FIS logo

The drama that changed everything

Hero image

It was a duel that changed the sport forever. 17 February 1980, the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The 15 kilometre cross-country race was on the programme, with the main rivals for victory Swede Thomas Wassberg and Finn Juha Mieto. Back then, things were very different. There was only the classic technique and even then, people still really skied in diagonal stride and not exclusively in double pole push. The material and wax were not yet that advanced. There was no mass start but an individual race. In short, it was everyone against themselves – and the clock.

Mieto, a real giant, had set the pace and crossed the finish line after 41 minutes, 57 seconds and 64 hundredths. He then had to wait at the finish line until Wassberg arrived. And there he came, with big strides, wildly cheered on. A good 200 metres before the finish, Wassberg briefly slipped out of the track with his right ski. Was that it? Wassberg or Mieto, Mieto or Wassberg? Two more steps, one more, finish. The time stops: 41 minutes 57 seconds and ... 63 hundredths. Wassberg is the Olympic champion, Mieto beaten by a hundredth of a second - or 3.3 centimetres, as experts later calculated. At the time, Wassberg suggested that Mieto and he should win gold together, but the IOC refused.

It wasn’t the first time Mieto had suffered because of the clock. Back in 1972 in Sapporo, he had to concede defeat to Norway's Ivar Formo by six hundredths in the battle for bronze over 15 kilometres. To lose this way again was cruel. It would have been little consolation that the closest decision in sporting history prompted a change to timekeeping, so that only tenths of a second would count. For Juha Mieto, the change came too late.