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WORLD SPORT

Di Centa gives Italy fairytale end

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Di Centa punches the air as he claims a thrilling victory in the men's 50km

PRAGELATO, Italy -- Giorgio di Centa gave hosts Italy a fairytale finish to the Games by winning the final cross-country skiing event in a thrilling sprint finish.

Roared on by thousands of local fans in bright sunshine, di Centa found a final ounce of energy in the last 300 meters to win the punishing men's 50km freestyle by just 0.8 seconds.

His margin of victory, after more than two hours toiling up and down snowy, wooded tracks, was the narrowest in the history of the Olympics.

Russia's Eugeni Dementiev threw himself across the line to take silver in a photo-finish with Mikhail Botwinov of Austria, whose bronze came four years after he was embroiled in a doping controversy at the Salt Lake City Games.

Di Centa, brother of former Olympic champion Manuela di Centa, is the first athlete from outside Scandinavia or the former Soviet Union to win the Olympic 50km race, the most prestigious on the cross-country program.

As he stepped on to the podium, an Italian tricolour in his right hand and a wide grin across his face, the home fans let out a huge roar of appreciation.

"I tried to stay between second and fourth place for most of the race and on the final lap, when I got to the tunnel, by the river, my legs still felt good," he said.

"I was expecting a fightback from someone behind me, as has happened in previous races. I only believed I'd won when I crossed the finish line."

Dementiev added silver to the gold he won in the men's 30km pursuit, but the real surprise was Botwinov's bronze.

The Russian-born 38-year-old was at the centre of the infamous doping controversy in Salt Lake City, when blood transfusion equipment and a certificate with his name on it were found in an Austrian team room.

The scandal resulted in a ban for the then-head of the Austrian team Walter Mayer, who resurfaced at these Games when he visited the Austrian team.

Mayer's presence in Pragelato sparked a police raid, late night doping tests for Austrian athletes and a bizarre car chase involving Mayer and the Austrian police.

Mayer has since been sacked and is reportedly receiving psychiatric treatment.

Botwinov, who competed as a Russian at the 1992 and 1994 Games before joining the Austrians, has never been implicated in doping or banned.

"Personally I do not have a bad conscience, I do not have to justify anything," he said. "I worked very hard for many years."

His medal was Austria's first in cross-country and may go some way to lifting the gloom which descended on his team in the wake of the police raid.

The men's 50km event has been staged in either freestyle or classical at all 20 editions of the Winter Olympics since the inaugural Games of 1924, and this was the first time the Scandinavians failed to make the podium.

The fastest Scandinavian was Sweden's Anders Soedergren, who came sixth, while the best-placed Norwegian was Tord Asle Gjerdalen in 15th.

For the first time since 1988, the Norwegians, traditionally the most powerful country in the discipline, have failed to win a single cross-country gold at the Olympics.

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