Alexander Legkov led home a Russian clean sweep of medals in the men’s 50-kilometre mass start event on Sunday.
In the final and undoubtedly most gruelling skiing event of the 2014 Winter Olympics from Sochi, Legkov finished ahead of compatriots Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilia Chernousov in a four-way sprint for the line along with Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway. They’ll receive their medals in front of a rapturous crowd at the closing ceremony later today.
|4||NOR||Martin Johnsrud Sundby||1:46:56.2||+1.0|
RIA Novosti, via The Moscow Times, provided a statement from Legkov discussing the victory: "This is priceless. It's more valuable than my life, I can't express how I feel. For 15 years I've been trying for this result."
Before the race, Austrian skier Johannes Duerr was withdrawn from this event after he tested positive for EPO, per the Associated Press (via The Guardian).
The race began in typically tight fashion before Johan Olsson made something of a move at the 10-kilometre mark. The Swede loves to inject some early impetus into the race, and seemed to be doing so again here after a similar tactic helped him to the world title in Val di Fiemme last year.
But clearly wary of a repeat showing, he was marshalled closely by the chasing pack. Bursting through the 15-kilometre point with approximately 32 minutes on the clock, Olsson and Co. were setting a strong early pace and we were set for the quickest 50-km race in Olympic history.
Eventually, Olsson fell back into the pack and his compatriot Anders Soedergren went to the front, leading through 20 kilometres as the pace continued to quicken. He was closely followed by the United States’ Noah Hoffman, who was having an excellent race. Despite not being considered a serious contender for the title, the American looked to be in with a shout at the halfway stage:
Half way thru men's 50k XC race and Noah Hoffman still on front of pack. Sitting in 3rd and looks strong #Sochi2014— MarthaBellisle (@marthabellisle) February 23, 2014
But the big favourites for the title were in close proximity of the front, and you suspected they were just biding their time. Passing through the 30-kilometre point, Segkov accelerated to the front and the Russian crowd went berserk. But he was just looking to change his skis, and many of the leaders followed suit:
Russia's Aleksandr Legkov makes 1st break away, but turns out he was increasing pace to change skis. A lot of guys did the same #XC— Olivia Wittels (@owittels) February 23, 2014
That meant the leading group became a little disjointed, and typically it’s at this point in the race where some skiers might think about making a break for home.
Matti Heikkinen obliged, and made a hugely brave move with 16.5 kilometres remaining, putting together a lead of 22.7 seconds at its longest. But with an enormous chasing group containing some experienced and classy individuals, they began to rein in the Finn:
By the time the field entered the final 10 kilometres, Heikkinen’s lead had been overhauled. The leading group was still substantial, and with the likes of Petter Northug, Vylegzhanin, Legkov and Switzerland's Dario Cologna all prominent, we were set for a very tight finish.
Knowing that he may not have the power to win a sprint finish, Soedergren sped back to the to the front in an attempt to win it early. But despite the blistering pace that the Swede himself helped to set throughout this race, he failed to drop any of the leading group, which was still 20 strong.
With just two kilometres to go, Cologna agonisingly snapped one of his skis to put him out of the reckoning. And with one of the favourites gone, Legkov pushed to the front and started to drop plenty of that final group powering up the steep incline into the finishing circuit.
He was followed closely by Vylegzhanin, but Legkov still looked assured and powerful at this late stage as he rounded the final corner. Legkov eventually saw it through ahead of his compatriot, whilst Chernousov timed his finishing run superbly to finish just ahead of Sundby in the bronze-medal position.
Such a dominant showing in this event, which is undoubtedly the blue ribbon discipline of all the cross-country skiing formats, can only mean good things for the sport in Russia. The teamwork, composure and grit showcased by all three of the medalists here suggests there is plenty being done right in the current set-up and this result will only serve to increase popularity in the sport.
It remains to be seen whether the 30-year-old Legkov will go on to defend his title at Pyeongchang in 2018. But the new Olympic champion is improving as he continues to accrue experience and the chance to become the first man ever to defend the 50-kilometre Olympic title will surely be an opportunity that'll inspire him on to bigger and better things.