In a classic cat-mouse game, Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo would not have won six World Championship titles and three Olympic gold medals without one of his largest competitors Alexander Bolshunov of ROC right on his tail.
Bolshunov withdrew hours before the men’s sprint freestyle was scheduled to start on Tuesday. He was a top contender to medal and there was no substitutions for him from the ROC cross-country skiing team. Winning his first Olympic gold medal in the men’s skiathlon, the 25-year-old made the professional decision to shift his focus away from the sprint in order to preserve his energy for the 15km event. Bolshunov won bronze in the sprint four years ago in PyeongChang, Klaebo took gold.
Klaebo is the most successful male sprinter in World Cup history and Bolshunov is the reigning overall World Cup champion. The Norge was so fast up the gradients in 2018 that the Norwegian news media nicknamed a hill on the course in PyeongChang “Klaebo bakken” or “Klaebo hill.”
The ROC skier usually loses to Klaebo in the sprint, but wins in other events that favor distance. The 2018/2019 World Cup season was the only time when Klaebo was beaten by Bolshunov in a sprint event.
Klaebo came back looking to take revenge in the 2021 World Championship in the men’s 50km mass start classic race. At first, it looked like Klaebo had beaten his rival in the distance race that lasted over two hours. But upon closer look, Klaebo was disqualified for obstruction. When Klaebo was passing the Russian athlete on the final turn into the home stretch, he came into contact with Bolshunov and broke one of his poles. Bolshunov took silver behind Norway’s Emil Iversen.
The rivalry between the two skiers goes back to the 2017/2018 season when Klaebo made himself a well-known name in cross-country skiing after smashing the number one spot in the World Cup rankings. In the same season, Bolshunov took fifth overall in the World Cup rankings. He rallied the next year to finish in second overall behind Klaebo. While the two met don’t talk much outside of skiing competitions, they are on good terms. Bolshunov even invited Klaebo to his wedding.
The men haven’t competed in the same event since the skiathlon on Feb. 6. Now, they both have one gold medal win at the 2022 Winter Olympics. Klaebo and Bolshunov will meet again a week after the skiathlon to compete for gold in the men’s 15km classic on Feb. 11 at 2:00 a.m. ET.