Choosing Olympic favourites is never easy. It’s not just enough to look at who was skiing fast last season, as so many skiers focus on the Olympic years for peak performances. The course also has a big impact – Whistler Olympic Park (WOP) has a long sprint course, and fun, twisty distance courses. You never know what course caters to what athlete’s strengths. And waxing, of course, is hugely important. One miscalculation by the wax team can cost a skier his or her big chance at Olympic glory - who said this wasn’t a team sport?
Historical Olympic performances are also little help – though it is useful to see who can step up on the big day, cross-country skiing switches techniques on a race-by-race basis for each Olympics, making it difficult for an athlete to repeat performances if they have one technique that is stronger than the other. Still, there are those men and women whose podium performances – or podium potential – are worth noting as we count down the last 100 days.
A historical note on Olympic predictions: Pierre Harvey (whose son Alex recently won his first World Cup medal) had some of his best seasons in Olympic years. But he never got a sniff of the Olympic podium. Was he a choker? Far from it. Drug testing was non-existent in those days, but drugs and other ways of cheating were certainly around. Pierre found all those athletes he soundly beat in World Cups just weeks prior were skiing circles around him in the Olympics. Suspicious? Definitely, yes. But thanks to the efforts of another Canadian ski icon, Beckie Scott, whose Olympic bronze-turned-gold medal winning performance in 2002 was the watershed moment for drug testing in Olympic sport, that effect will be far reduced in Canada in 2010.
February 15th, 2010 - Women’s 10km, Freestyle Technique
- Marit Bjoergen, NOR: Marit is an enigmatic skier, but don’t count her out in a short freestyle distance race. After dominating the 2004-05 and 2005-06 seasons and becoming a superstar in Norway, she has struggled with pressure and her training regimes, and is looking to find her peak form again. Despite that dominant season in 2006, Marit couldn’t find her form in Torino and won only a silver in the 10k distance event.
- Sara Renner, CAN: Sara is strong in both distance and sprint. She’ll be a long-shot in this event, but the home-course advantage could push her over the edge and into the medals.
- Virpi Kuitenen, FIN: Virpi is a threat in any race she enters.
- Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, FIN: Aino-Kaisa lead the 2008-09 World Cup most of the season, eventually finishing third. She has enjoyed a steady climb up the World Cup standings the past several years. Her and Virpi are a safe bet to challenge for a medal in any distance race.
- Justyna Kowalczyk, POL: Justyna has come on very strong in recent years, and won the 2008-09 Overall and Distance World Cup standings. She skied away neatly from her closest challenger, Italian Marianna Longa, in the WOP World Cup events.
February 15th, 2010 - Men’s 15km, Freestyle Technique
- Ivan Babikov, CAN: Ivan is a versatile, gritty athlete who has proven himself as perhaps the toughest skier on the World Cup circuit. Ivan is a new Canadian with an amazing story. He thinks he can challenge in this event. When asked what event he favours, he says “15km skate… that’s where I’m confident and where I feel most comfortable.” Presumably, he’ll also feel comfortably at home in Canada in 2010.
- Dario Cologna, SUI: Dario was the surprise of the 2008-09 ski season, winning the Overall World Cup, a first for Switzerland. His consistency has been remarkable, and he dominated the Tour de Ski. Dario was recently injured but is back training and he’ll be a threat in this race.
- Petter Northug, NOR: This Norwegian skier has been touted as a super-star – the next Bjorn Daehlie – since he was a junior. He’s a good distance skier with extremely dynamic skating technique and a blazing finish kick.
- Lukas Bauer, CZE: Near unbeatable in 2007-08, Bauer had a slightly down year in 2008-09, finishing 4th overall, and had a disappointing World Championships in his homeland. But don’t count him out - he’s a threat in any distance race.
- Sami Jauhojaervi: Sami quietly put together an impressive 2008-09 season. He’s versatile in sprint and distance, and this race seems well suited for his strengths.
February 17th, 2010 - Women’s Individual Sprint, Classic Technique
- Marit Bjoergen, NOR: Don’t count Marit out in any sprint event. Her raw power and tempo-driven, hard-charging style makes her a favourite.
- Virpi Kuitenen, FIN: WOP sprint course is fairly long with lots of striding, which caters to Virpi’s strengths. She’s not traditionally a sprint specialist, but this technique and course is well suited for her.
- Arianna Follis, ITA: Simply put, this is a fast woman. She has to be on anyone’s list of emerging favourites in the sprint scene.
- Lina Andersson: SWE: She’s a strong skier with lots of speed, and she’s a great double-poler. She won the women’s classic sprint at the 2007 World Championships.
- Petra Majdic, SLO: Petra, the tall, gangly Slovenian with the unorthodox style, continues to win sprint after sprint. At the 2007 World Championships in Sapporo, Majdic earned a silver in the individual sprint. She’s particularly strong in classic. Petra has to be the favourite to take this event.
- Sara Renner, CAN: Sarah won a bronze medal at the 2005 World Championships in the classic sprint with a gargantuan come-from-behind effort on the final straight-away. She can do it again here in 2010, on home soil and with her new daughter watching.
