PRAGELATO, Italy - The colors of Italy’s flag streaked across the sky. The horde of Italian fans lingered, savoring one last moment of Olympic triumph.
In the middle of it all was Giorgio Di Centa, who won the last possible gold medal for the host country Sunday in the Winter Games’ final cross-country race. Di Centa beamed as he worked his way through the celebration, surrounded by eight police officers in an escort fit for a president.
What a way for Italy to end its Olympics!
Di Centa used a powerful sprint through the final stretch of the 50km skate for Italy’s first individual gold in cross-country skiing in 38 years. After his victory, sporting the Italian flag around his neck, Di Centa was asked to describe his race.
“Kilometer by kilometer?” he said with a grin.
The 33-year-old Di Centa finished in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 11.8 seconds, only eight-tenths of a second ahead of silver medalist Eugeni Dementiev of Russia — a wild ending to the longest and most grueling cross-country competition.
Moments later, a handful of parachutists, trailing streaks of smoke in red, white and green — the colors of the Italian flag — dropped from the sunny sky in a vibrant tribute to Italy’s final gold.
“I usually finish second in World Cup races but today I performed really well and I achieved a fantastic victory, especially because we are Italy,” said Di Centa, a father of three daughters. “I had been thinking and planning the race for a long time.”
It was a second gold medal for Di Centa, also a member of Italy’s winning foursome in the 4x10 relay Feb. 19.
The Russian-born Botwinov was involved with banned Austrian coach Walter Mayer four years ago at the Salt Lake City Olympics, where Botwinov won silver in the 30km.
“This is my most beautiful medal after these turbulent days,” the 38-year-old Botwinov said. “Our team deserved this medal. I thought I would finish back in the sprint, but now it’s a pity I missed the silver by such a little margin.”
He said he remained at home in Austria recovering from a cold when the raids took place last weekend.
Dementiev won the 30km pursuit race on the first day of competition, then had another strong day of skiing that fell just short of Di Centa’s brilliant push through the stadium.
“With 300 meters to go, I realized that my legs were still powerful and I decided to try,” Di Centa said.
Fellow Italian Pietro Piller Cottrer made a move with about 5 kilometers left, briefly leaving a pack that stayed together out front for most of the competition. But Cottrer was closely chased by Jiri Magal of the Czech Republic and Magal then took the top spot.
Cottrer wound up fifth and Magal eighth in an event in which skiers complete five 10-kilometer loops.
The top 20 skiers were within 7 seconds of each other heading into the final 10 kilometers. About 40 skiers in the 82-man field were part of the leading pack by the midway point in the mass-start race.
The last time the event was conducted using free technique — or skating — was in the 1998 Nagano Olympics. The event featured classic skiing in Salt Lake City and there hasn’t been a 50km skate race so far this World Cup season.
Norway’s Frode Estil won this event using classical technique last year in Oberstdorf, Germany, but the Norwegians weren’t considered favorites and surprisingly will leave these Olympics without a cross-country gold medal.
World Cup leader Tobias Angerer finished 24th.
American Carl Swenson, 35, did not finish after starting despite being slowed by a head cold leading up to the race. He trained Saturday and decided to give it a go in his third and final Olympics. Andrew Johnson was the top U.S. finisher at 34th.