- Associated Press - Saturday, February 8, 2014

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) - Petter Northug’s form has been one of the big question marks heading into the cross-country skiing events at the Sochi Olympics. The first indication of whether the Norwegian is back to his best will come Sunday in the men’s 30-kilometer skiathlon.

Northug, a double Olympic champion, is normally a strong favorite in any mass-start event because of his explosive sprinting ability, but has struggled with an illness this season and has been far from his usual self.

Meanwhile, the sport’s other big star - Dario Cologna of Switzerland - has only recently returned from an ankle injury that sidelined him for most of the season and also doesn’t quite know what to expect from himself. Defending champion Marcus Hellner of Sweden has also struggled, with only one World Cup podium this season.

In short, this could be anyone’s race.

Northug himself said his Russian rivals Maxim Vylegzhanin and Alexander Legkov are the biggest threats, along with Norwegian teammate Martin Johnsrud Sundby, who leads the overall World Cup standings.

“Maxim is the biggest favorite,” Northug said. “He’s been preparing at this altitude and he has (an extra gear) when others are tired. Then there aren’t a lot of people who can keep up.”

Northug has made a living keeping up in those situations, saving as much energy as possible for the final sprint and then blowing by his opponents shortly before the finish. However, it remains to be seen whether that vaunted burst of speed is still there.

Still, Sundby said his best chances of winning involve shaking off Northug before coming into the stadium.

“I don’t want to enter the final straight together with Petter,” Sundby said. “Of course I’ll have to be the fastest guy up the final hill.”

Cologna is the reigning world champion in the event, while Northug had won the previous two world titles, and their experience could still give them an edge.

Hellner shouldn’t be counted out either, having finished second last weekend in a 15K classical style race in the last World Cup meet before Sochi. The Swedish team has struggled with illness before the games, however, with two skiers sidelined by a stomach bug. Hellner hasn’t been affected and isn’t ready to concede his title yet.

“I like sharp situations like the Olympics,” Hellner said. “When you’ve won once, of course you want to win one more time. That’s the way it is. My preparations have been good. … I’m in the race.”

Until Northug or Cologna proves differently, so are a lot of others.

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