KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia — On a day of slips, falls and crashes, Ola Vigen Hattestad took the safest route to an Olympic gold — staying in front from beginning to end.
The Norwegian won the men’s cross-country freestyle sprint Tuesday after dominating every stage from qualifying to an eventful final, where three of his rivals were involved in one big crash. Hattestad avoided the mayhem by staying well in front, and then held off Teodor Peterson of Sweden for the gold medal.
"The final was maybe a little crazy," Hattestad said.
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It certainly was for Emil Joensson of Sweden, who had all but given up earlier in the race after running out of energy but ended up with the bronze after Sergey Ustiugov, Marcus Hellner and Anders Gloeersen crashed.
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 passed them all and had a clear path to the bronze.
After crossing the line, an exhausted Joensson needed help from a Swedish team official to get up off the snow and leave the finish area.
It was 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 in front of him.
"I feel like him today," Joensson said of Bradbury. "Right now I don’t know if I should be happy or feel bad."
Hattestad said he didn’t realize what had happened behind him until one of the Norwegian coaches yelled that he was alone with Peterson when they were on the final uphill section.
"I didn’t know those guys had fallen," he said. "That was the first time I realized we were away. I was just focused on my own race."
Peterson couldn’t seriously threaten Hattestad in the two-way race to the finish line, and seemed pleased with the silver.
"I’ve had the best day of ski racing of my entire life," he said.
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.
Hattestad, however, said that’s just part of the sport.
"I guess that’s sprint," he said, adding that organizers had actually made that downhill section easier than it was at last year’s World Cup race at the same venue.
"The organizers, they worked well," he said. "I don’t know if they can do anything more."
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 semifinals.
Cologna refused to blame the snow conditions for his mishaps. Both his falls came on relatively flat sections, seemingly without contact from other skiers.
"No, no, the track is all good," he said. "There are many falls today, I am not the only one but that is bad luck."
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 had to settle for a disappointing fourth place at the 2010 Vancouver Games.
"I didn’t want that to happen again," he said.
Hattestad has struggled for much of this season, but won the last World Cup sprint race before the Olympics. That 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.