Sprint events up next for cross-country skiers

MATTIAS KAREN
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Norway's gold medal winner Marit Bjoergen, left, hugs bronze medal winner Heidi Weng during the flower ceremony of the women's cross-country 15k skiathlon at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Saturday, Feb. 8, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Dmitry Lovetsky)

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Enough talk about black armbands and protests. The Norwegian cross-country skiing team hopes to get back to what it does best on Tuesday: winning gold medals.

The men's and women's individual freestyle sprint will be a welcome distraction for the Norwegians after two days of negative talking points.

The team was reprimanded by the International Olympic Committee after the women's team wore black armbands in Saturday's 15-kilometer skiathlon to honor the deceased brother of teammate Astrid Uhrholdt Jacobsen, who died a day earlier.

The men's team also had a controversial ending to Sunday's 30-kilometer skiathlon, when Martin Johnsrud Sundby took bronze but was given a written warning for impeding Russia's Maxim Vylegzhanin on the final sprint. A jury ruled that Sundby could keep the medal despite his rule violation, but the Russian team has appealed that decision to the International Ski Federation.

Sundby isn't competing in Tuesday's event, but Norway has plenty of other medal contenders. Here are five things to know about the individual sprints:

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BJOERGEN VS RANDALL: Marit Bjoergen is looking for her fifth Olympic gold, but needs to stave off a challenge by sprint specialist Kikkan Randall, who is trying to become the first American woman to win an Olympic cross-country medal. Bjoergen is the defending Olympic champion; Randall has won the last two World Cup sprint titles. The two could well be side by side racing toward the finish line in the final.

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SUPER DARIO: Dario Cologna of Switzerland had hardly raced since November because of ankle surgery, and still won the men's 30K skiathlon. Before that race, he said he had a better chance at winning the sprint — which means his rivals should be wary. Even more worrying, Cologna said after his victory that his fitness can still improve. "I feel I have room to grow and maybe win again," he said.

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NORTHUG'S MISSING PIECE: Petter Northug of Norway is known as a fierce sprinter, and yet the individual sprint is curiously the only event he doesn't have an Olympic or world championship title in. He has Olympic gold in team sprint and the 50K, to go with world titles in skiathlon, relay and the 15K race. To complete his resume, he needs to be in much better form than he showed in the skiathlon, where he ran out of energy near the end.

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JACOBSEN COMPETES: Despite her brother's death, Jacobsen will be on the start line Tuesday. Norway confirmed Monday that the 2007 sprint world champion was in the four-member team for the event. While she is a better classical-style sprinter, Jacobsen has a legitimate chance at a medal.

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LONG COURSE: At 1.8 kilometers, the men's course is much longer than most World Cup sprint races, which could benefit all-round skiers like Cologna and Northug rather than the pure sprint specialists.