Canada’s all-time greatest cross-country skier Alex Harvey saved the best for last, quite literally in fact, in a valiant effort that gave his country its best Olympic result in this discipline on Saturday at PyeongChang 2018.
“I feel good, it’s all I had today, there’s no regrets. But you know, fourth is kind of hard to accept,” said Harvey after finishing just six seconds shy of the podium in a grueling two hours, 11 minutes and 5.7 seconds in the men’s 50km mass start, the most physically demanding race in Olympic cross-country.
The previous Canadian individual best belonged to Devon Kershaw at Vancouver 2010 when he was fifth in the same event, just 0.6s off what would’ve been a legendary medal at a home Games.
Harvey says it was his last Olympic race, and it turned out to be the highest position he – and Canada – ever attained in cross-country skiing at this level. The 29-year-old is the reigning world champion in the 50km event, when he won his fifth medal overall and second gold in a glittering career at worlds last year in Finland. If Canada were to break through in Olympic cross-country, it never had a better chance than from the three-time Olympian this year.
“It was a great race. I gave everything today, and we had really good support from the team, so there are no regrets, but of course it’s a hard position for sure,” Harvey said reflecting on what was a mesmerizing endurance event.
Medal or not, Harvey had a tremendous Olympic Games. In his five events, he registered four top-10s.
In individual events Harvey was seventh in the 15km, and eighth in the skiathlon. In the team sprint he and Lenny Valjas made the final and finished eighth.
On the back of those performances, Harvey entered Saturday’s final men’s competition at the Alpensia Cross-Country Skiing Centre.
Finland’s Iivo Niskanen broke away from the pack only 17km into the race and pushed a punishing pace alongside Alexey Poltoranin of Kazakhstan. They were stalked closely by Alexander Bolshunov of the team representing Olympic Athletes from Russia (OAR). Soon, Poltoranin faded and a two-man tactical battle ensued between the Finn and the Russian.
When Poltoranin’s form started to drop drastically in the last few kilometres, the chase pack (which whittled down to four competitors) featuring Harvey began to close in on the bronze medal.
Harvey confirmed that he knew all along the podium was in play. He was constantly in touch with the Canadian staff scattered around the course, supplying him with information and aid as required.
“We knew at one point, going with Niskanen at such a hard pace, we knew some of these guys would pay the price later on, so we still believed.”
The plan was correct. While Bonshunov managed to keep pace with Niskanen, third place came into view as calculated. It was however, another athlete representing OAR, Andrey Larkov, who set himself apart from the group to take the last medal on offer in 2:10:59.6. To ensure fourth, Harvey (2:11:05.7) had to stretch out one of his skis at the finish line in a breathtaking final lap where he edged Norway’s Martin Johnsrud Sundby by 0.1s.
He was “pretty tired,” Harvey admitted, “but still good enough to edge out Sundby, I guess.”
Harvey and 33-year-old Sundby are good friends who race against each other all over snow-filled courses in winter sport countries to large, adoring audiences during the cross-country season. His final Olympic effort ending in such a dramatic fashion against a friend and rival provided a picturesque finish for Harvey.
“We were just surviving at the last lap,” the Canadian joked.
With less than 10km remaining, Niskanen made a quick pit stop to change skis, falling nearly half a minute behind Bolshunov. Somehow making up that difference, the Finn finally put the race away on the final lap when Bolshunov slowed down, conceding to superior technique and planning on the day.
“He was amazing. It was expected,” Harvey said of 26-year-old Niskanen’s 2:08:22.1 gold medal clocking, nearly 19 seconds ahead of Bolshunov. “At the team meeting yesterday we thought that he would go out hard early, so it was expected.”
Harvey graciously called Niskanen “the best classic skier in the world,” and on Saturday he certainly was. Sadly for Canada, its best-ever cross-country skier will not appear at another Olympic Games, and while he didn’t finish on an Olympic podium, the country can be grateful that Harvey drained every bit of him to the effort, the only requirement Canada has for its athletes.
“I felt good but tired, I mean everybody is tired, you start to have cramps in the legs and the arms, just focusing on executing, I think I was able to do that well, but just beaten by three guys today.”