The Olympics in Salt Lake City are just around the corner and, as in the past, the Europeans should dominate the cross country medal count. In fact, in the very old days, the Scandinavians ruled. However, starting in the 1950s, the Russians joined the medal club. The last twenty years have seen the emergence of Middle Europe. Specifically, the Italians, Austrians and Germans. While the North Americans have been absent from the medals since Bill Koch grabbed the silver in the 30K in 1976, several more European nations have found a way to elevate their cross country programs. Gone from the last Olympics are great champions like Bjorn Daehlie, Vladimir Smirnov and Elena Vaelbe. Regardless, like past Olympics, promising young skiers will challenge the established veterans.
The greatest male winter Olympian of all time was Bjorn Daehlie. His numerous gold medals could fuel a third-world-country's economy for several years. Perhaps the heir to Daehlie is Sweden's great Ski King, Per Elofsson, last year's World Cup Champion. The Swedes would say he is the heir apparent to the great Gunde Svan. The twenty-four-year-old burst upon the World Cup scene several years ago after an impressive junior career. He added two gold medals from the World Championships last season to his trophy case. He has the VO Max of Daehlie and the same will to win. In a warning to his top competitors, his training splits have been faster than ever and his hours have increased over the last few seasons.
Elofsson's two main rivals are Norway's Thomas Alsgaard and Spain's Johann Muhlegg. Alsgaard was shut out of the individual gold medals at last season's Worlds. He grabbed gold in the Relay when the Finns were disqualified for doping. Perhaps because of the performance drop-off, Alsgaard decided to focus on his training more than ever. Long thought to have the most talent of any skier, he trained harder than ever during the summer and fall. He even included three workouts per day on numerous occasions. His goal is gold in Salt Lake. Unlike Alsgaard, Muhlegg won an individual gold at the Lahti Worlds. He used his impressive strength in incredibly cold weather to conquer the 50K Freestyle known as the Race of Kings. Every bit as big and strong as the legendary Vladimir Smirnov, Muhlegg looks more like a football player than a skier. Looks can be deceiving though. He won't be satisfied without a gold medal in Salt Lake. Muhlegg has an advantage. He beat Austria's Christian Hoffmann in the skating race at the Pre-Olympics in Salt Lake last January. Elofsson and Alsgaard weren't present last season so Muhlegg has course knowledge going for him.
The top women will be aiming for Salt Lake City as well. Last year's overall World Cup Champion, Russian, Julia Tschepalova, is young and fast in all disciplines. She grabbed a gold medal in the 30K Freestyle in 1998 at Nagano. Her skating ability helped her overtake Norway's Bente Skari for the overall title. Tschepalova will be a force for many years to come. Speaking of Skari, she worked extensively on her skating skills over the summer. Norway even added Anders Eide, one of their best skaters, to the Women's coaching staff to focus on freestyle technique. She should be favored for gold in every classic race as well. Another young skier is Estonia's Kristina Smigun. She was fantastic during the 1999/2000 season finishing second to Skari in the overall title chase. She's trying to reach that level again after an off-year. On the other hand, two veterans are already making retirement plans. Russia's Larissa Lazutina and Italy's Stefania Belmondo are taking one last shot at Olympic gold. Both are past Olympic and World Champions.
Regardless, if skiers are searching for gold, they couldn't have picked a better year. There are more medals up for grabs in Salt Lake than any previous Olympics. New this year is the one-day-one-medal pursuit replacing the two-day-two-medals format. Also, the Sprints are new to the Olympics. All together, the men and women will be racing for five individual medals each in addition to the Relay. With the numerous formats, techniques and distances, many skiers will have a realistic chance for gold. The first day of racing will include the Men's 30K Mass Start Freestyle and the Women's 15K Mass Start Freestyle events. In the Men's race, the three favorites will be the above mentioned Elofsson, Alsgaard and Muhlegg. Of the three, Alsgaard is the best sprinter. As a result, Elofsson's strategy will be to pull away early. Muhlegg will likely try to hang-on and wait for an opportune moment. With a mass start race, a lot of skiers could be in the lead pack. Others to key-on include Austria's Christian Hoffmann, Norway's Tor Arne Hetland, France's Vincent Vittoz, Russia's Alexi Prokurorov, Germany's Rene Sommerfeldt and Italians Pietro Piller Cottrer, Giorgio DiCenta, Christian Zorzi, Fulvio Valbusa, Silvio Fauner and Fabio Maj.
An equal number of skiers will compete for the Women's 15K Freestyle. Among them are Belmondo, Lazutina, Smigun and Tschepalova. The Czech Republic's Katerina Neumanova will be a factor as will Kaisa Varis and Piirjo Manninen from Finland, Italy's Sabina Valbusa and Gabriella Paruzzi, Austria's Maria Theurl and just about every Russian that skis the event. Russia can pick between Olga Danilova, Ljubov Egorova, Svetlana Nagekina, and Nina Gavriluk. As with any mass start race, the finish should be close. Next up for the women will be the 10K Classic. Bente Skari will be the odds-on pick for the gold. Once again, any Russian skier could be victorias. Varis and Smigun will be among the favorites too.
The Men's 15K Classic will bring in a whole new batch of medal favorites.
