Long, last race is home gold


PRAGELATO PLAN, Italy -- For a nation that at times seemed lukewarm about hosting the Winter Olympics, the final day of the sports extravaganza brought a nice parting gift.

A shot of adrenaline.

The jolt came from a boisterous crowd that lined the cross-country skiing course yesterday morning, and from Giorgio di Centa, who gave them something to cheer about at the end.

The Italian stayed with the lead pack for the better part of two hours, then sprinted away in the final few hundred meters to win the men's 50-kilometer race.

"I expected someone to pass me," he said through a translator. "It was only when I crossed the finish line that I actually believed I had made it."

This race is the winter version of the marathon, reserved for the final day, long and grueling. Historically, whoever wins is considered the ruler of the sport.

Di Centa earned that title by outsprinting Eugeni Dementiev of Russia and Mikhail Botwinov of Austria.

"Today, Giorgio was much stronger," Dementiev said. "There was nothing I could do at the finish."

For such a long race - the winning time was 2 hours, 6 minutes, 11.8 seconds - the end was surprisingly close.

Through much of the morning, a lead pack of 25 or more racers stayed tightly bunched. Every once in a while, someone would attempt to break away.

Pietro Piller Cottrer of Italy, the favorite, tried and fell back. So did Anders Soedergren of Sweden. Another contender, Vincent Vittoz of France, had no luck.

Di Centa was biding his time.

"I really hate to stay in the crowd," he said. "But I felt that I had to get up front. I felt that I had to do that because the competition was so tough."

His final burst gave him just enough for an 0.8 of a second victory. Dementiev stretched a ski tip across the line to edge Botwinov.

Afterward, considerable attention was paid to the bronze-medal winner, if only because his team had come under scrutiny during these Games.

Italian police raided the Austrian team's private housing and tested a number of cross-country skiers and biathletes. The tests came back negative, but the investigation continues.

Botwinov said through an interpreter that "one effect was that the atmosphere was quite tense in general. In the team, we could feel a certain tension coming from the other athletes."

If so, it wasn't coming from di Centa, at least not after the race. His win came as a surprise in that everyone figured that Piller Cottrer would be the biggest Italian threat.

A flag draped across his shoulders, di Centa strode through a crowd that cheered and chanted and sang his name.

"Today," he said, grinning, "I can admit that I was lucky."

There was still a gold-medal hockey game to be played down in the city of Turin, but at high elevation, it felt like a happy ending.

David Wharton writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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