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Sunday, February 17, 2002
USA takes fifth, its highest showing in the event

Associated Press

MIDWAY, Utah -- Thomas Alsgaard's teammates picked him up, put him on their shoulders and paraded him around in circles near the finish line.

Justin Wadsworth and Carl Swenson
Justin Wadsworth, left, tags teammate Carl Swenson as the Americans cruise to a best-ever fifth-place finish.

They were just returning the favor.

Alsgaard carried Norway to the gold medal in the men's 40-kilometer cross-country relay Sunday. He passed Italy's Cristian Zorzi in the home stretch and gave the Norwegians a victory in the event for the third time in the last four Olympics.

The Italians won the silver and Germany got the bronze.

For the third consecutive Olympics, the world's premier cross-country event was decided by a little more than a ski tip -- and all of the close calls have involved Norway and Italy.

"For some reason it always come down to Norway and Italy in a sprint," Alsgaard said. "That's tradition. ... If I would have lost it, it would have been a disaster. So we're happy."

The United States took fifth -- its best showing in the event -- behind John Bauer, Kris Freeman, Justin Wadsworth and Carl Swenson.

"It's time to stop European-worshiping, as I call it," Freeman said. "We know how to race. You can be as good as you want to be -- it doesn't matter what country you're from -- and I think we're showing that now. The United States is coming."

The Norwegians won without Ole Einar Bjoerndalen, who has won three gold medals in the biathlon but was passed over for one of the four legs of competition because he had already raced more than 46 miles at these games.

"It was not an easy decision because we have so many good skiers," teammate Anders Aukland said.

The moved almost cost Norway the race.

Kristen Skjeldal, chosen in place of Bjoerndalen, surrendered a 23-second lead over Italy in the third leg.

"When I got the task, I said, 'I just have to do my best,"' Skjeldal said. "We'll never know how Bjoerndalen would have done. Maybe better or maybe not as good because he skied (Saturday) and could have been tired."

The Italians closed on Skjeldal and forced a frantic finish.

Zorzi, possibly the best sprinter in the world, passed Alsgaard as they entered the arena. But Alsgaard, who said a day earlier that he couldn't beat the Italian in a sprint, went back in front and pulled away in the final 100 meters.

"I feel I am the weakest part of the team," Skjeldal said. "If Thomas would have lost, in a way, I would feel a little bit guilty. ... I was almost flying when I saw Thomas beating him in the last 100 meters."

The Norwegians -- Aukland, Skjeldal, Alsgaard and Frode Estil -- covered the Soldier Hollow course in 1 hour, 32 minutes, 45.5 seconds. Zorzi finished three-tenths of a second behind Alsgaard.

Tight races are nothing new for this event. The last three men's Olympic relays have been decided by a combined nine-tenths of a second.

Italy's Sylvio Fauner edged the great Bjorn Daehlie of Norway by four-tenths of a second in 1994, then Alsgaard needed a last-second lunge to nip Fauner by two-tenths of a second four years later.

Norway, the reigning world relay champion, also beat Italy for the gold in 1992. Skjeldal was part of that team. Alsgaard got the silver in 1994 and the gold in 1998 and now 2002.

"It shows that we are still the best team in the world," Alsgaard said.