit, being run for the first time as a "continuous" race.
Smigun winning the 5k+5k pursuit

The men's side of the '03 champs was largely a battle between Sweden and Norway. In fact, only three individual medals went to anyone else: Axel Teichmann of Germany and Jaak Mae of Estonia took gold and silver in the 15km classical, and Martin Koukal won a suprising gold in the 50km free. Every other podium spot went to a Norwegian or a Swede. The two biggest names in the races each came away with only one individual medal each, albeit both gold. Sweden's great hope, Per Eloffson, won the 10km+10km double pursuit in a seven-man sprint; Tore Ruud Hofstad (Norway) and Jörgen Brink (Sweden) took the other podium spots; the top seven racers finished were covered by just 1.5 seconds, and the medalists by just 4/10ths of a second.
Elofsson wins the 10k+10k Double Pursuit

In an almost equally tight race, Norwegian Thomas Alsgaard, fighting illness, came in first in the 30km classical race, a mass start which was closeover all 30,000 meters. Alsgaard finished a scant 6/10ths of a second up on Anders Aukland and just 1.1s up on Frode Estil, making for a Norwegian clean sweep. Estil also took bronze in the 15km. None of the Norwegian distance men performed to their ability in the 50km freestyle, ceding the silver and bronze spots to Anders Södergren and Jörgen Brink of Sweden.
Alsgaard leading the Norwegian sweep in the 30k

It was in the men's relay that the 2003 World Championships had its defining moment. Right in the thick of the race over the two classical legs, Sweden finally pulled away during the first skating leg, with Per Elofsson putting eleven seconds into the field over his 10,000 meters. Elofsson gave his anchorman, Jörgen Brink, an eleven second gap over Russia and nearly 25 staggering seconds over Norway and Germany. The race was all but over, and seemed so until the last 2500 meters. Then it changed abruptly and unbelievably: on one of the last few hills, Brink bonked - in a 10km, the shortest distance male skiers race! - and let Alsgaard of Norway and Axel Teichmann of Germany surge past. A top-notch finisher, Alsgaard toyed with Teichmann right into the final straight, then edged out front for the 0.2-second win. Video of the crucial moments:

We can only hope for such good racing in 2013.