SLOW START, FAST FINNISH

Doing Finland proud, Marjo Matikainen came on strong to take a gold and two bronzes
February 29, 1988

Take one look at her and you have to ask, What in the name of the great ski god Ull is a fine-skinned, flaxen-haired city girl like this doing in the man-killing—to say nothing of woman-killing—sport of cross-country skiing? And, of course, the answer comes roaring back: This particular aquamarine-eyed Finnish beauty is, in fact, tougher, faster, stronger and meaner than nearly all the hard-muscled participants in her sport. Because this is none other than Marjo Matikainen, 23, who was—despite a hint of baby fat that may have something to do with her fondness for Danish pastries—the reigning first lady of cross-country skiing when she arrived in Calgary. And because now, after the first week and a neat harvest of medals, she still has as strong a claim as anyone to the title.

Matikainen was the one sweet constant in a week of racing full of surprise and controversy. The Swedish men had dominated World Cup competition since they won three Olympic gold medals in 1984, but they finished far back in the first two races in Calgary. Illness and bad wax were the reasons given for this humiliation. And the unexpectedly dominant Soviets earned four gold medals and a year's supply of sour grapes from rivals who suggested, with no substantiation, that they had engaged in blood doping, which is banned by the International Olympic Committee.

Here was Soviet skier Alexei Prokurorov, 23, an army phys-ed instructor who ranked sixth in the World Cup standings last year, gliding across the line in 1:24:26.3 to win the 30-kilometer men's event. Even more surprising was 26-year-old Vida Ventsene, in just her third year of high-level competition, upsetting teammate and four-time Olympian Raisa Smetanina, 36, by 8.7 seconds in the women's 10K and also picking up a bronze in the 5K. Ventsene was no better than 12th in any world championship or Cup event last year.

Canadian coach Marty Hall and others intimated that the Soviets might have resorted to blood doping, in which an athlete has a quantity of blood removed and stored before a competition, then reinjects the blood shortly before the event. At least in theory the extra red blood cells increase endurance by delivering more oxygen to the muscles. Blood doping does go on in the sport—U.S. Nordic-combined skier Kerry Lynch was recently suspended from international competition for a year after admitting that he had blood-doped—but no one knows how widely because no reliable test can detect it. There were rumors that drug-testing personnel in Calgary were checking the arms of cross-country skiers for telltale needle marks, but no such examinations took place. By week's end. Hall, for one, had issued a statement saying that he wasn't accusing anyone of blood doping.

A far happier story was the return to form of Matikainen, whose so-so performance at the Finnish championships in January had been a matter of national concern in her native land. A two-time World Cup champion, she had placed as low as 22nd in Cup races this winter. No one could be sure if Matikainen was ready for the Olympics. She is not close to any of her teammates and does not talk much to the press. "It is more important to ski well than to speak well," she says. Matikainen's adoring countrymen—she has been voted athlete of the year the past two years by Finnish sportswriters—feared that their heroine might perform badly at Calgary.

Unlike her teammates, many of whom are products of the far northern tundra, she lives in a Helsinki suburb. The daughter of a college professor, she is fluent in German, Swedish and English, plays violin and piano and is a student at the Helsinki University of Technology. She brought her school texts to Calgary, explaining, "Studying is very good to take my mind off the races."

Matikainen was a fine backstroker and 800-meter runner in her early teens, and did not start cross-country ski racing until she was 16. She made the 1984 Finnish Olympic team, however, and won a relay bronze at Sarajevo.

In the women's 10K in Calgary, Matikainen was the only non-Soviet skier to finish in the top five, taking third behind Ventsene and Smetanina after finding herself in 11th place halfway through the race. But then Matikainen's style is pure tortoise and hare. And so, more than halfway into the women's 5K, when Matikainen stood two seconds behind the leader, teammate Marja-Liisa H‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üm‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√ül‚Äö√†√∂¬¨√üinen Kirvesniemi. a triple gold medalist at Sarajevo, it was clear that Kirvesniemi's lead was in jeopardy. Matikainen surged. Fighting exhaustion, she pressed on. "I know I must always be very tired at the finish," she said later. "So tired I can't stand any more—or else I will not win."

Matikainen crossed the line and plunked facedown in soft snow. "After that, I couldn't remember anything," she said. Soviet skier Tamara Tikhonova was second, 1.3 seconds behind, with the tireless Ventsene third and Kirvesniemi fifth.

The 4 X 5K women's relay, an event raced in a pack rather than in staggered starts, was won by the Soviet Union, with Norway a well-beaten second and Finland third. What lingered afterward was an image of the skiers waddling up a steep hill on the course like a flock of flightless birds. Far ahead, alone, was the Soviet bird. But it was Matikainen. whose strong third leg was largely responsible for her team's bronze, who seemed most likely to take wing.

PHOTOJERRY COOKEMatikainen drove to a victory in the 5K, which ended with her collapsing into a snowbank. ILLUSTRATION

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)