That was all that separated Alex Harvey from cracking the men’s cross-country ski team goose egg at the Winter Olympics.
A Canadian man has never stood on a cross-country ski podium at the Games and Harvey, the nation’s greatest skier of all time, won’t be the one to break through.
Instead, Ivo Niskanen of Finland launched the biggest gamble of his career and won to take gold in the 50 kilometre mass start. Two Olympic Athletes from Russia, whose participation in the Games was hotly debated due to the avalanche of evidence of state-sponsored doping at the 2014 Winter Olympics from Russia, took silver and bronze.
Harvey praised the team’s staff and fellow racers following the race, but was obviously disappointed with the result – which is a Canadian historical best. Before the Games, he announced this would be his last Olympics.
“It was a great race. We had really great support, but it’s a hard position to end up,” Harvey said. “It’s all I had today, but fourth is hard to accept.”
Niskanen launched a suicide mission at the 17-kilometre mark, breaking away from the pack at incredible speed – a move he originally attempted in the 30 km skiathlon to open the Games.
Fellow classic expert Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakstan gave chase. The duo worked together until 21-year-old Olympic Athlete from Russia Alex Bolshunov, a sprint specialist and multiple medallist, chased them down. Meanwhile Harvey, Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby, Hans Christer Holund and OAR’s Andrey Larkov fell more than two minutes back of the lead in the chase pack. Harvey said they never gave up.
“We knew with Niskanen going at such a hard pace, the guys would pay the price,” Harvey said.
Bolshunov caught Niskanen with 13 km to go, and took over the lead when Niskanen stopped to change skis in the stadium (skiers are able to change skis twice in the 50 km). Yet the Finn, on the strength of faster skis and strong technique, attacked on the downhill a kilometre from the finish. Bolshunov had nothing left to give and settled for silver.
Meanwhile, Harvey and the chase pack caught Poltoranin, who had completely blown up and was fading fast. On the final climb, Larkov ran up the steepest hill on the course to separate himself from the Canadian and Norwegians, and pushed his way to bronze. Harvey outsprinted Sundby in the final 20 metres for the wooden medal (fourth).
Bolshunov ends the games with four medals – three silver and a bronze. At 21, he has never raced a 50 km classic race at the world cup or world championship level before, so his result was seen as a surprise. He and fellow silver medallist Denis Spitsov, who hadn’t even raced on the world cup until December 2017, are both trained by Yuri Borodavko, who has a history of working with doping skiers.
The IOC did not invite Borodavko to the Games. In previous interviews, Borodavko insists his new athletes are clean. He also accused Russian 2014 bronze medallist Ilya Chernousov of acting as an informer in WADA’s investigation.
Larkov’s attack on the final hill raised a few eyebrows. Former Canadian national team coach Justin Wadsworth, commentating for CBC, was surprised by the attack from an athlete whose previous best result in the distance was ninth in a world cup. Larkov did not represent Russia in Sochi.
“I don’t know where he got the energy to run up that hill,” Wadsworth said.
Four years ago in Sochi, Wadsworth had a similar comment about Russian Alexander Legkov, who was later stripped of his gold medal for doping and banned from competing in PyeongChang.
Devon Kershaw finished 26th as the second fastest Canadian. Kershaw battled respiratory problems through the Games, and broke a pole early in the race to cost him precious time. He had Canada’s previous best result in the distance, when he was fifth in Vancouver.
Graeme Killick also cracked the top 30, finishing 27th.
“I’m really happy with it. I got sick yesterday with a cold, so I didn’t know how it would go. It was the race I was most excited about. I had my best result in Korea. I’m very happy to finish on that note,” Killick said.
Canadian rookie Kennedy fought to stick with his teammates, and found himself working with Kershaw and Killick for half the race, but he faded in the last 10 km.
“It was good. I definitely struggled on the last two laps. It was a super fun race. I had so much fun skiing with team. It was great having Canada all together for a bit,” Kennedy said.
His South Korean adventure isn’t complete, as he will be one of two guides for Brian McKeever at the 2018 Winter Paralympics, which begin on March 8.
Canada had targeted two medals for the 2018 Olympics. The men’s team was in peak form, with most of the squad recording personal best results for the season.