February 11, 2022
By Philip O’Connor
ZHANGJIAKOU, China (Reuters) -Iivo Niskanen put on a brilliant display of cross-country skiing to win gold for Finland in the men’s 15 km classic race at the Beijing Games on Friday, adding the title to the 50 km Olympic classic gold he won at Pyeongchang in 2018.
Skiathlon champion Alexander Bolshunov, representing the Russian Olympic Committee, took the silver after his finishing spurt proved too little, too late, with recently-crowned sprint champion Johannes Klaebo of Norway picking up the bronze.
Niskanen was relentless, barely wasting a watt of energy as his efficient, economic classical style again bore fruit for the Finns, who took silver and bronze through his sister Kerttu and Krista Parmakoski in the women’s race on Thursday.
The seeded skiers started into the middle of the pack, and the race came to life with the introduction of Klaebo as the 42nd starter.
After a slow beginning by his standards, Klaebo discovered his mojo by the 10.5 km mark, gliding into the lead after an uphill stretch but with Niskanen and Bolshunov, who started last of the seeds, in his wake the threat was ever-present.
Niskanen displayed the same kind of metronomic skiing that had him neck-and-neck with Bolshunov until the switch to freestyle in Sunday’s skiathlon, this time building up a lead of 11.4 seconds over the Russian at the halfway point.
Ahead of them, Klaebo sprinted up the final straight to give himself the best possible chance of getting on the podium, but Niskanen blazed over the finish line to snuff out any hopes the Norwegian may have had of gold.
The challenge of Bolshunov, who won Sunday’s skiathlon race but opted out of the sprint to preserve energy, had wilted at the 10.5 km mark but he dug deep again, closing the gap by almost 6 seconds.
However, he ran out of time and ended up having to be content with silver, 23.2 seconds behind Niskanen.
By the time Bolshunov reached the final bend, the Finn knew the gold was his, and he let out an uncharacteristic victory roar as the Russian crossed the line.
“Actually I felt so strong today and it was under control the whole race,” the Niskanen said.
“I was fourth, 0.2 seconds behind the medals in Sochi and it’s been a long eight years to wait for this race again in the Olympic programme. Now I’ve managed to win it. I have been focusing on it all the time. This is a really big victory for me.”
Niskanen said that Bolshunov had “lived in my head for five days” after his skiathlon win, adding: “I was so worried about his speed (in the skiathlon), but classic 15 km has been a perfect distance for me.”
Bolshunov said: “On one hand, I am happy but on the other, I was still aiming for the victory.”
Asked whether skipping the sprint had paid off, he said: “If I’d won today I would have said it helped 100 percent, so with second place I’ll say it helped 90 percent.”
Klaebo was delighted to make the podium for the first time in a distance race in a championship. “This is as good as gold for me and shows my form is really getting better and better,” he said.
“I started slow and then equalised the speed and then I caught up and went faster and faster. It’s really special, an amazing feeling.”
(Reporting by Philip O’Connor and Mitch Phillips; Editing by Christian Schmollinger and Ken Ferris)