**NOTE: This article was updated on Feb. 19 at 12:20 a.m. ET after the men's cross-country skiing 50km freestyle mass start event at 1:00 a.m. ET was shortened to 30km to reduce the time of exposure of athletes to extreme conditions. The race was rescheduled and will now start at 2:00 a.m. ET. Second update on Feb. 19 at 2:18 a.m. ET to reflect Iivo Niskanen not participating in mass start.
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 the modern era and proved it in his gold-medal performance during the men’s individual 15km classic race.
Niskanen came into the 2022 Winter Olympics with the intention of competing in the mass start, but went home after weighing how the extreme conditions would negatively impact his World Cup season. He was the champion of the 50km classic mass start from 2018 and defeated ROC’s Alexander Bolshunov for the gold. Niskanen would have been at a slight disadvantage in the upcoming men’s 50km mass start, skiing freestyle.
Freestyle is his weaker of the two techniques. Every other Olympic cycle, the race switches between classic and freestyle to incorporate both techniques. Despite Niskanen’s ability to find more power in his legs in the classic technique, he has proven that he is a top contender in both and earned bronze in the men’s skiathlon. The 30km skiathlon tested athletes’ abilities in both techniques and required them to ski classic in the first half and freestyle in the back half. However, Niskanen's road to winning a full color spectrum of medals at the 2022 Winter Olympics was not easy.
Niskanen is all too familiar with the impact COVID-19 can have on 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, as all 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 during these Games, two of them gold from the men’s team sprint and individual sprint free.
Niskanen felt healthy entering the men’s 15km classic race and was able to function amid the high altitude and long hills. After the race, a relieved Niskanen said he savors his 2022 Olympic gold medal more than the ones he won at Sochi 2014 in the team sprint and at PyeongChang 2018 in the mass start.
"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."
The 2022 Games has extra significance for Niskanen, as he ended the Olympics with a full run of medals. This year's 50km freestyle mass start begins on Feb. 19 at 2:00 a.m. ET.