KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — In cross-country skiing, correctly guessing the winner of a women's 10-kilometer classical style race is usually a 50-50 chance.
More often than not, it's either Marit Bjoergen of Norway or Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland. In fact, they've combined to win 10 of the last 11 races held in the discipline.
When they go head-to-head again in Sochi on Thursday, though, things aren't quite so simple.
For Kowalczyk, the 10K classical would normally be her best chance at a gold medal, with only Bjoergen able to seriously challenge her. But the Pole has more than Bjoergen to worry about this time: she's skiing with a fractured foot.
Kowalczyk injured her left foot shortly before the Olympics and posted a photo of an X-ray on Facebook this week showing a small fracture. The team said it wouldn't stop her from competing, however, and few would rule her out of medal contention just yet — which says something about her usual dominance in the event. Unlike Bjoergen — who is a favorite in nearly every race she enters regardless of distance or style — Kowalczyk is more of a classical-style specialist. Of her 30 World Cup race wins, 11 have come in 10K classical events.
But her injury makes Bjoergen the main favorite, and the Norwegian is eager to make up for a mishap in the freestyle sprint on Tuesday, when she fell on the final straight and failed to make the final. Bjoergen won three golds in Vancouver four years ago, and added a fourth in the opening 15-kilometer skiathlon on Saturday.
If Kowalczyk's foot doesn't hold up, Bjoergen's main challenge could come from teammate Therese Johaug, a strong classical-style skier.
The race features an interval start, which means skiers go out individually and race against the clock. To some, that's less exciting than a mass-start race that can feature a multi-way sprint to the finish, while others argue that interval starts give a better measure of a skier's overall abilities. It should also make the warm weather less of a factor, as most skiers will be on their own for much of the race and are less likely to be involved in mass crashes caused by the soft snow.
Bjoergen has the advantage of starting after Kowalczyk, meaning her coaches can tell her at every intermediate time how she's doing in comparison to the Pole.
Charlotte Kalla of Sweden, who took silver in the skiathlon, won the 10K race in Vancouver when it was a freestyle race. Her classical-style skiing has improved vastly since then, and the Swede has an outside chance at defending her title.
"It's a tough course but it's fair," Kalla said. "The person who races the best will win."