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Norway rule as tactics shift

By Mark Lamport-Stokes

WHISTLER (Reuters) - Marit Bjoergen reigned supreme to lead a Norwegian resurgence in cross country skiing at the Vancouver Winter Olympics where radically different team tactics heralded a new future in the grueling sport.

The red-hot Bjoergen claimed three golds, a silver and a bronze to cement her status as the standout performer of the Games, eclipsing her compatriot Petter Northug who had been expected to hold similar sway in the men's events.

After a sketchy start, Northug still gave the fans plenty to remember with his rare mix of endurance stamina and powerful closing speed, ending the fortnight with a personal haul of two golds, a silver and a bronze.

While Sweden came away with three gold medals and lesser lights Switzerland and Poland grabbed one apiece, some of the skiing strategy witnessed at Whistler Olympic Park represented a benchmark in the sport's development.

Swedes Marcus Hellner and Johan Olsson won gold and bronze in the men's 30km pursuit after employing cycling-style tactics while Russians Nikita Kriukov and Alexander Panzhinskiy completed a one-two in the 1.6km sprint after all-out attack.

"We have had really offensive skiing here which I haven't seen at the Games before," FIS (International Ski Federation) race director Juerg Capol told Reuters.

OFFENSIVE SKIING

"Team Sweden used Tour de France tactics in the pursuit. They looked at the guy who was in the lead and behind they didn't keep up the speed, they maybe reduced the speed.

"In the sprint final between the two Russian boys, they didn't wait and see over the first 500 meters who would take the lead. They pushed hard from the first meter. This offensive skiing seems to be the way forward now for the sport."

Bjoergen, however, commanded the spotlight once the cross country skiing programme finally got underway after an unseasonably warm January in the Whistler mountains.

The 29-year-old struck gold in the women's 1.4km sprint classic, the 15km pursuit and the 4x5km relay before narrowly missing out on victory in Saturday's 30km classical event where she was pipped to the line by Poland's Justyna Kowalczyk.

Bjoergen, beaten by less than a ski's length, had to settle for the silver while lifting her medal tally to five from five events, the most by any athlete at these Games.

"It's going to take a while to understand what I've done at these Olympics," a beaming Bjoergen told reporters. "I dreamed of taking one gold and now I have five medals, three golds."

With Bjoergen and Northug leading the way, Norway buried memories of their disappointing showing at the 2006 Turin Games where the perennial cross country skiing powerhouse failed to win a single gold medal.

"We didn't have the performance in Turin we wanted and that meant we had to do even harder and better work in the build-up to these Games," Aage Skinstad, sports director of the Norwegian cross country team, told Reuters.

"We made some changes, had more cooperation with the Norwegian Olympic committee and it has all paid off."

(Editing by Jon Bramley)