Mikhail Ivanov, athlete

"Russia,” the proverb has it, “hinges on the Ivanovs.” (Rossiya na Ivanovykh derzhitsya.)

In the case of Russia’s Olympic experience at Salt Lake City, the men’s cross-country medal hopes hinged on Mikhail Ivanov. A bronze medalist in the 2001 World Championships and widely predicted (including in the pages of Russian Life) to medal at Salt Lake, Ivanov won a silver medal outright in the 50 km men’s classic marathon race.

Then, days after Russia’s Olympic experience was embittered by the pairs ice skating scandal and a doping scandal in women’s cross-country skiing, Ivanov was upgraded to the gold after Spain’s Johan Muhlegg was found to have been using performance-enhancing drugs.

The last time Russia won a gold in men’s Nordic Skiing was 14 years ago in Calgary, in the men’s relay. The last time Russia (well, the USSR) won a gold in the 50 km event was at Lake Placid in 1980, when Nikolai Zimyatov took the top honor.

To his credit, Ivanov found some good words for Muhlegg, saying “as a fellow human being, I feel sorry for Muhlegg. After all, he is a great racer.”

Unfortunately, unlike in the case of Canadian skaters Sale and Pelletier, for whom the organizers did a whole remake of the awards ceremony to bestow a second gold medal in that event, Ivanov’s ceremony was decidedly low-key. It looked more like “an exchange of badges,” the young skier joked. “They said, ‘Like it? OK, take it.’ The awarding of the silver medal, which I received from the hands of Juan Antonio Samaranch [former IOC president] was a totally different matter. I wish I could have kept the silver.”

Ivanov was met at Moscow’s Sheremetevo Airport by his mother and a bevy of journalists and fans. At an impromptu press-conference, Ivanov told the enthusiastic crowd he was happy to be back home, but, like all his teammates, he said he returned from Salt Lake with a bitter after-taste, regretting that “these Olympics lacked the main thing—the Olympic spirit.”

Even so, Ivanov’s trademark smile rarely ebbed. Reliving his 50 km race, which he lead from the outset, he said “the main thing was not to speed up the rhythm too much,” as in high altitudes, one has to be cautious about accelerating too early. The hardest part of the race, he said, was at the midway point, when “the weather warmed up,” the track became wet and skis no longer glided along the snow as well. “In order to preserve my speed at this point, I had to use the poles, pushing off harder, and that ate up lots of extra energy.”

Before Ivanov’s race even began, the hopes of an entire town made themselves felt upon his young shoulders. In his hometown of Ostrov, Pskov region, the locals were all glued to their TV screens. Ivanov said that, after the first poor results by Russia’s men’s skiing team, he received a phone call from Ostrov, telling him that the whole town was “virtually mourning.” “After this,” Ivanov said, “you will understand that I was required to win an Olympic medal.”

The ever-smiling Ostrov native will turn 25 in November of this year. That means that, by the time the next Winter Olympic Games are held in Torino, Italy, Ivanov will be just 28. By any standard, it is a prime age for a Nordic skier to reach the peak of his career. And, should he bring home the gold from Torino, this time Ivanov will get to hear what he said he wanted so badly to hear after his race in Salt Lake City: the Russian national anthem.

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