Marit Bjoergen lived up to her billing as the hot favourite by winning the women’s 15-kilometer skiathlon at Sochi on Saturday, giving the Norwegian cross-country skier her fourth career Olympic gold medal.

Bjoergen pulled away from Sweden’s Charlotte Kalla on the final straight to win in 38 minutes, 33.6 seconds and defend her title from the 2010 Vancouver Games. Kalla was 1.8 seconds back.

Bjoergen was the most successful athlete of the Vancouver Games with three gold medals, a silver and a bronze and showed right away she has the ability to match that feat in Sochi.

With a group of five skiers staying together until the last kilometre, Kalla tried to pull away in the final tough uphill section and decide the race before the final sprint. Only Bjoergen was able to match her pace going up the hill, and the Norwegian then went in front as they entered the stadium. Kalla had no answer for the strong finish by Bjoergen, who had time to turn her head and then raise her arm in celebration as she crossed the line.

The skiathlon event starts with 7.5 kilometres of classical-style skiing before switching to freestyle, making it a tough test of the athletes’ all-round abilities.

Kalla won the 10K freestyle event in Vancouver four years ago and showed she has vastly improved her classical style skiing since then. She has never finished on the podium in a skiathlon on the World Cup circuit and celebrated as if she had won on Saturday, raising her arms to celebrate as she crossed the line behind Bjoergen and then jumping up and down holding her skis in the air.

She prevented a Norwegian sweep of the medals, with Therese Johaug finishing fourth. Aino-Kaisa Saarinen of Finland was fifth.

Justyna Kowalczyk of Poland, a three-time overall World Cup winner who has been struggling with a foot injury, was with the leading group of seven skiers at the halfway mark but slipped and fell just as she was about to enter her station for the ski change and lost several seconds. She exited the ski change 7.4 seconds behind Kalla, and never came any closer during the freestyle. Entering the last lap, she was nearly 19 seconds behind and she finished sixth, 58.1 seconds back.

The next women’s event is the individual freestyle sprint on Tuesday, when Bjoergen is again among the favourites. The men’s 30K skiathlon is Sunday.

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