Great Winter Olympic rivalries: Johannes Klaebo and Alexander Bolshunov in cross-country skiing

One of cross-country skiing's biggest questions this season is who will be stronger between Klaebo or Bolshunov, especially at Beijing 2022?  Olympics.com brings you the story of their rivalry.

By Indira Shestakova
Picture by Laurent Salino/Agence Zoom/Getty Images

For the past few seasons, the leading contenders to win the FIS Crystal Globe have been three-time Olympic champion Johannes Klaebo of Norway and four-time Olympic medalist Alexander Bolshunov representing ROC at Beijing 2022.

Bolshunov is the reigning overall World Cup winner beating Klaebo by a considerable margin last season. However, Klaebo had missed many races due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while Norway withdrew athletes from some competitions. The previous season, the Scandinavian skier also lost to Bolshunov, with both having competed in a similar number of races.

Klaebo has won most of his golds at major competitions in sprint races proving how strong he is at the finish. He is the most successful male sprinter in World Cup history. At the Olympic Winter Games PyeongChang 2018 he was the best in the individual sprint and team sprint alongside Martin Johnsrud Sundby. After Björn Lind's (SWE) golds in both sprints in 2006, no skier has been able to emulate this success at the Olympics.

Bolshunov stepped onto the podium in both races at PyeongChang 2018, winning bronze in the individual sprint and silver in the team sprint alongside Denis Spitsov. The OAR skier won a silver medal in the 50km classic race and 4x10km relay.

Klaebo won his maiden world championship medal bagging bronze in the individual sprint in Lahti in 2017. Since then, he has not lost in the sprint event at the world championships. In 2021, Klaebo became the first male athlete to defend a world title in the individual sprint event.

Alexander Bolshunov and Johannes Klaebo during the FIS Nordic World Ski Championships in 2021
Picture by 2021 Getty Images

Bolshunov was close to Klaebo in the team sprint in 2021, winning bronze alongside Gleb Retivykh. The ROC athlete usually loses out to the Norwegian at Klaebo's best distance but wins in other events. But at the 2021 world championship, Klaebo nearly entered Bolshunov's territory by winning the marathon before getting disqualified for obstructing Bolshunov at the finish line. Bolshunov had to be content with silver due to the crash conceding the title to Norway's Emil Iversen.

Klaebo has only once bowed the knee to Bolshunov in his pet sprint event. The Norwegian prematurely eased off on the first leg of the 2018/19 World Cup season, allowing Bolshunov to pip him at the line.

Klaebo has a vlog on his YouTube channel which featured the odd video on Bolshunov. He posted a video titled Klaebo vs Bolshunov in which he talks about an upcoming roller ski competition in Toppidrettsveka. He wished himself luck before adding that he forgot to do the same for Bolshunov. Klaebo, who lost to Bolshunov, took a dig at his competitor, claiming he was "impossible to beat" because he used the slipstream of a motorbike.

However, Klaebo and Bolshunov are on good terms outside of their sports life despite their bitter rivalry. Not even their crash at the 50km world championships could diminish their respect for each other.

"Nothing will change," Klaebo told NRK about his relationship with Bolshunov. "We will compete together for many years. He is a very good skier, and I certainly hope to beat him. It is my goal to try to defeat him. I hope we never get into a similar situation again."

Their friendship is highlighted by Bolshunov inviting Klaebo to his wedding with former skier Anna Zherebyatyeva. However, the Norwegian could not attend as he was busy filming a show. Bolshunov once said that he would accept an invitation should Klaebo extend the same courtesy.

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