- Chandra Crawford, CAN: Chandra is a bit of a long-shot in this event – but hey, she was a long-shot in 2006, and she ended up playing air guitar on top of the podium. This gutsy Canuck regularly dominates skate sprints – the challenge in 2010 is that the sprint is in the classic technique, which Chandra is still mastering. But with her determination and mental power, don’t count her out.
February 17th, 2010 - Men’s Individual Sprint, Classic Technique
- Bjoern Lind, SWE: Bjoern Lind is the defending Olympic champion, having won the 2006 sprint in convincing fashion. He’s a very consistent, strong skier with excellent tactical abilities and the calmness to find himself to the front.
- Emil Joenssen, SWE: Joenssen is young, but fast. Very fast. He has impressed over and over again on the Olympic course, in training and during race opportunities. He has the snap to keep pushing hard all the way down the finish straight.
- Ola Vigen Hattestad, NOR: Ola Vigen is the newest of Norway’s deep stable of sprint fast-men. He had a near perect World Cup sprint season in 2008-09, with only 2 defeats! If he can hold it together for the Olympics, look for him to mount a strong challenge to Joennsen and the Swedes.
- Devon Kershaw, CAN: This is one of Devon’s real medal chances. Devon has won World Cup medals in this event in the last two years. Devon continues to learn how to be patient and where to make his move most effectively, and is a legitimate threat to medal at any World Cup sprint.
- Andy Newell, USA: Andy Newell has to be mentioned. He’s one of the fastest skiers in the world, but was, in 2008-09, prone to wipe-outs during the close-contact heats. If Andy can stay out of trouble and move up the field patiently, he can contend here.
February 19th, 2010 - Women’s Pursuit
- Charlotte Kalla, SWE: The 2007-08 Tour de Ski champion, Kalla is Sweden’s young hope on the women’s distance squad. She didn’t find her form in 2008-09, but she’s one of the toughest skiers out there.
- Therese Johaug, NOR: This young Norwegian had a bit of a tough sophomore season on the World Cup, but has lots of talent and can hang with anybody. She’s an outside medal shot in this event.
- Justyna Kowalczyk, POL: Justyna skied away from the field in the 2008-09 World Cup pursuit event at WOP, showing lots of patience in the classic portion and putting on the heat when it counted.
- Stephanie Boehler, GER: Stephanie is comfortable with the WOP course, and is a strong all-around skier with a pretty good sprint finish. If she’s in the mix at the end, look for her to contend.
- Marianna Longa: Longa is an excellent distance skier with a lot of toughness. She can ski well in a bunched-up field, but also stays strong if the field splits apart.
- Sara Renner, CAN: Sara has the qualities it takes to succeed at this race: she’s strong and smooth in both techniques, and she’s got a good sprint finish,which is often what these races come down to. She’s a bit of a dark horse in this race, but home-course advantage can do wonders.
February 20th, 2010 - Men’s Pursuit
- Dario Cologna, SUI: The way Dario skied last season, with all the weapons he has shown, you can’t discount him in this race.
- Petter Northug, NOR: Northug is very dangerous down the stretch, has the pedigree in both techniques to stay at or near the front (very important in this even), and can stay on a hard pace better than most.
- Pietro Piller Cottrer, ITA: This wily veteran won the men’s test World Cup pursuit at WOP by quite a margin. If he has a weakness here, it’s not having a world-class sprint to the line, as the pursuit often ends up in a bunch sprint.
- Devon Kershaw, CAN: Devon won a bronze medal – his first distance World Cup medal – in the pursuit event at the Tour de Ski in 2008-09. He’ll have to put together a strong, patient race to contend, but he can do it.
- Anders Soedergren, NOR: Anders is a workhorse not scared to lead and push the pace but had a tough year getting to the line first. Other years he has been a perennial favourite in any distance event. If he can regain his form this year, he’ll be a threat in this race.
- Vincent Vittoz, FRA: The French have a good team, and Vittoz is the team’s star. He’s had two seasons in the weeds, but he likes pursuits and could be a dark horse in this race.
February 22nd , 2010 - Women’s Team Sprint, Freestyle Technique
- Finland: Finland won’t be quite as strong as when they won Olympic bronze in this event in 2006, but will still challenge.
- Germany: They’ll have a strong women’s sprint team, but will be a dark-horse.
- Norway: If the Norwegian women are in form, they’ll challenge for this event. Bjoergen will likely form one half of this team.
- Canada: Canada is the Olympic silver medalist in this event, though the other half of the team, superstar Beckie Scott, is now retired. This is a skate event, so Chandra will be terrific with Sara Renner; this is probably Canada’s best hope on the women’s side.
- Sweden: They’re the Olympic champions, and have to remain the favourites. They’ve got a deep sprint squad – Andersson and Olsson are the two favourites, but Norgren or Ingemarsdotter can fill in as well. They’ll always challenge.
