Japan and Norway dethrone Dutch in team pursuit at Olympics
By RAF CASERT, AP Sports Writer
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (AP) — Finally, Norwegian veteran Havard Bokko stood atop the highest platform on the Olympic podium. And glancing down to his left, a step lower, he saw the orange-clad Dutch.
Something like that had never before happened to him at the Olympics.
“It is a pretty nice feeling to look down on them on the podium,” Bokko said Wednesday after helping Norway beat the Netherlands in the men’s team pursuit.
There was a recurring sign of glee from some of the athletes at the Gangneung Oval, where Dutch dominance finally has shown some signs of collapse. And not only from Norway. Japan also dethroned the Netherlands in the women’s team pursuit to restore a semblance of balance in Olympic speedskating.
The world-record holders won the women’s event in a stirring gold-medal race, edging the defending champion Dutch with an Olympic-record performance.
“This is too crazy for words. I don’t know how we did it,” said Japan coach Johan de Wit, who has centered much of his efforts on the women’s team pursuit since he became the nation’s coach.
Norway first beat the Dutch men in the team pursuit semifinals. They followed that with a victory over host nation South Korea in the final.
“This is no fun,” said Dutch great Sven Kramer, who was looking for a fifth career Olympic gold medal.
Both victorious nations knew the Dutch team’s Achilles’ heel — individual competition is so tough that it trumps teamwork. And in team pursuit, with its smooth cooperation between a trio of racers seamlessly trading the lead, the sum of the parts, even if they are not the best, can yield gold.
“We never train all together,” Kramer said. “It is one of the reasons why team pursuit can fail.”
After a start in which the Dutch won the first five speedskating events and seemed poised to emulate their dominance from the 2014 Sochi Games, the second week has been a setback. They have taken only one of the last five gold medals, with Norway and Japan emerging as major challengers.
The Dutch still lead with six speedskating gold medals and 13 overall, but it won’t get close to the 23-of-36 total from the 2014 Sochi Games. Now, Japan is in second place with two gold and five overall, while Norway has two gold and three overall.
After a zero-medal tally from Sochi, the Norwegian performance stands out. The country already has its best showing since the 1994 Lillehammer Games and seems poised to rekindle the century-old rivalry with the Dutch.
“We’re back,” Norway coach Sondre Skarli. “I think we probably have one of our strongest teams ever.”
Nowhere was it clearer than in the semifinals. The Norwegians took an early lead to put the Dutch under pressure, and it paid off. Kramer brought the Dutch almost level but when everything seemed to point toward a win for the Netherlands, the Norwegians picked up their speed again. Over eight laps, the trio won by 1.38 seconds and finished in an Olympic record time of 3 minutes, 37.08 seconds.
Netherlands coach Geert Kuiper said skater Jan Blokhuijsen’s clapskate broke a spring at the start. It didn’t matter to the Norwegians, and their time proved the Dutch might not have caught them even at their best.
In the final, too, Norway had to fight throughout before the team from South Korea, which included two teenagers, succumbed over the final two laps.
“They twice had a great time,” Kramer said of the Norwegians.
In the women’s team pursuit final, Japan set out fastest, lost the middle part to the Dutch and hit back over the final two laps to win. Miho Takagi, Nana Takagi and Ayano Sato set an Olympic record of 2:53.89 to beat the Dutch by 1.59 seconds.
Ireen Wust was seeking to become the most successful speedskater of all time with a sixth gold medal, but silver meant the Dutchwoman fell short of Lidia Skoblikova of the Soviet Union, who dominated in the early 1960s.
“I think this is my last Olympic race,” Wust told Dutch broadcaster NOS. “Coming for gold and walking away for silver, it is tough.”