The first events in the Nordic World Ski Championships turned out just the way Norway likes it - with two golds. The men's and women's individual sprints, run in the classical or "diagonal" technique, clearly demonstrated which countries have the best sprint skiers in the world: Norway, Sweden, and Finland. The setting was, frankly, bizarre: the races started within the Sapporo Dome, went outdoors through a massive gate and through a long horseshoe-shaped route including two substantial climbs and descents as well as a series of sweeping corners, and then finished back inside the dome. Unlike most sprints, where the crowd is visible in the stadium if not all the way around the course, the sold-out crowd in the dome was mostly hidden in the shadows.
The women's final (available in its entirety via Estonian TV) lacked Marit Bjørgen of Norway, who has been the dominant sprinter in the world for five years but who failed to advance from her semifinal. In Bjørgen's absence, the "large final" featured current world number-one Virpi Kuitunen (Finland), Slovene powerhouse Petra Majdic, Swedes Lina Andersson and Anna Dahlberg, and Norwegian Astrid Jacobsen, as well as unknown Japanese sprinter Madoka Natsumi. During their introductions, all of the women smiled easily, looking loose and excited. Majdic, probably the most physically imposing female racer on the World Cup circuit, blasted off the line in her typical fashion and led much of the race, including both steep uphills. Top sprinters often try to lead their races from wire to wire, but the strategy leads as often to a late fade as to a win. Today, Majdic escaped everyone but Jacobsen, who hovered in second place, just off the leader's right shoulder. Rounding the sweeping left-hand turn into the finish straightaway, Jacobsen put in a miraculous burst of double-poling to pull up alongside Majdic, whose turnover and power were obviously decreasing, and then pulled ahead at the only moment it mattered - at the line. Kuitunen, the pre-race favorite, almost edged Majdic as well, but settled for third. Jacobsen had never before won a World Cup-level race.
In the men's final (viewable online
), Scandinavia again fared well. The six men in the final included Torino champion Bjørn Lind and two other Swedes (but not Thobias Fredriksson, a perennial medalist who peevishly left Sapporo when he was not selected to race in the sprints) as well as Norwegians Jens Arne Svartedal (the current leader of the World Cup sprint standings) and Eldar Rønning, and, wonderfully, Andy Newell of the USA. Unlike the female finalists, all the men appeared nervous and twitchy during their introductions. From the gun, the pack hung together tightly through the first big uphill, where Newell's skis started slipping badly. On the penultimate descent, the two Norwegians pushed to the front, effectively blockading the other four racers. Svartedal used the next uphill to edge ahead of his teammate with some spectacularly fast striding, then extended his lead to a crucial few meters. Rønning tried to swing wide to come alongside, but in so doing he allowed Mats Larsson of Sweden to take over second. At the line, Svartedal took the win clearly; Larsson held off Rønning for silver. Newell wound up a distant fifth, a position he chalked up to Nordic tactics
: "I'm used to getting ganged-up on by the Swedes and Norwegians in the final heat so that wasn't new ... or a big problem, but I wish I could've been there at the [finish] line with them. I was just a few meters out, but..." .
Newell will race again on Friday in the team sprints, where he will be paired with Torin Koos, who today finished fifth in his quarterfinal. ("Fifth" was the position of the day for the U.S. racers: each finished in that spot in his or her respective last heat.) Koos and Newell will be long-shot possibilities for a medal in the team event. Americans Kikkan Randall and Laura Valaas both made it into the women's heats on the strength of very fast qualifying times, but neither survived her quarterfinal. Valaas and Randall will form the American team for Friday's team event, giving them another shot. My picks:
women's freestyle team sprint
1) Finland, 2) Norway, 3) Italy
men's freestyle team sprint
1) Norway, 2) Russia, 3) Sweden