Therese Johaug of Norway won the first gold medal of the Beijing Games on Saturday, dominating the 15-kilometre skiathlon after opening a decisive lead midway through the race that determines the best female skier in the world.
Johaug, 33, a 14-time world champion and three-time Olympic medalist, left the peloton after the first half of the race, which is half in the “classic” uphill and downhill style and half in the “skating” style. » less regulated.
World Cup leader Natalya Nepryayeva of Russia held off Teresa Stadlober of Austria in a close battle for silver and bronze. Nepryayeva edged surprise medalist Stadlober by three-tenths of a second, but both finished more than 30 seconds behind Johaug, whose winning time was 44 minutes 13.7 seconds.
The race was held in the freezing and windy conditions of the Zhangjiakou National Cross-Country Center, on a day so cold that dozens of skiers competed wearing hats and face masks and tape on their cheeks to avoid gales, a rarity in a sport that involves so much effort.
American Jessie Diggins, heroine of the 2018 Games after her spectacular closing run, won gold in the women’s team sprint – “They gave it their all on the Klaebo bakken!” — finished sixth, almost a minute behind Johaug.
“A really promising start,” said Diggins, whose specialty is sprint racing and who would have been a surprise medalist in a race that required so much classic skiing, her weakest style.
Freezing temperatures and gusty winds created brutal racing conditions. Hailey Swirbul, another American, said a gust of wind almost brought her to a complete halt.
The gold medal is Johaug’s second in an Olympic race, joining a collection that includes relay gold at the Vancouver Games in 2010 and silver and bronze at Sochi 2014.
Russian Olympic Committee
However, she missed the Pyeongchang Games in 2018, while serving a doping suspension for testing positive for a banned steroid in 2016. Johaug and Norwegian ski officials blamed the result on the error of a team doctor, claiming that he accidentally gave her the substance in a lip balm.
But the international ski federation pushed for a longer ban, and the Court of Arbitration for Sport agreed, extending his suspension to 18 months.
Diggins, the American star, had wanted to kick off the Olympics with a bang, but she couldn’t match the power of Johaug and a group of other European skiers in the classic first half of the race. Four years ago, Diggins and former teammate Kikkan Randall became the first Americans to win cross country gold and the first Americans to win a cross country medal since 1976.
Since that victory, Diggins has become one of the world’s most feared female skiers, a spindly spark plug with seemingly limitless energy reserves that coerces her competitors into submission and propels her to the finish when a race is in play.
The skiathlon is a unique test, however, as it requires skiers to excel in both classic-style skiing, in which the skis stay in a straight line, and freestyle skiing, or skating, a movement similar to ice skating.
It’s an event that has always proven difficult for American skiers, most of whom grow up freestyle skiing and then learn to ski classic when they get older and start competing. European skiers are much more likely to have been introduced to classic style skiing at a young age.
Diggins has spent countless hours over the past four years trying to improve his recurve performance. Those efforts helped her become the first American to win the prestigious Tour de Ski in 2021, an eight-stage multi-sport race that takes place at three venues in multiple countries over 10 days.
She will still have several chances for a medal in Beijing, especially in the individual sprint, scheduled for Tuesday.