Alex Harvey better prepared after disastrous 2014 Olympics
Canadian cross-country skier's best result in Sochi was 12th in team sprint
Alex Harvey is heading to the Olympics with renewed confidence.
The cross-country skiing ace from St-Ferreol-les-Neiges, Que., is coming off a spectacular 2016-17 season that demonstrated just how much he has rebounded from a disastrous 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia.
"Looking back, I think that physically I was at the same level in Sochi as I am now, but for sure the poor performances there have helped make me a better athlete," the reigning world champion in the prestigious 50-kilometre event said in an interview ahead of this year's Games next month in Pyeongchang, South Korea. "It made us question ourselves as a team and fix the shortcomings we identified.
"Now we'll be better prepared than we were in Sochi."
Harvey went into Sochi on a high after three top-10 finishes at his first Games in Vancouver in 2010, including a fourth-place result in the team sprint with Devon Kershaw of Sudbury, Ont.
But he didn't come close to the podium in Sochi. His closest was 12th place in the team sprint, causing him to wonder if his performance in Vancouver had been a mirage and if he really had what it takes to reach the top level of his sport.
Uneven playing field
He also had a feeling the playing field wasn't totally level.
That was confirmed when the McLaren Report was published on Dec. 9, 2016, detailing a Russian state-sponsored doping campaign. A few days later, the International Skiing Federation (FIS) suspended six Russian cross-country skiers, including Alexander Legkov, who was banned for life and stripped of the 50 km gold medal he won in Sochi.
Coincidence or not, Harvey had his best season after the sanctions were imposed.
He won the 15 km classical style event at Ulricehamn, Sweden, last January and then took the 50 km crown at the world championships in Finland in March. Two weeks later, skiing before huge hometown crowds at the World Cup finals in Quebec City, he won the sprint event.
"I gained a lot of confidence that season, which gave me a really good base going into an Olympic year," he said. "This season we want to repeat the same things.
"That's why we're going to the same places as in 2017. We'll do the same training because we want to stay on the same path. What's good is that I had my best moments at the biggest events last year and that will give me the confidence to manage the pressure and expectations at the Games."
It remains unclear how many Russians will be competing in Pyeongchang. The Court of Arbitration for Sport is in the midst of appeal hearings for 39 Russian athletes disqualified from Sochi, including Legkov. The International Olympic Committee has also barred Russia from next month's Games, but has given athletes who can prove they are clean the opportunity to compete under a neutral flag.
Despite the uncertainty, Harvey is cautiously optimistic.
"I believe our sport is cleaner now because the ones we had the biggest doubts about were caught," he said. "It will never be 100 per cent clean.
"There will always be athletes who cheat to try to gain an advantage. But it will be cleaner than it was in Sochi, that's for sure."
'I'm reaching my peak'
Nonetheless, the 29-year-old Harvey feels he will be in the medal hunt in South Korea with a realistic chance to become the first Canadian male to reach the Olympic podium in the sport.
Physically, he has never felt better. In 2015, he underwent two major surgeries to improve blood circulation and has been trouble-free ever since.
"I'm reaching my peak," he said. "I feel like all the years of training are really paying off."
In Pyeongchang, Harvey will compete in the four individual distances (sprint, 15 km, 30 km and 50 km) and two team events (sprint and relay).