By Simon Jennings
GANGNEUNG, South Korea (Reuters) – Norway skated to a stunning victory in the men’s Olympic team pursuit on Wednesday, taking gold ahead of hosts South Korea as defending champions the Netherlands wilted.
Beaten by Norway in the semi-finals, the Dutch fought off New Zealand for bronze as the Norwegians put on two immaculate displays of skating to claim their first medal in the event, which was introduced at the 2006 Games in Turin.
Norway’s Havard Bokko, Simen Spieler Nilsen and Sverre Lunde Pedersen served notice by setting an Olympic record of 3 minutes 37.08 seconds against Dutchmen Patrick Roest, Sven Kramer and Jan Blokhuijsen in the semi-final, beating the mark the Netherlands set in Sochi by 0.63 seconds.
“It’s amazing. It’s been a real team effort for many, many years,” Bokko told reporters after the final. “It finally paid off today and we skated our best team pursuit ever.
“We had focused on the team pursuit, and of course individual races, but the team pursuit we knew there was a chance to get a medal and even gold. It was what we hoped for.”
The final was a thriller, with neither the Koreans nor the Norwegians electing to use a substitute.
Norway shot out of the blocks and held a narrow lead over the first three laps until the Koreans, marshalled by the experienced Lee Seung-hoon racing alongside Kim Min-seok and the fresh-faced Chung Jae-won, edged in front on the fourth, sending the decibel levels in the packed arena sky high.
The cheers of the Korean fans only seemed to spur the Norwegians on as, heads down and striding smoothly in unison, they began to reel their opponents back in with the splits getting closer and closer.
“I’m really proud of this medal. My team mates helped me to fix my mistakes, which I’m really thankful for,” Chung said after becoming the youngest man to collect a speed skating medal at the Winter Olympics at the age of 16 years and 245 days.
On the fifth lap, Norway got their noses back in front by 0.10 seconds and went through the last three splits in an identical 13.63 seconds to finish 1.2 seconds ahead of the Koreans and seal their second Olympic speed skating gold of the Games.
Havard Lorentzen won the men’s 500m on Monday to pick up Norway’s first gold medal in speed skating at the Olympics since Adne Sondral’s victory in the 1,500m in Nagano in 1998.
Wednesday’s victory marks the first time the country has topped the podium twice in Olympic speed skating events since their home Games in Lillehammer 24 years ago.
It was after the Lillehammer Olympics that Norway’s days as a traditional speed skating powerhouse ended, but their two gold medals in Gangneung could herald a resurgence of the sport in a country dominated by alpine and cross-country skiing.
“We didn’t have a lot of money, it was a small budget but we kept working and we had a goal,” said unused Norwegian substitute Sindre Henriksen.
“We wanted to win a medal in the Olympics and now we did it. It’s unreal and I will need some time to let it sink in. We are back and we are one of the strongest teams ever. We are doing very well and I am so proud.”
(Additional reporting by Jane Chung, editing by Ed Osmond and Ken Ferris)