Japan falls flat in Nordic combined

Compiled From Kyodo, AP

Japan failed to live up to its billing as the world Nordic combined team champion on Tuesday, finishing back in sixth at the Vancouver Olympics.

Japan came home 1 minute, 14.2 seconds behind Austria, which held off the United States to defend its Olympic title at Whistler Olympic Park.

The team of Taihei Kato, Daito Takahashi, Akito Watabe and Norihito Kobayashi placed fourth after the ski jumping portion and started the 20-km cross-country relay 41 seconds behind ski jump leader Finland.

“We couldn’t repeat the miracle of the world championships,” said Kobayashi, who anchored Japan to a surprise victory a year ago at the worlds in Liberec, the Czech Republic.

“I wasn’t happy with my jump, so I couldn’t run in the cross country relay very well. We couldn’t really compete with the medal-winning teams,” he added.

Japan was looking for its first Olympic Nordic combined team medal since winning back-to-back gold medals in 1992 and 1994.

Takahashi had a strong leap of 136.5 meters, the second longest in his group, but the others on the team could not follow suit, leaving them a sizable time deficit for the cross country portion.

“Since our rivals came strong in cross-country skiing, I’m sure even Norihito had a hard time in the cross country leg,” Takahashi said.

Billy Demong of the U.S. had a slight lead over Mario Stecher heading into the stadium, but stumbled at the turn and the Austrian zoomed past him on the straightaway for a 5.2-second victory Tuesday.

The team of Stecher, Felix Gottwald, David Kreiner and Bernhard Gruber defended its title from the Turin Games in a race the Americans led much of the way. Demong erased a 14.1-second deficit he inherited from Johnny Spillane on the final exchange.

He and Stecher took turns in the lead until the Austrian’s strong finish had him cruising past the finish line.

“We had a little better skis, and instead of going on the inside, I was going the long way which was a bit faster so I got a bit of an advantage,” Stecher said. “I said, ‘It’s a 50-50 chance.’ It was my only possibility to win this race.”

Spillane’s silver medal in the normal hill competition Feb. 14 was the first U.S. Olympic medal in Nordic combined — a ski jump followed by a brutal race of speed around a cross-country track.