Less than a second: the epic 90s Olympic rivalry between Norway and Italy in cross-country skiing  

There was an era of Olympic cross-country skiing in which the winner of the men's 4x10km relay was an almost exclusive affair between Norway and Italy. Those teams also experienced the paradox of battling for gold over lengthy exhausting Nordic distances with the result often coming down to a matter of centimetres. Olympics.com looks back at the close races of Lillehammer 1994, Nagano 1998, and Salt Lake 2002.

By Gisella Fava

The rivalry in the men's 4x10 km relay between Norway and Italy reached its climax in the nineties, but its history begins years before Lillehammer 1994, and closes its cycle on the snow of Pragelato, in Torino 2006. Let's retrace the salient stages of an exciting story that has made the men's relay one of the most popular and anticipated of the Winter Games.

Björn Daehlie

A blast to the early past of Scandinavia's cross-country skiing supremacy

On the eve of Albertville 1992, Norway and Finland had collected, since the first Winter Games at Chamonix 1924, 36 Olympic podiums each in Nordic skiing, second only to their Swedish cousins, then the rulers of cross-country, with 39 podiums.

They had been crucial years for cross-country with skiing techniques developing in both classic – a continuous movement forward in tracks of an alternating step and push – and the more recent free technique, a side-to-side skating motion.

At the two previous Winter Olympic Games, Sweden had won seven medals in cross-country – three gold, one silver and one bronze at Sarajevo 1984, and two golds at Calgary 1988 – yet in France, the Swedes claimed only one podium, bronze in the 10km classic.

But whereas the Swedes wanted to forget all about the French Olympics, for Norway, Albertville 1992 was a resounding success. The Games saw the Olympic coronation of two ski legends: Vegard Ulvang who became the 30km classic and 10km classic champion, and runner-up in the pursuit; Bjorn Daehlie, meanwhile, won gold in the pursuit and 50km freestyle and silver in the 30km classic, and would go on to claim 12 podiums in total across his Olympic career. The duo made up half of the 4x10km relay team in France.

Vergard Ulvang

Albertville 1992: the first episode of the Italian assault on the Norwegian fortress

While the spotlight was focused on the Scandinavian athletes, on the slopes of France the hard work of the Italian cross-country movement bore fruit. Up to that moment, Italy's participation in Nordic distances had only been in isolation, such as the feats of Franco Nones (the first male non-Scandinavian, non-Soviet cross-country winner, in Grenoble 1968) and of Maurilio de Zolt, silver medallist in the 50km freestyle at Calgary 1988.

In Albertville, however, the Italians began to achieve individual podium success. Behind the astonishing Daehlie, 'Grillo' de Zolt repeated the silver medal of Calgary as part of an Italian podium double in the 50km freestyle, with compatriot Giorgio Vanzetta claiming bronze. Vanzetta also claimed bronze in the 15km freestyle pursuit, with Marco Albarello collecting silver in the 10km classic.

So the evidence of the growth of the Italian cross-country skiers was there, but at that stage it was difficult to know whether it was just a flash in the pan or a solid reality going forward. How would the team do in the pinnacle of cross-country skiing, the 4x10km relay?

Bjorn Daehlie, Maurilio De Zolt and Giorgio Vanzetta
Picture by 2019 Getty Images

The French slopes acted as a watershed moment for the Italian's cross-country ski team.

In Les Saisies, Italy fielded a relay side of Giuseppe Puliè and Silvio Fauner alongside Albarello and Vanzetta, who were buoyed by their spirited individual results. The Azzurri put themselves between the Norge gods – the winners with a clear advantage of one minute 26.7 seconds over Italy – with the Finns coming in third.

The next Olympic Games, however, were to be held on Norwegian soil, giving the home side the advantage of a local crowd to cheer them on. The fans expected nothing less than a win.

The Italian victory in the house of the masters: the silence of Lillehammer

At Lillehammer 1994, the hosts began by confirming all the predictions, winning medals on medals. The local public glorified in the rise of a new champion, Thomas Alsgaard, who won his first Olympic gold, on home snow, in the 30km freestyle race.

Heading into the relay, the Norwegian squad, which included a mix of legends and rising stars, were deemed unbeatable. Alsgaard, Ulvang and Daehlie were joined by Sture Sivertsen who would go on to win bronze in the 50km classic a few days later.

Italy, despite signs of vitality and growth, was anything but the favorite. However, the Azzurri shaped the perfect race. De Zolt, 43 year's old at this point and the oldest athlete of the event, sat in third at the takeover; Albarello and Vanzetta then managed to keep pace with the giants.

The last quarter went down in history. 'Sissio' Fauner bewitched Daehlie, the master of distance races, who struggled to find a final sprint. The Italian resistance turned into gold and the hosts were dethroned in front of the King and the 30,000 spectators in the Birkebeineren Stadium. The Norwegian flags went limp and the crowd were silenced when the foursome lost the race by less than half a second.

The Viking revenge of Nagano and Salt Lake

At Nagano 1998, the Norwegians rethought their strategy: the launch was entrusted to Sivertsen, Erling Jevne was recruited in place of Ulvang, and the order was reversed between Alsgaard and Daehlie. The change of responsibility in the team created more of a furrow in the internal rivalry between the two, but the disagreements - fueled by the friction created by individual results - did not prevent a strong team performance and the Olympic gold returned to Norge. The Italian veterans Albarello and Fauner, and debutants Fulvio Valbusa and Fabio Maj claimed silver. Norway had paid back the Lillehammer disappointment with interest, beating Italy by a mere two tenths of a second. Finland once again closed out the podium.

In the relay showdown at Salt Lake City in 2002, Norway debuted some new young faces, with Alsgaard the only experienced member of the foursome. Anders Aukland, Frode Estil and Kristen Skjeldal joined him but it was Alsgaard on the last leg who used his experience to beat Cristian Zorzi in the final yards, finishing the race just three tenths of a second ahead of the Italians, in another mighty close finish.

Previous bronze winners, Finland, were way down the order in 11th, with Germany taking the final podium spot.

Silvio Fauner, Marco Albarello, Maurilio de Zolt and Giorgio Vanzetta in Torino 2006
Picture by 2006 Getty Images

The Italian revenge of Turin 2006 and the end of a cycle

The Pragelato relay is on record as the epilogue of the rivalry of that glorious generation of Nordic skiers. This time, the Italian team of Valbusa, Giorgio Di Centa, Pietro Piller Cottrer and Zorzi dominated on home snow, beating second-placed Germany by more than 15 seconds. This was Italy's fifth straight medal in men's cross-country relay at the Winter Olympics.

Sweden took bronze, their first medal since 1988, the same year Norway started their medal run. This was the first time since then that Norway were out of the medals, let alone out of the gold-medal race. And with that, Torino 2006 closed the cycle of a legendary generation of cross-country champions.

Cristian Zorzi, Pietro Piller Cottrer, Fulvio Valbusa and Giorgio Di Centa
Picture by 2006 Getty Images