Friday, February 22, 2002
Lajunen wins sprint, sweeps Nordic medals
MIDWAY, Utah -- As much as he'd rather avoid the subject,
Samppa Lajunen's run toward Olympic gold began last April, when the
great Bjarte Engen Vik of Norway suddenly announced his retirement.
With Vik out of the picture, there was no one to stop Lajunen
from running the table at the Salt Lake City Games.
The 22-year-old Finn completed a sweep of the three Nordic
combined events Friday by winning the gold medal in the sprint,
fulfilling the potential he showed when he won his first World Cup
event at age 17.
"That was the year when I was surprised. Now I'm not," he
After leading Thursday's ski-jumping competition on the big hill
at Olympic Park, Lajunen began the 7.5-kilometer cross-country race
at Soldier Hollow 15 seconds ahead of Germany's Ronny Ackermann.
Lajunen maintained the cushion and finished in 16 minutes, 40.1
seconds -- nine seconds ahead of Ackermann.
Felix Gottwald of Austria moved up eight spots to take the
Todd Lodwick started 12th but finished fifth, the best showing
ever by an American in the sport. The previous best was Lodwick's
seventh place in the individual competition on Feb. 10.
"To be recognized as one of the best in the world is great,"
Lodwick said, but added: "I would have loved to have had a medal
and put Nordic combined in the history books with my name beside
Among the other Americans, Bill Demong finished 14th and
Steamboat Springs' Johnny Spillane 32nd. Matt Dayton of
Breckenridge, Colo. finished 36th.
Lajunen won silver in both Nordic combined events four years
ago, losing to Vik and his stunningly long jumps. Vik won two world
titles last year, then announced his retirement less than two
months later, at age 30. "I lack the motivation to continue," Vik
Lajunen certainly was motivated at these games. He won the
individual race by 24.7 seconds, and the margin would have been
larger had he not stayed with teammate Jaakko Tallus, urging him to
the silver. Six days later, Lajunen anchored the winning team in
"He was waiting for his first gold medal quite long, and he was
working very hard," Gottwald said. "Three times gold is
Gottwald, ranked No. 1 in the world this season, said Vik's
retirement opened the door for several competitors, but Lajunen is
the one who burst through.
"Bjarte retired because maybe he thought his time was come,"
Gottwald said. "He won everything, and of course Samppa was very
motivated. You just work hard and wait for the day you think is
His victory in the sprint, which made its debut at these games,
made Lajunen the first Finnish athlete to win three golds at one
Olympics since ski-jumper Matti Nykanen in 1988.
Lajunen, who dyed his blond hair powder blue for the Olympics
but let his teammates shave his head the night before his last
race, became a bit defensive when asked whether Vik's departure
established him as the Olympic favorite.
"You are looking too much just at Olympic races," he said.
"You have to take a wider look at all competitions. It has been
very difficult to win competitions. You have to jump very, very
well and after that you have to ski the best skiing times of all if
you want to win competitions."
Lodwick began 56 seconds behind the leader but just five seconds
behind Gottwald. Knowing Gottwald is an exceptional skier, Lodwick
stayed with him for most of the race, and even moved all the way up
to third at one point before Gottwald passed him on the first hill
of the final lap.
Lodwick held fourth until the final kilometer, when he was
overtaken by Tallus.