Host City: Innsbruck, Austria
Venue(s): Cross Country Skiing Stadium, Seefeld
Date Started: February 11, 1976
Date Finished: February 11, 1976
With a team where all members had won medals in the foregoing 30 and 15 km cross-country races, the Soviet Union was expected to win an easy gold medal in the relay race, organized three days after the 15 km. But – as the Olympic cross-country skiing history had shown – in relays anything can happen, and the drama started on the first leg. The Soviet’s [Yevgeny Belyayev], the silver medalist from 15 km, took the lead as expected, but two kilometers from the exchange he developed trouble with his ski binding, had to continue with a loose ski and could not get a new one until a couple of hundred metres from the exchange, but by then it was too late. He reached the exchange in 10th position, 1:11 behind the leading Swedish team, closely followed by East Germany two seconds behind, with Norway another four seconds back. On the second leg, East Germany’s [Axel Lesser] immediately took the lead, and now the gold medal team from the 1974 World Championships had taken over as favorites for an Olympic gold. But alas, the drama continued. Halfway thru his leg Lesser collided with a female tourist skiing on the relay track, and he so severely injured his knee that he was not able to continue, allowing Finland’s [Juha Mieto] to build up a 50 seconds lead over Norway. The Soviet Union’s 15 km gold medalist, [Nikolay Bazhukov], advanced from 10th to third place, but was over 1½ minutes behind the leading Finnish team. On the third leg, 30 km gold medalist [Sergey Savelyev] made a gallant try to catch Norway, but then suddenly he also developed trouble with his ski bindings and dropped back to sixth position at the last exchange. Finland had extended their lead over Norway to 1:01, and the unbelievable young American [Bill Koch], with the fastest time of his leg, had brought the USA into bronze medal position, only 21 seconds behind Norway.
On the anchor leg, the unlucky bronze medalist from the 15 km, [Arto Koivisto], secured an easy gold medal for Finland, with Norway a distant second almost two minutes behind. The United States could not hold their medal position and dropped down to sixth place, but the Soviet Union’s [Ivan Garanin] was able to pass Switzerland and Sweden in the final stages and secure a bronze medal for the unlucky Soviet team. The team had used a new type of ski binding, apparently not strong enough for the pace and rhythm changes in a fast 10 km relay leg. After the Lesser incident the organizers received strong criticism for their lack of security control alongside the track, and Koivisto and Lesser were not the only victims of non-competing tourists skiing in and along the track.