Norway vs. Italy: the epic rivalry on skis

Forget Bode, the figure-skating judging scandal, and the Tonya Harding-Nancy Kerrigan episode. The real drama in recent Olympic history is an epic but little-noticed struggle that began 12 years ago at the Lillehammer Games.

Since 1994, the Norwegian and Italian men's cross-country relay teams have battled head-to-head for Olympic gold over 75 miles of grueling terrain. In the nearly five hours of cumulative dueling between the two powerhouses, the total difference in their times over three Games is less than one second.

The score: Norway 2, Italy 1.

So when the gun goes off for the men's 4 x 10 km relay Sunday morning, hundreds of thousands of Norwegians - many avid skiers themselves - will be gripping their remote controls.

They know this will be no jaunt through powdery fields. It'll be a tooth-and-nail fight that will demand Lance Armstrong-like quads, the aggressiveness of a linebacker, and the mental fortitude of Winston Churchill. On inch-wide skis, the racers will whistle down Pragelato's thigh-burning hills at speeds of more than 40 m.p.h., then loop through the stadium to tag off to their teammates.

This is not your average Nordic-Trak workout.

Each of the four teammates will ski a 10-kilometer leg of punishing climbs for a combined time of nearly an hour an a half - and, the Italians and Norwegians hope, a gold medal.

While some think the Italians will have "home-court" advantage this year, the Norwegians know better.

After leading the entire anchor leg in Lillehammer, Norwegian great Björn Daehlie - who's won more Olympic gold medals (eight) than any winter Games athlete - entered the stadium to the thunderous roar of tens of thousands of fans.

But in the final strides, Italian Silvio Fauner sprinted from behind to eclipse Norwegian hopes by 0.4 seconds. The shattered crowd fell dead silent as a jubilant Fauner pounded his fists in the crisp air.

That hurt. For Norwegians, brought up on cross-country skis from toddlerhood, the 4 x 10 km relay is "the pinnacle event, the Holy Grail," says Rory Morrish, a member of the Irish Winter Olympic team who lives and trains in Oslo. "The Norwegians consider it their territory."

Four years later, in Nagano, Japan, Norway set things right - but only just. After the four Norwegian skiers once again set a blistering pace with their Italians counterparts in tow, it once again came down to the wire.

This time Mr. Daehlie was relegated to the third leg, with 6 ft., 2 in., Thomas Alsgaard taking on Italy's sprightly Fauner in the final leg. As they approached the finish, the lanky giant thrust his right ski forward in the nick of time as Fauner dived head first for the line. Norway won by 0.2 seconds.

At the Salt Lake City Games, Mr. Alsgaard was up against Christian Zorzi, one of the top sprints in the world at the time, in the crucial last leg. As the two men reached the top of the hill above the stadium, Mr. Zorzi - known to his Italian fans as "Zorro" [the fox] - slowed almost to a stop, hoping that Alsgaard would take the lead into the stadium and give him the advantage of drafting and being able to launch a surprise last-minute attack.

Alsgaard prodded Zorzi's ski and gestured to him to get a move on. The fox was having none of it. So the Norwegian - who later said he decided "this was stupid" - set off with determination. Zorzi used the draft to slingshot himself to the front on the final turn, but in an incredible surge Alsgaard went wide and powered past the Italian. Norway's race, by 0.3 seconds.

As in Nagano and Lillehammer, the Italians had once again conserved crucial energy by drafting behind the Norwegians - who in all three races had stalled and tried to get the Italians to take the lead. But on that day, it wasn't enough for Zorzi.

On Sunday, he'll probably get another shot at anchoring the Italian team to gold (though the lineup is kept a close secret until the last moment, to keep opponents on tactical edge). Zorzi is likely to be up against Tore Ruud Hofstad, a controversial choice in Norway, where Mr. Hofstad was beaten in the final sprint of the national championship relay last month by the brash 20-year-old Petter Northug.

The coaches said Mr. Northug didn't have as much experience training and racing at altitude, and pointed out that his best World Cup finish so far was 20th.

But the Norwegian coaches could also pit Frode Estil against Zorzi. Mr. Estil showed his mettle on Saturday in the 30 km race, when he was trampled in the mass start and left alone in the stadium - with a broken ski. After pondering for a few moments whether to bother continuing, Estil coasted over to his coaches to get a replacement ski. He then matched a steely will with iron leg muscles to catch the leaders and take the silver medal.

Nor is that kind of feat beyond the powers of Italian star Pietro Piller Cottrer, who won Olympic bronze in the same race, 0.3 seconds behind Estil. Last month, in a World Cup relay race, he made up 41 seconds on the third leg to launch Zorzi to a 0.5 second victory over Hofstad. And in the third leg of the Salt Lake Olympic relay, he pulled the Italians from 4th back into gold medal contention before the final leg.

If these kinds of finishes thrill spectators, the racers seem to like them, too. "For me," said Bjorn Daehlie just after his team had snatched victory in Nagano, "it's better to win by 20 centimeters than by half a minute."

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