Thursday, March 4, 2010

Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Answers

Following up on NCP's "Seven Olympic Nordic Skiing Questions" from the middle of February...

How many golds will be won by Norway's Petter Northug and Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk?
2/14/10: "My own guess is that Kowalczyk will win two golds, in the 10km skate and the classic sprint, and medal in the pursuit and the classic mass start. I think Northug will do even better: golds in the 15km skate, the pursuit, and the relay and lesser medals in the classic mass start and the team sprint."

Four and three, respectively - good, but not the best performances by an XC skier at the Games. Northug won golds in the team sprint and the 50k, silver in the relay, and bronze in the individual sprint (not quite the five medals I predicted). Kowalczyk took gold in the 30k, bronze in the pursuit, and silver in the individual sprint (not the predicted four). Neither's haul is anything to cry about, but neither did as well as the Queen of Whistler: Marit Bjørgen, who won five medals, one in every event she raced: a bronze in the 10k, a silver in the 30k, and golds in the pursuit, the relay, and the sprint.

Has any other racer or team figured out a way to beat Northug?
2/14/10: "Northug's main rivals would love to beat him, and I hope for some tricks and outright hard efforts to accomplish that goal. "

Sorta. In the pursuit, Sweden mounted a concerted effort to slow down the chase of Johan Olsson - an effort that everyone understood was centered largely on Northug. The chasers finally broke through in the last kilometer or so, but then Northug had some pole trouble and couldn't get in position for a sprint onto the podium. In the individual sprint, the Russian pair of Kriukov and Panzhinskiy went for broke from the start line, building a good gap and capitalizing on a crash behind them to ensure that the only suspense at the finish line would be which of them took the gold. And in the relay, Sweden again took charge, taking advantage of the Norwegian team's weak classic skiing to build a small but solid lead going into the anchor leg. Northug skied hard to get back into the front of the group chasing Marcus Hellner, but only managed to take the silver.

On the other hand, Northug took his two golds by using his speed and savvy to negate even the best tactics. In the team sprint, the German #1, Tim Tscharnke, tagged to Axel Teichmann with a small lead, but Northug caught a ride up to the front with an overeager Alexei Petukhov, and then surged past Teichmann for the win. In the 50k, a slow pace until the last lap allowed Northug to lurk, saving himself for a sprint for the win - which he did. I was amazed to see the marathon field unlearn everything that had worked in the pursuit, and let Northug simply ride up to the line. A few tough attacks in the last 10k would have blown up the field and given someone else a chance for the gold medal. But then again, the last half-hour of an Olympic 50k isn't the best place to start strategizing.

How many medals will be won by the American nordic combined skiers?
2/14/10: "The only question is whether the Americans' performance will be so-so, with a bronze or two, or dominant, with golds and silvers in the two individual events - and even a win in the team event."

Four altogether, including America's first-ever Olympic medal in this discipline, and America's first-ever Olympic gold medal in a nordic sport. On the morning of the normal-hill event at the Games, I was still hoping that the American team could run the table by taking golds in all three events, and adding a couple silvers and bronzes. That didn't quite happen, but Johnny Spillane ended the NC-medal drought right away by winning a silver in the small-hill event. Second-best skis led to a well-earned second place in the team event, and good jumping off the large hill put Bill Demong and Spillane in position to take the gold and the silver in that event. All together, the U.S. won four of the seven medals they could have won - not a bad performance at all.

Will American cross-country skiers win any medals?
2/14/10: "I will be surprised but enormously pleased to see an American win a medal at Vancouver."

Sadly, I did not have the opportunity to be surprised: the U.S. cross-country skiers did not win any medals at Vancouver. Many are saying, in fact, that the American results, especially on the men's side, were a disappointment. I won't weigh in on that, but I will point out that both American teams made it into the finals of the team sprint event, which is no minor accomplishment. As half of the women's team sprint pair, Kikkan Randall had a good Games: the sixth there, an eighth in the the individual sprint (just 0.6s from making it into the medal round), and a surprising 24th in the 30k classic.

Will Canadian cross-country skiers win any medals?
2/14/10: "I won't be surprised if a Canadian wins a medal at Vancouver."

I wasn't surprised, but I was disappointed that the Canadians did not win a medal, what with their crazy uniforms - which actually grew on me, as the Games progressed. Canucks came awfully close: Babikov placed fifth in the pursuit, Kershaw placed fifth in the 50k, the team of Harvey and Kershaw placed fourth in the team sprint, and the men's relay squad turned in a decent seventh. The women, lacking a clear-cut star like Beckie Scott, had less impressive results, but the retiring Sara Renner did team with Dasha Gaiazova for a seventh in the team sprint, and finish 10th in the pursuit.

Can Tim Burke medal in the biathlon?
2/14/10: "Though his form has declined a bit... he could well recapture it at Vancouver, and must be considered to have a decent shot (pun!) at a medal in 2010."

Sadly, no: Burke did not win a medal. He actually raced quite poorly, finishing in the 40s in the sprint, the pursuit, and the individual, and managing an 18th in the mass start. Teammate Jeremy Teela had the best American mark of the Games with a 9th in the 10k sprint.

Who will be caught for doping at the Olympics?
2/14/10: "I would expect a Russian or even (sadly) Justyna Kowalczyk, who simply performs at too high a level too often. But god, I hope it's a clean games."

