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Italy Revels in Gold in Men’s 4x10km Relay

February 19, 2006

PRAGELATO, Italy (AP) _ Fulvio Valbusa transformed the Italian flag into a necktie for this momentous occasion. Anchor skier Cristian Zorzi took the opportunity to remove his hat and show off a shaggy head of hair dyed bright red with black streaks that goes well with his funky sideburns.

Italy’s victorious cross-country relay team made a grand entrance for its celebratory news conference and was greeted with a standing ovation and loud applause from the journalists who cover the country.

Zorzi _ the man nicknamed Zorro who often poses in a mask like the one worn by the fictional action hero _ turned a narrow 5.6-second lead into a commanding victory, skiing brilliantly in the final leg to lift Italy to its third gold medal of the Turin Games with a win Sunday in the 4x10km cross-country race.

Zorzi came through the stadium to cheering fans in green, red and white top hats waving Italian flags in the falling snow, finishing in 1 hour, 43 minutes, 45.7 seconds _ 15.7 seconds ahead of the silver-medal winning German team.

``It was like a dream,″ Zorzi said. ``It is a dream that came true. I lived the emotions. I closed my eyes twice to realize if it was a dream or reality. When I got to the finish line, I saw that nobody was close to me. I was happy for me and for my teammates.″

Sweden won the bronze. The Austrians, competing only several hours after they found themselves the target of a doping raid, finished last out of the 16 teams.

Italy went from a close-behind fourth place into the lead during the third 10km leg of the race, skied by Pietro Piller Cottrer. Zorzi then extended the lead Cottrer gave him.

Once they were through, the foursome _ which also included Giorgio di Centa _ locked arms, raised the flag in their hands and jumped up and down while their supporters did the same in the stands to a disco version of Italian opera music.

It was another disappointing day for Norway, which finished fifth and has not won a cross-country gold in these games.

The Austrian team of Martin Tauber, Juergen Pinter, Roland Diethart and Johannes Eder was exhausted after Italian authorities searched the residences of staff members of the country’s biathlon and cross-country teams overnight. Officials said they were looking for banned substances.

``We were surprised in our room,″ Pinter said. ``Suddenly the police came in and didn’t let us leave on the night before the competition. This happened without any positive result from doping control in the team. There’s definitely no doping in the Austrian team. It’s crazy.″

They Austrians were lapped and didn’t have an official time. All four skiers were among those tested, with Tauber getting no sleep at all and the others only three hours.

``The athletes were treated like criminals, they weren’t even allowed to make a phone call,″ Austrian cross-country spokesman Eric Wagner told The Associated Press. ``They checked every drink, every food, and they took a lot of stuff with them. They came around 9 and stayed until 12, and then took the athletes away to be tested.″

Each athlete skis for 10 kilometers, the first two using classical technique and the second two allowed to skate.

The American team of Kris Freeman, Lars Flora, Andrew Johnson and Carl Swenson placed 12th. The 35-year-old Swenson, competing in his third and last Olympics, has a good chance to do well in the 50km race Feb. 26.

France appealed its fourth-place finish, claiming a Swedish skier, Mathias Fredriksson, took a short cut after making a mistake on the course.

``We objected to the course jury and it was rejected. We have decided to make an appeal and for that we must provide proof. We are seeking TV images,″ said Jean-Pierre Burdet, director of the French cross-country team.

Said Fredriksson: ``That’s news to me. I hope we didn’t (cut them off).″


AP sports writer Nesha Starcevic contributed to this story.

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