PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (AP) – Martin Johnsrud Sundby isn’t worried about winning an Olympic gold medal for himself, as long as a Norwegian is standing on the top step of the podium.
While cross-country skiing is primarily an individual sport, the Norwegians excel at using what they call “team tactics” in mass start events to assure the best chance of bringing home medals.
It happened on Sunday in the first men’s cross-country race of the Pyeongchang Games when a pre-determined game plan led to a Norwegian medal sweep in the 30-kilometer skiathlon.
Sundby called it a “team effort.”
The Norwegians spent most of the race skiing together in a pack, helping each other with drafting along the way. Then, on the final lap, Simen Hegstad Krueger, who had caught up with the leaders after crashing on the opening lap, decided to break from the pack of 13 skiers and go for the win.
It would have been easy for the three other Norwegians to make a move.
They purposely didn’t.
Sundby and Hans Christer Holund, who was also running up near the front, selflessly followed the team strategy, giving up their own shot at gold for the good of the Norwegian team. They stayed back to block other racers, including medal favorite Dario Cologna of Switzerland, from catching Krueger.
“If Simen had a seven-second lead and I tried to catch him and Dario was able to stay with me, and then Dario and me caught him and Dario has the best finish – that would not look so good,” Sundby said after Sunday’s race.
Sundby and Holund said they were surprised Cologna and others didn’t attempt to chase down Krueger once he made is move.
Cologna admitted he was too tired at the time, saying: “I had no other choice than to let him go. I focused on second or third place.”
But that didn’t happen either.
Once Krueger’s lead was big enough, essentially assuring him the gold, Sundby and Holund together made their own move and finished second and third, respectively, to cap a perfectly orchestrated plan.
Cologna finished sixth and said there was nothing unfair about the Norwegian strategy.
“We delivered our tactics 100 percent,” Sundby said.
Of course, every cross-country ski team would like to employ the same tactics as the Norwegians. The problem is few have the depth or the talent to carry out such strategies. The Norwegians had four entries in the race, but at least three more could have competed for a medal had they been selected to participate.
All four Norwegian entrants finished in the top 10.
By comparison, the United States cross-country skiers finished 18th, 42nd, 51st and 54th overall.
“Those Norwegians, they are always impressive,” said American cross-country skier Noah Hoffman, who was 54th. “As much as we want to do it the American way, there is a lot that we can learn from them. … We want to be up there with them as a country, but their team is just incredible. It’s really fun to watch them.”
For the Norwegians, cross-country is what Sundby called their “national sport.”
“We have to do good in this sport,” Sundby said. “We are expecting gold medals in cross-country skiing and then when we are able to deliver, it is amazing.”