FILE UNDER -- Nordic

TORINO: Nordic: Di Centa wins 50 km; Johnson tops Americans in 34th

TORINO: Nordic: Di Centa wins 50 km; Johnson tops Americans in 34th{mosimage}PRAGELATO, Italy – Andrew Johnson led the U.S. effort with a 34th-place finish in the men’s 50-kilometer free mass-start event Sunday morning at the Pragelato Plan cross-country skiing venue.

Johnson’s time of 2 hours, 7 minutes, 56.3 seconds was 1:44.5 behind the gold-medal effort of Italy’s Giorgio di Centa, who covered the distance in a time of 2:06:11.8. The silver medal went to Russia’s Eugeni Dementiev, who edged Mikhail Botwinov of Austria in a photo finish.

Other Americans, their results and placements: Kris Freeman 2:15:32.6, 61st. Carl Swenson and James Southam competed but did not finish.

Di Centa used a powerful sprint through the final stretch of the 50-kilometer skate for Italy’s first individual gold in cross-country skiing in 38 years.

The 33-year-old finished in 2 hours, 6 minutes, 11.8 seconds, only eight-tenths of a second ahead of silver medalist Dementiev – a wild ending to the longest and most grueling cross-country competition.

”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 4×10 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 30 km.

”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 was at home in Austria recovering from a cold when the raids took place last weekend.

Dementiev won the 30 km 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.

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 50 km 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.

– USOC/The Associated Press

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