- Associated Press - Sunday, February 9, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Dario Cologna has given notice that he’s again the man to beat in the cross-country events at the Sochi Olympics. His traditional rival Petter Northug, meanwhile, has only showed he’s still far from his best.

The two biggest stars of the sport delivered vastly different performances in the first event of the games on Sunday, with Cologna using an impressive burst of energy toward the end to win the 30-kilometer skiathlon race ahead of defending champion Marcus Hellner of Sweden. Northug couldn’t keep up, getting left behind on the final uphill section and then skiing lethargically toward the finish at little more than a walking pace.

The contrast between the two shifted expectations for the remaining events in Sochi.

Cologna of Switzerland and Northug of Norway have dominated men’s cross-country skiing over the last five years but both have had this season disrupted by health issues. Cologna had ankle surgery in November, and Northug struggled with a persistent illness, meaning both were unsure of what they could accomplish here.

Only Cologna seems to have recovered. And now the Swiss skier suddenly finds himself as one of the main favorites again for the remaining individual events, starting with the freestyle sprint on Tuesday. Monday is an off-day for both the men and women.

“The pressure is off but I know the shape is there, so I will fight for more medals,” Cologna said. “I said I hoped to be at my best again before the end of the Olympics, but it can’t get better than this. I still need to gain strength, though.”

The sprint gives Northug an immediate chance to bounce back in one of his best events. The tall Norwegian has an explosive finish when he’s in form, and won the sprint event in Sochi last year at a World Cup dress rehearsal for the games.

“My feeling today was that I didn’t have the power I needed to fight in the top three,” Northug said. “In the last climb it was just to give up and save power for the sprint.”

Cologna and Northug now have two Olympic golds each - the Norwegian won the team sprint and 50K classical-style race in Vancouver in 2010, where Cologna took the 15K freestyle.

Judging by Sunday’s performances, Cologna has the best chance of adding a third in Sochi.