PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Norway’s 4x10km cross-country relay team did not just have to contend with the other 13 teams in the field in Sunday’s race - they also had to ski with their nation demanding an Olympic gold medal that they had not won since 2002.
They delivered that gold in a thrilling race, with the last leg anchored by the callow, confident Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo, who held his nerves before a spurt that will immediately go down in Norwegian sporting history.
“I didn’t sleep well last night and I haven’t eaten much either, but at the end it’s just a normal ski race and you have to just take it down to the simple things,” the ice-cool Klaebo told Reuters.
“I felt a little bit of pressure, but I think it’s good if you are a little bit nervous — then you are a little bit more sharp. I think that’s great and I think we all did a very good job,” he explained.
“At the end, to win an Olympic gold medal with our team, it’s unbelievable.”
Cross-country skiing is not so much a national sport as an obsession in Norway, and millions will have risen early to watch a race that started just after 7 a.m. 0600 GMT) back home.
Lead-off man Didrik Toenseth was 10-year-old the last time Norway won this race, and he was well aware of how important winning it would be for the Norwegian people.
“It’s not that they want it (gold) - they expect it from us. Then the pressure is on, this is a day that you have to succeed, nothing can go wrong,” he said.
For Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who won silver in Vancouver as part of the only relay team to medal since that 2002 victory, the relief was palpable, especially since bitter rivals Sweden won gold in 2010 and 2014.
“We’ve been talking about this since the last Olympics. I’ve been part of the relay team in both Vancouver and Sochi and we haven’t succeeded, and we’ve been a bit unlucky with a lot of things in those races,” Sundby told Reuters.
“It’s been hurtful to see Sweden take the gold medals the last two Olympics, so it was especially good to take the victory today.”
For the 21-year-old Klaebo, who won gold in the sprint event after a slow start to his games, it was simply a case of putting the nerves aside.
“To be able to take the flag at the finish line, it’s an unbelievable feeling,” he said.
Reporting by Philip O'Connor; Editing by Amlan Chakraborty