VANCOUVER, British Columbia — At the Olympics, no sport has a monopoly on drama.
Even cross-country skiing, an event that doesn’t always make for riveting television, featured one of the most exciting moments of the Vancouver Games on Wednesday when Nikita Kriukov edged Russian teammate Alexander Panzhinskiy in a photo finish.
“It was really unbelievable. In fact, Nikita is my roommate and we’ve trained together many years,” Panzhinskiy said after the race. “It is really a dream for us to be together on the podium and we didn’t know it was going to happen today.”
NBC can only hope the remaining cross-country races are as compelling as that one. The women’s 15-kilometer pursuit will be televised Friday, and the men’s 30-kilometer pursuit will follow Saturday.
Unlike some other athletes at the Olympics, cross-country skiers stay close to the ground in a grueling but not always thrilling trek in the woods. The sport isn’t a candidate for too many play-of-the-day awards, so check elsewhere for graceful jumps or excessive speeds.
As an endurance test, though, the event stands out, rivaled only by its cousin, the biathlon, and some of the longer speedskating races. It’s not uncommon for cross-country skiers to collapse in exhaustion after crossing the finish line, giving the viewer a clear picture of the price paid in pursuit of Olympic glory.
In recent years, cross-country skiing has become better suited for television. Kriukov and Panzhinskiy dueled in the individual sprint, a relative newcomer to the sport that features a quick pace.
In the women’s race, Petra Majdic of Slovenia won the bronze medal despite a frightening accident in a training run. She fell in a sharp curve and tumbled off the course, sliding on her back down a three-meter slope and onto some rocks.
Majdic won Slovenia’s first medal of these games, and Poland’s Justyna Kowalczyk is in a similar spot, trying to win her country’s first gold medal at the Winter Games since 1972. She’s a legitimate contender Friday in an event in which she won the world title last year.
Kowalczyk won a silver medal in the sprint, which she said isn’t her strong suit.
“It’s really good to be second,” she said. “It’s like a dream for me.”
The pursuit races combine classical and freestyle skiing techniques. It’s a mass-start race, with athletes beginning simultaneously. That can give an advantage to the top sprinters, who can tag along behind others and wait patiently for the fight to the finish.
Norway’s Petter Northug will try for his first Olympic gold in the men’s pursuit after winning two individual world championships last year. He took the bronze in the sprint Wednesday.
Also on Friday, NBC will televise the men’s Alpine super-G, with Bode Miller trying for his second medal of these Olympics. Miller was the world champion in that event in 2005 but slammed into a gate and failed to finish at the Turin Games the following year.
“Skiing is not relaxing. It’s an on-edge sport. Just because you win a medal doesn’t mean you cruise to the next podium,” Miller said after winning bronze in the downhill this week.
Switzerland’s Didier Defago, the downhill champion, is expected to contend in the super-G as well. He finished eighth in it at last year’s world championship.
The other two medal events on a relatively light day Friday are in the skeleton, with competitors hurtling down an icy track headfirst at speeds approaching 100 mph. NBC will show the skeleton, the super-G, ski jumping and ice dancing’s compulsory program in prime time. The women’s cross-country race is earlier in the day.