Vyalbe, Yelena

Vyalbe, Yelena
▪ 1998

      As 1997 came to a close and the 1998 Winter Olympics drew near, Russian cross-country skier Yelena Vyalbe had one colour in mind: gold. She had excelled in her sport at every other level, turning in a record-setting performance at the 1997 Nordic world championships, but an individual Olympic gold medal had thus far eluded her.

      Vyalbe was born on April 20, 1968, in Magadan, a city in far northeastern Russia. Heading into 1997 she had won a total of six Olympic medals, 12 world championship medals, four World Cup overall titles, and 35 World Cup individual events. Skiing in her familiar pink hat, Vyalbe stole the show at the Nordic world championships at Trondheim, Nor., in March. She won gold medals in her first two races, the 10-km and 15-km events, and then finished second in the 5-km race to teammate Lyubov Yegorova. Later, however, Yegorova tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs and was subsequently banned from further competition. Because Yegorova was also stripped of her title, Vyalbe was named the winner of the race and received a third gold medal. In a move not often seen in sports, Vyalbe then stepped forward as the leader of the Russian team and, speaking in German, addressed the crowd just before her team competed in the 4 5-km relay, assuring those in attendance that Yegorova had acted alone. Vyalbe anchored the Russian team as it triumphed in the relay. In the 30-km race two days later, she led from start to finish, beating Stefania Belmondo of Italy by 28.3 seconds to take an unprecedented fifth gold medal and wrap up her fifth World Cup crown. By the end of the 1996-97 season, Vyalbe had won 44 World Cup races in her career, a record for both men and women.

      It seemed that the only challenge left for Vyalbe was the 1998 Winter Olympics at Nagano, Japan. She had competed in two previous Winter Games. At Albertville, France, in 1992, she won a gold medal as a member of the Unified Team's 4 5-km relay squad and gained bronze medals in the 5-km classical, the combined pursuit, the 15-km classical, and the 30-km freestyle. Vyalbe's performance marked the first time in the history of the Winter Games that a woman had collected four bronze medals. At Lillehammer, Nor., in 1994, she won another gold medal as a member of the relay team, but she failed to finish among the top three in any of the individual events and thus was left to wait until 1998 to try to add the ultimate prize to her crowded trophy case.


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Universalium. 2010.

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