Road To The Olympic Games

Cross Country

Road to the Olympic Games: Quebec's Alex Harvey a skiing superstar everywhere but in Canada

Cross-country skier Alex Harvey is arguably the greatest cross-country skier in North American history, but he is underappreciated in his own nation, writes CBC Sports host Scott Russell.

Has the opportunity to feel the hometown love at this weekend's World Cup Finals in Quebec City

Alex Harvey celebrates his world championship on March 5 with a little air guitar. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

Hosted by veteran broadcasters Scott Russell and Andi Petrillo, Road to the Olympic Games chronicles athletes' journeys on and off the field of play. Here's what to look for on this weekend's show on CBC Television and

On the eve of the World Cup finale in his hometown of Quebec City, cross-country skier Alex Harvey broke away from the media scrum and called on a cell phone.

"It's exciting," he said breathlessly. "When I arrived at the airport the other night there was a big crew of journalists there who wanted interviews and we don't get to do that much outside the Olympic year."

Strange given what he's accomplished.

Having twice been a world champion and ranking third overall in this season's World Cup standings, Harvey is arguably the greatest cross-country skier in North American history and at 28 years old is only now entering his prime.

Almost without exception, he and his teammates compete offshore six months of the year, absent from Canada from the beginning of October until the end of March. 

There are rarely any home games, but because the Russian Federation has been stripped of the FIS Nordic Ski World Cup finals in the midst of a doping scandal, Harvey gets to finish the season on the Plains of Abraham in what is essentially his own backyard and in front of a friendly crowd to boot.

"It's huge for motivation," Harvey said. "In a sport like ours, pain is a part of the game. With the support of racing in front of your fans it means you're willing to endure more pain. It's also important for the development of the sport in our country. Not only because the kids want to see us, but also to see the best Norwegians, Swedes, Russians and all the stars of cross-country."

Canada's Alex Harvey made a final push in the last corner of the 50km mass start, jetting ahead of Russia's Sergey Ustiugov for gold in Lahti, Finland. 0:34

Harvey is fresh off winning the 50km world championship in Lahti, Finland a couple of weeks ago, the first North American to do so since the competition began in 1925.

It is without question a win which distinguishes him as the "Iron Man" of one of the planet's most demanding athletic pursuits.

In fact, he is the only North American to have won a world championship of any kind and has played a part in all five medals Canadian male skiers have captured in the history of the world championships.

"What a massive victory," Canadian Olympic champion Chandra Crawford told CBC Sports. "He was already approaching a legendary status in the annals of Canadian sport, and then he went and won the toughest and most prestigious race.

"I'm happy for Alex and his family and his support team, but the word happy doesn't capture the feeling I'm sure many in the ski community share with me right now. It's more like a mixture of slack-jawed awe and a surge of inspiration. This result is just incredible."

Not even Harvey's father Pierre, a member of Canada's Sports Hall of Fame and the winner of the marathon at the illustrious Holmenkollen Ski Festival in Oslo, Norway, can come close to boasting the victorious escapades of his son.

"People go down in history for this kind of thing," said Canada's Beckie Scott, Olympic champion in 2002.

Alex Harvey sprints to the finish to win gold at the world championships on March 5. (Giovanni Auletta/Agence Zoom/Getty Images)

"But it's not like this came out of the blue. Canadian skiers have been producing very well for quite some time and I believe there are sunny days ahead for Alex. Still, regardless of what he does down the road this marks him as a legend in the sport forever."

"Legend is a big word," Harvey said with a chuckle. "But the 50km race is the marquee event at any world championships and to win it is very much a dream come true for me."

Enormous breakthrough 

It is also an enormous breakthrough for Canada in the sport of cross-country skiing, one of the original disciplines contested at every Olympic Winter Games since the first in Chamonix, France in 1924.

With the exception of long track speed skating, more medals are awarded in cross-country skiing than in any other sport at the Winter Games.

"This is a magical event," Sara Renner said from her home in Canmore, AB. Renner is the only Canadian woman to have ever won a medal at the Nordic World Championships - bronze in the individual sprint in 2005 at Oberstdorf, Germany.

"It is the true test of athleticism," she said. "The race can last up to three hours and then a sprint is required at the end. If things go wrong they can go horribly wrong. To win it is the mark of a true Nordic champion."

But like some others in the Canadian high-performance sport inner circle, Renner is frustrated that more people in this country haven't been exposed to Harvey's accomplishments over the years. 

His sparkling resume speaks volumes. 

Included are two world championship gold medals, two World Cup wins and four medals this season alone. And on top of that is the part he played in leading the Canadian men's relay team to a breakthrough, podium finish in Sweden – a first in the history of the sport.

"Alex Harvey is a hero in every winter sport country but his own," Renner said.  "His victory was front-page sports news across Europe and sandwiched in between the obituaries and real estate in Canada."

Beckie Scott agreed.

"I think it's frustrating for the ski community and the broader community as well," Scott said.

Alex Harvey is celebrated by his Canadian teammates after winning gold in the recent 50K cross-country ski championship in Finland. (Cristof Stache/AFP/Getty Images)

"This sport receives very little coverage in North America. What he's done is historic. It's a hard sport and it takes a great deal of effort. That should be better reflected. The sport does not get the credit that it does in other countries."

For his part, Harvey is philosophical about his relative anonymity as he gets set to race on home snow for the first time in a long time.

"That win at the worlds was huge for me," he said.  "But more importantly it's huge that it was a little Canadian guy that did it. We have a smaller team, a smaller budget, and we're on the road all year long. For our little, closely knit team to win this was exceptional."

His landmark win at the world championships came complete with a thrilling finish where he dashed by his rivals as if fired from a slingshot around the final bend of a grinding odyssey.

When it was over he collapsed in exhaustion then rose to riff on the air guitar, the signature of a Canadian victory in cross-country skiing.

All of this happened in front of tens of thousands of Scandinavian fanatics who witnessed the race first-hand in the grandstand and millions more worldwide who watched on live television. They understood that Alex Harvey had just become deified in the annals of Nordic skiing.

Back home his enormous achievement was, sadly, far less resonant.

The hope is that this superstar of winter sport won't have to fly under the Canadian radar for much longer.

He's far too good for that.    


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