Kriukov triumphant as Russians win gold, silver in photo finish at men’s cross-country sprint

By Arnie Stapleton, AP
Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Russians finish 1-2 in men’s cross country sprint

WHISTLER, British Columbia — Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy clutched the Russian flag between them, bolting past the race marshals and down the straightaway for a victory lap at Whistler Olympic Park.

Appropriate, considering they also raced around the 1.6-kilometer cross-country course by themselves to cruise to a 1-2 finish Wednesday in the men’s classic sprint.

By pushing the pace so ferociously from the outset, the pair negated Norway’s notorious closers, including Petter Northug, who took the bronze a whopping 9.2 seconds after the Russians zipped across the finish line in 3 minutes, 36.3 seconds.

“I really didn’t agree upon a strategy with him,” Kriukov insisted. “It’s just that our coach warned us that there were going to be three Norwegians racing with us, and we really needed to get ahead. And then I saw Alexander speed up at the first elevation, and I tried to keep up.”

So did the Norwegians, to no avail.

Soon, it was a two-man race.

“I tried to close the gap,” Northug said. “They went really fast, and I didn’t have the power over the last hill to catch them.”

Northug was slowed down when he had to alter his line to avoid the pileup when Alexey Poltaranin of Kazakhstan lost control on a downhill turn more than halfway through the race and fell, taking out Norway’s Oeystein Pettersen.

The Russians were alone entering the stadium and put on quite a show the whole way, trading places with each push of their poles before each bent his right knee and scooted his left ski across the finish line.

They collapsed in a heap together, whooping it up, then smiled as they awaited the judge’s review.

When the winner was announced, Kriukov and Panzhinskiy grabbed a flag to celebrate the race they had dominated together.

They held the flag between them, trotting down the track-side stands in triumph, their skis and poles held high on either side.

“It was really unbelievable. Nikita is my roommate, and we’ve trained together many years,” Panzhinskiy said. “It really is a dream for us to be together on the podium.”

Norway’s Ola Vigen Hattestad finished fourth, Poltaranin fifth and Pettersen sixth.

Northug, the World Cup leader who was expected to dominate the Vancouver Games, gained a measure of redemption for his performance in the 15K, when he quickly realized he didn’t have the skis or stamina to challenge the leaders and settled for 41st place.

Norway failed to win a cross-country gold medal in Italy, and Northug, the 24-year-old World Cup leader and best Norwegian skier since the great Bjoern Daehlie, was facing enormous pressure to end that drought in Vancouver. Instead, teammate Marit Bjoergen took care of that, winning the women’s individual cross-country sprint just minutes before.

“I have to be happy. For the last two years, sprint was not my thing, but now I have a medal,” said Northug, the heavy favorite in the 30K pursuit and the anchor on the powerful Norwegian relay team. Swedish skier Emil Joensson, one of the favorites in this race, didn’t make it out of the semifinal round.

American Andy Newell, who placed second in the 80-man field in qualifying at the Turin Games, slid off the slick course during the qualification round this time and finished in 45th, failing to reach the quarterfinal heats.

Another of the top U.S. sprinters, Torin Koos, of Leavenworth, Wash., followed up his illness-plagued Turin Games with a disappointing 36th-place finish.

“I’ve thought of this every single day since the closing ceremonies in 2006,” said Koos, the son of former U.S. biathlete Shaun Koos. “I remember thinking when they were taking down the flag and I will be better, I have four years to get it right. And I didn’t get it right.”

The only American to qualify for the quarterfinals was Simi Hamilton of Aspen, Colo., who slipped in at 29th, almost seven seconds behind the leader, Panzhinskiy. He didn’t advance past the quarterfinals.

Nor did defending gold medalist Bjoern Lind of Sweden, who won the race in Turin when it was a freestyle event.

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