February 22nd, 2010 - Men’s Team Sprint, Freestyle Technique
- Sweden: They’re not as deep as Norway, but they have spent more time at Whistler Olympic Park than any country except Canada and the U.S.A. They travelled to last year’s Canadian National Championships and spent a day doing sprint workouts on the Olympic course. That practice showed in the World Cup test events – Sweden won the team sprint easily. Pick them to win, with Emil Joenssen pairing up with either Robin Bryntessen or Bjoern Lind.
- Norway: This nation is so deep and has such a talented group of sprinters that they can field 4 or 5 teams capable of winning on any given day.
- Russia: They’ll field two good sprinters who will press hard for a medal.
- Canada: Canada is a serious medal threat in this race. The team of George Grey and Alex Harvey took the bronze in a fantastic race at the 08-09 WOP World Cups. Expect Devon Kershaw to replace George Grey come Olympics-time. Devon and the young Alex form a remarkable team with the guts, smarts, and strength to take on any team in the world.
February 24th, 2010 - Men’s 4x10km Relay
- Norway: The Olympic relay is a central point of pride in Norway – it is equivalent in national importance to the men’s Olympic hockey team in Canada. Recent Olympics have brought epic battles with the Italians for gold, though a hugely disappointing 5th place in 2006 sparked calls for a national inquiry.
- Italy: Italy’s passion is an equal match for Norway’s pride when it comes to the relay. They always step way up for this event and find a way to stay in contention. They cruised to victory in 2006, and will be strong again.
- Russia: Russia is unpredictable. They generally disappoint in relays, but they can put four world-class skiers on the start line. It would be a mistake to count them out.
- Germany: The Germans, led by esteemed coach Jochen Behle, field a very strong team of distance skiers. Their consistency across the team makes them a strong medal candidate in this event.
- Canada: Canada
has the potential to put together a very strong team. If everything
goes right, these guys can challenge for a medal. Three of the spots on
this team are a lock, belonging to Devon Kershaw, Ivan Babikov and Alex Harvey. The fourth man is a slight question mark - George Grey is a likely
choice, but he's had to deal with a minor injury, and there are many
other fast Canadians eager to challenge for that fourth spot. A strong second classic leg is a must, this is where the race splits up and the contenders separate themselves. You’ll probably
see Devon and George Grey skiing the classic legs, with Ivan skiing the tough
third skate leg and the Alex Harvey taking it home. This order netted them a 5th place at the last World Championships in 2009.
- Switzerland: This team would never have been a pick a year ago, but their program surprised last ski season, led by the emergent Dario Cologna, and could show up well in 2010.
February 25th, 2010 - Women’s 4x5km Relay
- Russia: Russia has had a couple of down seasons recently, but will always find enough depth for a contending relay team, particularly on the women’s side.
- Norway: The young Norwegians – Astrid Jacobsen, Johaug, and Cecile Brun-lie – should move up to help Bjoergen contend for a medal here.
- Sweden: They may lack a bit of depth in distance, but could hang in for medal contention.
- Germany: This is likely to be a strong and even team – probably the favourites for the gold medal.
- Canada**: Canada does not have the depth of women to challenge for a medal in this race.
February 27th, 2010 - Women’s 30km, Classic Technique
- Virpi Kuitenen, FIN: This veteran Finn has to be the favourite for this event. The best classic skier on the circuit, she dominated the women’s overall World Cup in 2006-07 and 2007-08. She’ll be hungry for Olympic Gold, with only a bronze in the team sprint in Torino to date.
- Valentina Shevchenko, UKR: This Ukrainian woman has been around for a while, and is always a threat in longer races.
- Aino-Kaisa Saarinen, FIN: She’ll be a threat in this race.
- Petra Majdic, SLO: Petra should not be under-estimated as a distance classic skier. She’s strong with very good endurance.
- Evgenia Medvedeva, RUS: A dark horse, but the Russians are always strong in the longer events.
February 28th, 2010 - Men’s 50km, Classic Technique
- Lukas Bauer, CZE: If Bauer has a preference, it’s probably classic. He has the engine to ski distances.
- Axel Teichmann, GER: Axel is a perennial contender and tough-man. He skis with an odd, up-right style, and skis from behind, putting in a consistent last push faster than anyone else out there. Axel always sneaks up from behind, but he’s usually in the hunt for medals.
- Andrus Veerpalu, EST: Andrus Veerpalu will hopefully make the trip to Canada in 2010. He has been a long-time World Cup participant and during his prime he could command a classic race from the opening gun.
- Pietro Piller Cottrer, ITA: Pietro is a distance machine, and should be in the mix for this race.
- Eugeniy Dementiev, RUS: It’s always tough to tell which Russian will step it up in the Olympic years, but Dementiev has been one of the most consistent over the years. Team-mate Ivan Ivanov won the last 50k classic race in 2002 in Salt Lake City, with a legendary performance – he had pain written over his face for 40km.
- Anders Soedergren, SWE: Always strong in distance.
- Alex Harvey, CAN: 3rd in last season's Tronhein World Cup. Can he do it on home soil?
Ok, that's how I call it. How about you?
You can have your say in our XC Ottawa Olympic Pool. Look for it closer to the games!