As the crosscountry competition opened last week on the trails of the Canmore Nordic Centre, Olympic fans lined the course, craning to catch a glimpse of their Scandinavian heroes. Waving flags, they strained to see such gold medal favorites as Sweden’s Gunde Svan and Finland’s Marjo Matikainen. But by the time the first four races were over Soviet skiers had dominated the icy trails, winning three gold, three silver and two bronze medals. Their victories not only stunned the cross-country ski world but aroused suspicion of unfair play. Canadian coach Marty Hall claimed that it was “logical” that some athletes had engaged in the banned but undetectable practice of blooddoping, which involves reinjecting a supply of blood before a race to increase stamina.
Upsets: Although Hall later denied that he had been specifically accusing the Soviets, officials reacted strongly. By midweek Federal Sports Minister Otto Jelinek had stepped in to defuse the situation, disassociating the Canadian government from Hall’s remarks. Said Tamara Tikhonova, silver medallist in the ladies’ five-kilometre race: “We’re being accused because we’re doing so well. It’s untrue, so we don’t feel angry.”
The Soviet skiers left few top places open in the competition.
In the women’s 10-km race, they took four of the top five spots. Then, on the following day, the Soviet men captured three of the top four places in the 30-km competition. By that time team members had won as many medals as they took home from the 1984 Games in Sarajevo, where they won one gold and three silvers. And while this year’s competitors surprised the world, there were also upsets within the Soviet ranks when top racers were beaten by their teammates. Vida Ventsene, 26, ranked 40th in the world, won the ladies’ 10km race and a bronze in the five-kilometre event. Meanwhile, the topranked Soviet men’s racer, Vladimir Smirnov, 23, came second to Alexei Prokourorov, 23, in the 30 km and third to Mikhail Deviatiarov, 28, in the 15 km. “I didn’t expect to win,” said Prokourorov, who beat Smirnov by 8.8
seconds. “I have never encountered such a difficult course.”
The Canmore cross-country trails on which the Soviets shone are generally considered to be among the most gruelling in the world. But in the men’s 30-km event, where skiers tackled uphill climbs of up to 51 m and reached speeds of up to 80 km/h on steep downhill slopes, the two top Soviet skiers won by a critical 36.5-second margin. Explaining the team’s success, Smirnov cited a three-week training session last September in the Georgian mountains, where the racers prepared for the high altitude of Canmore’s courses. Above
all, the Soviets seemed to have used the right combination of wax to grip on the steep uphill climbs.
All teams faced the challenge of finding a waxing recipe that would work on the pebbled artificial snow on one part of the course and the fine, granular natural snow crystals on the rest of the trails. “It has been a real challenge,” said Lyle Wilson, a wax tester for the Canadian team. “What will work down at the stadium won’t on top of the course.”
Best: While the Soviets raced to glory, Marjo Matikainen, 23, a shy, blond dynamo from Finland, prevented a Soviet sweep of the first four gold medals. Having won the bronze medal in the ladies’ 10 km, she went on to win the five-kilometre race. The legendary Swedish racer, Svan, who won two gold medals, a silver and a bronze in the 1984 Olympics, placed a disappointing 10th in the 30-km event and 13th in the 15km race. “My skis weren’t good, and my body had no power,” said Svan, who had been recovering from a cold. While Svan’s renowned teammates Torgny Mogren and Thomas Wassberg were also disappointed with their finishes, Canada’s Pierre Harvey, 30, was pleased with placing 14th in the 30-km event, a best-ever result for a Canadian in Olympic cross-country competition. Said Harvey: “When I see Thomas Wassberg behind me, I’m always happy.”
Drugs: While Harvey’s performance made the headlines, it was Hall, his outspoken coach, who stole the limelight. After issuing a clarification of his remarks on the blood-doping issue, he remained firm in his belief that the practice is “a factor in our sport.” Said Hall: “This isn’t a tiddledywinks competition. There are countries and medical people who know more about drugs and blooddoping than the International Olympic Committee does.” While several of his cohorts agreed with his statement, there was a general consensus that the Soviets had swept the first week of Olympic competition on the virtues of talent and preparation alone. Said gold medallist Deviatiarov: “The team was very calm. We all knew we were very well prepared for the Olympics.” At the end of the first week of the Calgary Games, the rest of the world knew it too.
The story you want is part of the Maclean’s Archives. To access it, log in here or sign up for your free 30-day trial.
Experience anything and everything Maclean's has ever published — over 3,500 issues and 150,000 articles, images and advertisements — since 1905. Browse on your own, or explore our curated collections and timely recommendations.WATCH THIS VIDEO for highlights of everything the Maclean's Archives has to offer.