Sweden wins men's cross-country relay in Sochi
KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia Marcus Hellner was so far ahead of his rivals heading in to the cross-country stadium that he had time to pick up a Swedish flag and wave it to the crowd as he cruised toward the finish line.
The anchor of Sweden's relay team couldn't have asked for a better ending.
"That was a childhood dream, to be able to come there with the flag and have a big enough gap to celebrate," Hellner said after Sweden dominated the 4-by-10 kilometer race on Sunday.
Russia was 27.3 seconds behind to take silver in front of President Vladimir Putin. France finished third, another 4.6 seconds back.
Following up on a Swedish victory in the women's relay on Saturday, Hellner and his three teammates made sure Sweden became the first country to win both cross-country relays in the same Olympics since the Soviet Union in 1972.
"It means a lot, because especially in Sweden the relays are really prestigious to win, because it's the team," said Johan Olsson, who skied the third leg. "Of course it's a big thing to win on the most important day for the whole team."
For archrival Norway, it was another disastrous day. Once again the Norwegians failed to find the proper wax setup in the warm conditions and finished fourth, more than a minute behind their Scandinavian neighbor. Like the Norwegian women who finished fifth a day earlier, the men blamed their skis for the poor result.
"I've been working very hard for many years to do well here. When the skis are that bad, it's just awful," said Chris Andre Jespersen, who went the second leg for Norway. "It's a horrible feeling. I'm angry, but I did everything I could."
Sweden has had no such problems in the warm weather and soft snow at the Laura Cross-Country Ski and Biathlon Center. This was Sweden's ninth medal of the Sochi Olympics — all of them in cross-country skiing.
"We have really succeeded here with our skis, and that's really a big part of our sport," Olsson said. "That's what gives us our speed."
The men's comfortable victory was in stark contrast to the women's hard-fought gold on Saturday, when anchor Charlotte Kalla erased a 25-second deficit on the final leg and won a three-way sprint.
Even though Lars Nelson fell early on the first leg, he was able to put Sweden ahead at the first exchange. Daniel Richardsson and Olsson kept Sweden in the lead and Hellner started the final leg 14 seconds ahead of Russia.
Alexander Legkov gained nearly 30 seconds on Olsson on the third leg to move Russia from fifth to second place. Vylegzhanin was caught by Ivan Perrillat Boiteux on the final leg but managed to pull away from the Frenchman shortly before the end to secure the silver.
Dmitriy Japarov and Alexander Bessmertnykh also competed for Russia, which earned its first cross-country medal of the Sochi Games.
Bessmertnykh said the team didn't know that Putin was coming to watch.
"When I finished my lap I looked at the screen and I saw him close up," Bessmertnykh said. "We were very pleased that Russian president wanted to watch our competition."
Legkov has had a disappointing Olympics so far, but said he was motivated by some harsh comments from Russian ski federation head Yelena Valbe, the former skiing great.
"Yesterday (Valbe) called a meeting and told me I was not a good relay athlete and that this was the team's last chance to win something," said Legkov, who had the fastest time of any skier. "Her words affected me and today I proved I am good at relay."
Hellner also skied the anchor leg for Sweden's winning team in Vancouver four years ago, with Richardsson and Olsson on that team as well. For Nelson, it was his first Olympic medal.