So far, nobody has been caught - which is good in and of itself, after the fiascoes at Salt Lake City and Torino. We shouldn't exhale quite yet, though. Commenting on Canada's fourth in the team relay, a commenter on Fasterskier said, "With Russians in front we Canadians don’t know the results for a few months, sometimes even a year!"

Turns out, that's not quite true - it could be eight years before we're sure that the Vancouver Games were doping free, for that's how long the IOC keeps samples for possible retesting. And Canadian labs are still analyzing samples taken during the Games. We could hear the worst at any time.


Mountainmums said...

I don't agree with your analysis of the relay race : Sweden didn't "take charge". They mostly took advantage of the French team's efforts to "take charge". The first leg was lead by Gaillard, Vittoz broke up the group in the second leg, Soerdegren let Magnificat do all the work (which surprised me because he's usually not that guy), and the Hellner got away early enough to prevent Northug from coming back. I think they were lucky that Angerer wasn't having a better day : if he had worked with Northug they maybe could have come back to fight for the gold.
Now I'm not saying the Swedes didn't have a solid tactical race. But they were riding the wave, not taking charge.

Christopher Tassava said...

Point taken, to a point. Sweden hardly dominated the race from wire to wire. But Bauer and Vittoz both worked hard on the second leg. Bauer was fastest by almost ten seconds on that leg, yet he still was only within 6s of Olsson, who tagged off in first to Soedergren, who was in turn just ahead of Manificat. Soedergren let the Frenchman run, but that was just savvy, and the Swede moved through to put Hellner on course with a good head start for the gold. Maybe Sweden didn't run the show, but they made sure they were in charge at each handoff and throughout the anchor leg.

the relay results sheet

Mountainmums said...

I agree completely that the Swedes made sure that they stayed up front all along the race,always tagging a few seconds ahead (which was usually useless as the next racer never used that advantage to break away (Soerdegren didn't and Hellner didn't either).
I just feel that they worked the circumstances in their favor, but they didn't really make the race happen as much as the French and (at least for the second leg) the Czechs.
But hey, I'm probably biased and a little bitter because we're the ones that ended up in 4th place... ;-).

Jake Scheckman said...

Speaking of the relay: Aside from Bauer and Northug's races, which for me were the standout individual performances of the day, I thought (if I'm remembering everything right) that the big "take-charge" moment of the race was Hellner, on his final lap of the course. He took the tag in the lead, with France and the Czech Republic just behind and until the final lap, he mostly followed the others. Northug started with an ~30sec gap to the first three, and made steady progress bringing it down to a little under 15secs through the stadium to begin his final lap. Soon after this, though, Hellner must have dropped the hammer because he dropped the other two, and built up - as I remember - as much as a 30sec lead (though maybe that was over Northug, not 2nd place). At the finish, Sweden had a 15sec gap on Norway, after celebrating down the finishing stretch, while the others sprinted to the line for the medals. Like I said, not individual dominance, but complete control over the race which was put in front of him.

Anonymous said...

I don`t really agree that anyone one figured out how to beat Northug.

In the 30k he was beaten by a broken pole. And that`s hardly been beaten by anyone.
In the sprint he is not the biggest favorite Hattestad Jønnson have been better then Northug so bronze was not a bad result foor him in that even and i think he would have done better if he could have gotten a more fair break between the semis and the final comperd to the 2 Russians. IF that had been the case i have no doubt Hattestad would have become Olympic champion.
Finally in the relay he probably had the best leg of all the racers. Unfortunately the rest of the Norwegian team is a disgrace but that is hardly Northugs fault.

Anonymous said...

Northug did not look strong in the pursuit. It's not a given he would have been up there without a broken pole.

Anonymous said...

True but it also not a given that he would not have been, so there is noway to know if the Swedish team managed to tier him enoff to make him managebal in a sprint or force him to lose contact with the lead group

Colin R said...

Jake's got it right -- while Hellner didn't dominate the olympic relay, he converted a head start over Northug into a win, something we have seen other teams fail to do with astonishing regularity (Axel, I'm looking at you). Barring the flag pickup and related lollygagging, he'd have been racing Northug for the fastest split.

As for those who think Northug looked weak in the 30k, I agree completely, if there ever was a time when he was going to fail to win a sprint it was going to be that race, which makes it all the more disappointing that he broke a pole.

Still though, do you realize that Northug has been undefeated in mass starts in which he hits the last 2k with the lead group for like the past 3 years (unless he trips on his own pole)? IMO, until someone actually beats him in a sprint at the end of a distance race, his apparent weaknesses mid-race are irrelevant: if he makes it to the last 2k in contact, he wins, end of story.

Anonymous said...

Well Hellner had twice the time of what Alex had in Librec with the same time difference i`m not so sure Hellner would have been able to keep Northug off his back and well once he had been there..

Colin R said...

Yeah, we'll never know how Hellner would've handled a 15s head start. But remember, Axel blew a 15s head start in Liberec in only 2k, so I don't think the outcome would have been different with 30s.

I can't wait for the next relay!

Christopher Tassava said...

The next relay is already this weekend, at Lahti, but neither Northug nor Hellner is competing there. Alas, the next relays after that will be next season - though it's not too early to get excited about the prospect of the relay at the 2011 Worlds at Holmenkollen...