The past two years have been some of the most turbulent times for Olympic cross-country skiers, including Finland’s Iivo Niskanen. Niskanen is arguably the best classic skier of this modern era and proved it in his gold medal performance during the men’s individual 15km classic race. However, his road to success at the 2022 Winter Olympics was not easy.
Niskanen is all too familiar with the damage COVID-19 is capable of doing to a team when he saw it wreak havoc on the Norwegians after their pre-Olympic training camp in Italy. The outbreak effectively wiped out three of their skiers and one coach who either tested positive or were close contacts.
Prior to the beginning of the 2022 Winter Olympics, Niskanen didn’t know if he would meet his Norwegian rivals at the start line. Norway’s Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo who was not directly impacted by the outbreak has been one of Niskanen’s biggest rivals on the course. Klaebo has won four Olympic medals in Beijing, two of them gold from the men’s team sprint and individual sprint free.
Niskanen felt healthy coming into the men’s 15km classic race on Friday and was able to function to his highest athletic capabilities in the high altitude and long hills. After the race, a relieved Niskanen said he would savor this gold medal more than the ones he won at Sochi 2014 and PyeongChang 2018.
“It has been a stressful two years with Covid, and I have been worried about my health here. When I woke up today and I felt healthy, I knew I would have a chance to take the gold medal today. Now I managed to win, I can’t be any happier than this.”
With the last men’s cross-country race coming up on Saturday, Niskanen is at a slight disadvantage and will have to ski freestyle. Every other year, the mass start competition switches between classic and freestyle to incorporate both techniques.
Niskanen will make his final cross-country skiing appearance at the 2022 Winter Olympics on Feb. 19 at 1:00 a.m. ET in the men’s 50km freestyle mass start.