KRASNAYA POLYANA, RUSSIA – Maiken Caspersen Falla led a Norwegian double to take gold in the women’s cross-country freestyle sprint at the Sochi Olympics on Tuesday.
Despite pre-race favorite Marit Bjoergen going out in the semifinals, Norway still took the top two spots as Falla proved strongest in the final and Ingvild Flugstad Oestberg narrowly beat Vesna Fabjan of Slovenia in a photo finish for the silver.
Fabjan took bronze, while Astrid Uhrenholdt Jacobsen — whose brother died on the eve of the games — was fourth.
Bjoergen fell on the final straight of her semifinal — one of a number of spills and falls in both the men’s and women’s competitions — while Kikkan Randall of the United States was surprisingly knocked out in the quarterfinals.
Falla won her first Olympic medal, having finished 20th in the sprint in Vancouver four years ago. Her victory wasn’t a total surprise, though. She has two World Cup victories and looked the strongest throughout the day.
She also had the fastest time in qualifying and then won both her quarterfinal and semifinal heats.
Falla was up front for most of the final and her lead never looked threatened on the final sprint. The race for second was much closer, with Oestberg overtaking Fabjan just before the finish line.
Randall’s attempt at becoming the first American woman to win an Olympic cross-country skiing medal fell well short when she finished fourth of six skiers in a tough heat that featured both Bjoergen and German sprint specialist Denise Herrmann. Those
two advanced, along with Gaia Vuerich of Italy, who had the second best time of the third-place finishers in the five heats.
Randall, a two-time World Cup sprint champion, waited to see if her time would be good enough as well, but then gave a shrug to the camera when she found out it wasn’t.
Bjoergen was far back in her semifinal entering the final straight and then fell as she tried to move up the field. She still smiled when she crossed the line, waving one pole in the air.
Also Tuesday, Ola Vigen Hattestad won the men’s Olympic cross-country freestyle sprint after three of his rivals fell in the final.
On a day of spills and falls in the soft snow, the Norwegian went in front early in the final and avoided the crash behind him, and then held off Teodor Peterson of Sweden for the gold medal. Peterson finished 1.2 seconds behind for silver.
In a strange finish, Emil Joensson of Sweden — who had all but given up earlier in the race after running out of energy — ended up with the bronze after Sergey Ustiugov, Marcus Hellner and Anders Gloeersen were all involved in a crash.
Joensson had dropped far back and was cruising home when Gloeersen, who was in third, fell in the treacherous downhill curve and hit the protective barrier. That ended up dragging down Ustiugov and Hellner as well, and suddenly Joensson had a clear path to the bronze — a medal performance that brought back memories of Stephen Bradbury’s short track speedskating gold at the 2002 Salt Lake City Games after his rivals all fell.
An exhausted Joensson then needed help from a Swedish team official to get up off the snow and leave the finish area.
Warm temperatures have softened the snow over the last two days at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center, and a number of skiers fell on the same downhill section in the qualifying run.
Skiathlon champion Dario Cologna also fell twice in his quarterfinal and was knocked out. Petter Northug of Norway, another pre-race favorite, again looked sluggish and was knocked out in the semis.
Hattestad, meanwhile, had dominant performances throughout the day. He was nearly 2 seconds faster than anyone else in qualifying and won both his quarterfinal and semifinal heats.
Hattestad won both the individual and team sprint at the 2009 worlds, but has struggled for much of this season. However, he won the last World Cup sprint races before the Olympics, which led to the Norwegian coaches dropping another skier from the sprint team in favor of Hattestad.
The Norwegian proved Tuesday they made the right decision.