The 30K Classic Champion from Lahti is Estonia's Andrus Veerpalu. He'll be one of the favorites along with Norway's Frode Estil who grabbed silver in the Lahti 30K. However, Per Elofsson is the man to watch. He is so dominant that he will be the gold medal favorite in every race he enters. While thought of as a better skater, he won the 15K Classic in Lahti. Norwegian's Erling Jevne, Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeseth, Anders Auckland and Espen Bjervig are great classic specialists though and could win the event. Plus, Sweden's Mathias Fredriksson, Russians Alexi Prokurorov and Mikhail Ivanov, Slovakia's Ivan Batory and Germany's Rene Sommerfeldt could medal. Also, Italy's Fabio Maj and Fulvio Valbusa will have a medal shot as well. Two days after the 15K, the One-Day-Pursuit takes place. It's a 10K Classic in the morning followed by a 10K Freestyle Pursuit in the Afternoon. Elofsson won the event in Lahti last season. There's no reason to bet against him in Salt Lake. Others who should contend include Muhlegg and Alsgaard. Of the two, Alsgaard should have the better classic position. He's won two gold medals in past Pursuit events. Mathias Fredriksson will be a factor as will Valbusa, Piller-Cottrer and DiCenta. A couple other names include Russia's Vitali Denisov and Norway's Tor Arne Hetland.
One day later, the women take their turn at the One-Day-Pursuit. Their format includes a 5K Classic followed by a 5K Freestyle. Pick any Russian and you're likely to get the winner. Stefania Belmondo, Varis, Neumanova and Kristina Smigun are talented enough to win the event. I'd still bet on a Russian though. If Bente Skari improved her skating over the summer, she has a shot at a medal. Skari will likely place first in the 5K Classic portion. Next on the agenda is the Men's Relay. Norway is the odds-on favorite. They can pick from Hjelmesth, Jevne, Estil, Auckland and Bjervig for the classic legs and will likely run Alsgaard and Hetland in the freestyle third and fourth positions. Sweden will run Fredriksson in one of the classic legs and then finish with Elofsson in the fourth leg. They'll search for answers for the other two legs. If Sweden can stay close through the third leg, Elofsson has the jets to grab the gold. Germany, Russia and Italy should fight for the bronze. Sandwiched between the Men's and Women's Relay events will be the Freestyle Sprints.
Like the One-Day-Pursuit, the Sprints will be a new event for the Olympics. The Women's Sprint takes place first and the favorites will include Finland's Piirjo Manninen who won in Lahti, Julia Tschepalova and Bente Skari. Even though Skari struggles in traditional length freestyle events, she's very strong in the sprint races. Norway's Anita Moen, Finland's Kati Sundquist and any Russian could medal. Like the women, the men have some clear-cut favorites. Included in the group is Norway's Hetland who won the event in Lahti, Italy's Christian Zorzi, Alsgaard and his teammates Havaard Solbakken and Jan Jacob Verdinius. In fact, Verdinius won the Sprint Cup last season. He's originally from the Netherlands but moved north to pursue skiing. Others who sprint fast include Finland's Ari Palolahti, Germany's Peter Schlickenreider and Swedes Tobias Fredriksson and Anders Hogberg.
After the Sprints, the Women's Relay takes center stage. If there was ever a lock on a gold medal, it's the Russian women in the Relay. Their second team would likely take the silver if they were allowed to race. Russia can pick from Tschepalova, Gavriluk, Danilova, Egorova, Lazutina and Nagekina. The race for silver and bronze should be between Norway and Italy. Bente Skari will definitely ski one of the classic legs for Norway. Hilde Peterson and Anita Moen will likely ski for Norway as well. The Italians will count on Gabriella Paruzzi, Sabina Valbusa and Stefania Belmondo. Both Norway and Italy will need to find another strong skier to round-out their teams.
Finally, after racing for close to two weeks, the Olympics will finish with the classic marathons. The Men's 50K Classic will be held on the last Saturday of the games. Per Elofsson won the prestigious Holmenkollen 50K Classic last March in Oslo. In fact, the Swedes always seem to do well in the marathons so look for Mathias Fredriksson too. Other gold medal contenders include Norwegians Erling Jevne, Odd-Bjorn Hjelmeseth, Anders Auckland and Frode Estil. If Alsgaard races the event, he's got a medal shot. While Muhlegg probably won't be a factor, his former teammate, Rene Sommerfeldt could pull an upset. There are some other prominent names who could win the gold. Among them are Russians, Ivanov, Prokurorov and Vladimir Vilisov. Ivanov is a great classic technician. Prokurorov is a great marathon distance skier. Two more skiers include Ivan Batory from Slovakia who has a medal chance and Estonia's Andrus Veerpalu who will be one of the gold medal favorites.
Over the years, the last Saturday of the Olympics has been reserved for the women's distance race. The men traditionally wrapped things up with the 50K on Sunday. In fact, the 50K usually ended a few minutes before the closing ceremonies began. In Salt Lake however, the women close the Olympics with the 30K Classic. The favorites will be Bente Skari and the Russians. Kristina Smigun and Kaisa Varis will have medal hopes too. Of the Russians, Lazutina could cap-off a brilliant career by taking the gold. Gavriluk, Tschepalova and Danilova will definitely be factors. The Europeans will be formidable competitors Next month, I'll review North American contenders.