Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk wins 30K cross-country, beating Norway’s Bjoergen in sprint

By Mattias Karen, AP
Saturday, February 27, 2010

Poland’s Kowalczyk wins women’s 30K cross-country

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Justyna Kowalczyk sprinted side by side with her biggest rival down the final straightaway, her last chance for a gold medal coming down to the last few furious thrusts of the poles.

Kowalczyk wasn’t about to let Marit Bjoergen beat her again, mustering up enough energy to push ahead of the Norwegian just a few meters before the finish of the women’s 30-kilomter cross-country race. After settling for a silver and bronze, Kowalczyk finally earned Poland its first gold of these Olympics — and denied Bjoergen her fourth.

“It feels good to be No. 1,” Kowalczyk said. “I don’t even remember the last 200 meters. But this is the Olympics, you must fight.”

Kowalczyk, the World Cup leader, pumped both hands into the air before collapsing face first onto the snow and gasping for air. She finished in 1 hour, 30 minutes, 33.7 seconds for her first Olympic gold. Bjoergen was 0.3 seconds back to take the silver, and Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland took the bronze, 1 minute, 5 seconds back.

It was a fitting end to the women’s cross-country events at these Olympics — Bjoergen and Kowalczyk fighting it out in a two-way battle between the sport’s two biggest stars.

Kowalczyk entered the games as the main gold-medal favorite, having won two world titles and the overall World Cup last year, and dominating races this season. But it was Bjoergen who became the darling of these games, winning the individual sprint and the 15K pursuit before anchoring Norway to another gold in the relay. She also won bronze in the 10K freestyle race and leaves Vancouver with five medals in her five events.

“I think it’s going to take a while before I understand what I’ve done at these Olympics,” said Bjoergen, who had to settle with two silvers in her previous two Winter Games. “When I come home and meet Norwegian people and see the races on Norwegian televisions, maybe I can understand how big this is.”

The rivalry between the two intensified this week after Kowalczyk told Polish media she thought Bjoergen benefited from getting permission from the International Ski Federation to use a stronger asthma medicine this season — in essence suggesting the medication was akin to doping.

The comments created an uproar in Norway, and Kowalczyk later said she should not have raised the issue during the Olympics — a stance she reiterated after Saturday’s race.

“I’m really sorry, because this was not a good time to have this conversation,” she said. “This was not an attack on Marit. Marit to me is a very good athlete. … I was trying to start talking about this problem, because we have a problem in cross-country skiing with asthma. There is really a lot of athletes who are sick with asthma.”

Some asthma medicines — including Bjoergen’s — include substances that are banned by the World Anti-Doping Agency, but many athletes in endurance sports such as cycling and cross-country skiing have a doctor’s permission to use them.

Bjoergen said she was surprised by Kowalczyk’s comments but wasn’t holding a grudge.

“I was a little disappointed when I heard it, but now I’ve forgotten it,” Bjoergen said. “I’m happy for her to take the gold today, and I’m finished with what she said.”

Kowalczyk also had a beef with the Olympic cross-country venue, saying repeatedly that the course is too flat and not demanding enough to suit her strength. On Saturday, she was helped by a steady rain that made the snow wet, slow and more draining on the legs.

“It was very good for me, because it was very slow, and the downhills were slow,” she said. “That’s much better for me than Marit.”

Still, Bjoergen looked headed for a fourth gold when she started a solo breakaway shortly after the 20K mark. She shook off everyone but Kowalczyk, who stayed within 6 seconds before catching up to her as they left the ski stadium for the final five-kilometer lap.

“That was very hard. I knew that if I go after Marit I would be so tired,” Kowalczyk said. “The last 2K I was only fighting.”

For the first time in a 30K at the Olympics, the competitors were allowed to change skis during the race, with a maximum of three pit stops allowed. The format was first tried at the world championships last year in Liberec, Czech Republic.

Saarinen seemed to have wasted her chance for a medal when she opted to make a pit stop at the 25K mark and struggled to get one of her new skis fastened correctly. However, she quickly caught up and pulled away, finishing 14 seconds ahead of Germany’s Evi Sachenbacher-Stehle.

“I couldn’t feel my fingers anymore, because they were so frozen,” Saarinen said about her ski change. “When you can’t feel your hands, it gets a bit complicated to change your skis.”

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