Expectations were high for Jarl Magnus Riiber going into the Winter Olympics. "He's probably going to go down as the best Nordic combined skier ever," NBC analyst Johnny Spillane said, per the Wall Street Journal. "If he has a good day, he's pretty much unstoppable." He did not have a good day on Tuesday. It started out well enough: A first-place finish in Monday's large hill ski jumping competition meant the Norwegian was first to start the 10K cross-country race, with a 0:44 lead. It was a good sign considering he'd missed all his training sessions during two weeks in COVID-19 isolation, which he emerged from just in time for Monday's jump.
"What happened next was a gaffe that will go down in Nordic combined lore," per the Journal. Coming up to the first of four loops in the course, which he hadn't yet skied, Riiber had to decide whether to go left or right. He picked right—which turned out to be the path to the finish line, not the path to the rest of the circuit. "Has the cold paralyzed his brain?" announcers hollered on one broadcast, per the Journal. Fifty yards in, the skier realized his error and turned around, but by then his minute-long lead had evaporated, per the AP. He finished eighth. Fellow Norwegian Joergen Graabak—who started more than 2 minutes behind Riiber after a 12th place finish in ski jumping—snagged the gold medal, followed by teammate Jens Luraas Oftebro and Akito Watabe of Japan.
It's not the first time Riiber has lost his way on a course as frontrunner. As an 18-year-old, he took a wrong turn at the 2016 Nordic Combined World Cup and was disqualified. "It's a silly mistake. It's not fun to show the world that I’m maybe wasting a gold medal on that," Riiber told reporters Tuesday. But he also complained of COVID-19 symptoms and a lack of fresh air over the preceding two weeks. "My body is not working," he said, per the AP. "Normally, I'm one of the better skiers and today I was just bad." (Read more 2022 Beijing Olympics stories.)