Italians shock team pursuit


TURIN, Italy -- Spontaneously, passionately, insistently came the chants last night from the crowd at the Lingotto Oval, an urgent plea for gold that roared around the arena: "I-tal-ia! I-tal-ia!"

The Italian men's speed skating team did not disappoint.

Carried along on a wave of sound, the Italian men sailed to a victory in the team pursuit, a victory both unexpected and unexpectedly easy. Italy, led by Enrico Fabris, a bronze medalist in the 5,000 meters earlier in these Games, defeated Canada by almost three seconds in the three-man, 3,200-meter event, which made its Olympic debut.

The victory gave Italy its first Olympic speed skating gold medal and touched off a mad celebration on the ice that included belly-flopping and group hugs, and prompted Super Bowl-style phone calls to the victors - Fabris, Matteo Anesi and Ippolito Sanfratello - from Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi and President Carlo Azeglio Ciampi.

An elated Sanfratello said of Ciampi's call, "He supported us, and that means that also our little sport can give big emotions."

Fabris, who finished third Saturday in the 5,000 (behind U.S. gold medalist Chad Hedrick), said, "It helps a lot to skate at home."

The Netherlands won the bronze medal, defeating Norway.

In the women's team pursuit, a 2,400-meter race, the German team, featuring Anni Friesinger, one of the world's best all-around female skaters, defeated Canada. Russia took bronze. The U.S. women's team finished fifth.

The Italian path to the men's gold medal included upsets Wednesday over the Hedrick-led Americans in the quarterfinals, and over the Dutch in the semifinals yesterday. Against the Americans, the Italians set an Olympic record at 3 minutes, 43.64 seconds.

Skating in the consolation round yesterday, without Hedrick, the Americans finished sixth.

In yesterday's semifinal, meanwhile, the Italians got a break. With three laps of eight remaining, Dutch skater Sven Kramer, the silver medalist in the 5,000, clipped a lane marker in the turn and sprawled into teammate Carl Verheijen.

"I think Kramer fell because he felt the pressure of our comeback," Fabris said.

In the stands, it was all ever so glorious for the likes of Claudio Tosco, 36, of Carignano, Italy. A green, red and white Italian flag draped around his shoulders, Tosco, hoarse from shouting, "I-tal-ia!" said in halting English, "I have been excited to [see] the event - not just the victory."

Then he paused and said, "But it's better - victory!"

Alan Abrahamson writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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