Sweden wins men’s cross-country skiing relay at Olympics after Hellner pulls away on final leg

By Mattias Karen, AP
Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Sweden wins men’s cross-country skiing relay

WHISTLER, British Columbia — As Marcus Hellner was about to end Sweden’s 22-year wait for an Olympic gold in the cross-country relay, he was in no hurry to cross the finish.

With his rivals nowhere in sight as he skied the final stadium loop Wednesday, Hellner grabbed a Swedish flag from a fan and slowed his pace to a crawl on the final straight, twirling both the flag and his pole as he savored the moment.

Hellner already had shown plenty of speed on the final lap of the men’s 4×10-kilometer relay to break away from his two remaining competitors and keep Norwegian standout Petter Northug from catching him.

Having waited since 1988 for another gold in one of its favorite Olympic events, Hellner figured the official celebration could wait a few more seconds.

“It was wonderful, getting to parade into the finish,” Hellner said. “It’s something we’ve all dreamed about doing. It’s perfect; we couldn’t ask for anything more.”

Hellner had pulled away from Emmanuel Jonnier of France and Martin Koukal of the Czech Republic on the final lap, quickly building a 15-second lead to decide the race with a couple of kilometers to go. The Swedish team of Daniel Richardsson, Johan Olsson, Anders Soedergren and Hellner finished the race in 1 hour, 45 minutes, 5.4 seconds.

Northug used a furious final leg to secure silver for Norway, beating Jonnier and Koukal in a sprint to finish 15.9 seconds behind Hellner. The Czechs took the bronze, 16.5 seconds back as the French ended up fourth.

Sweden became the first country to win five Olympic golds in the event, despite having seen neighbor Norway eclipse it as the dominant cross-country nation over the past two decades.

Norway was the favorite on Wednesday as well because of Northug’s unrivaled closing ability. But he started 37.5 seconds behind Hellner on the final leg, which proved too tall of an order even for him. Northug set a blistering pace from the start to pull within eyesight of the leading trio after two laps, but never came any closer to Hellner after the Swede upped his pace.

Northug did catch Jonnier and Koukal, however, and then used his trademark sprint to secure his third medal of the games.

“I knew if I did one of my best races we had a podium chance,” said Northug, who won gold in the team sprint and bronze in the individual sprint. “On the second lap I knew that now it’s time to push if you want the podium. We have to be happy with silver.”

Hellner, who won the 30K pursuit, knew Northug was closing the gap but had saved enough energy to increase his pace as he entered the final lap, quickly pulling away from his French and Czech rivals and preventing Northug to ever get in position to use his sprinting ability at the end.

“I’ve never lost 35 seconds in such a short race,” Hellner said. “I knew it was going to be enough.”

Soedergren wasn’t so sure.

The 32-year-old veteran still remembers the Swedes’ nightmare relay at the 2003 world championships in Val di Fiemme, Italy, when Joergen Brink blew a massive lead on the final leg to end up with bronze.

“I was really, really nervous when Marcus was on the last leg,” said Soedergren, who won his first Olympic medal. “But he looked so strong on the last lap, and then I knew we had a gold.”

It was Olsson who paved the way for the Swedes after he pushed the pace on the second classical leg to shake off main rivals Norway and Germany. Only the Czechs and French — who had their best skiers on the second leg in Lukas Bauer and Vincent Vittoz — managed to keep up, as Germany’s Axel Teichmann lost 27 seconds to Olsson and Norway’s Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset ended up 34 seconds back.

“It was my goal to push really hard,” said Olsson, who took bronze in the pursuit. “I felt strong and could really turn it up on the second and third laps.”

Soedergren and France’s Maurice Manificat then took turns pushing the pace on the third leg to maintain their large lead, before Hellner did the rest for the Swedes.

“The guys did a perfect job,” Hellner said. “I just had to close it out perfectly.”

will not be displayed