Vida Ventsene of the Soviet Union, a 23-year-old student in only her third season of international racing, held off 36-year-old teammate Raisa Smetanina by 8.7 seconds to win the women's 10-kilometer cross-country ski race and earn the first gold medal of the 1988 Winter Olympics in Calgary, Canada.
Ventsene completed the course, which is about 6.2 miles, in 30 minutes 8.3 seconds to earn her first major international title. Smetanina, a four-time Olympian, finished in 30:17.0 to earn the eighth medal, and fifth silver, of her Olympic career. She also has three golds.
Smetanina said that Ventsene, who wasn't available for comment, "has been in good form. I thought this would be Ventsene's year because she's been skiing so strongly the last month."
Finland's two-time defending World Cup overall champion, Marjo Matikainen, prevented a Soviet sweep by taking third in 30:20.5, six seconds ahead of the Svetlana Nagueikina. Fifth place went to the Soviet Union's Tamara Tikhonova in 30:38.9.
"I'm happy with my race and my finish today," Matikainen said. "I didn't ski well in our national championships last month, but I felt I was coming on strong form-wise in the last three weeks."
Matikainen, who captured a gold in the 5K and a silver in the 10K in last year's World Championships, managed only a bronze in the 20K in the Finnish championships last month.
The victory marked a brilliant comeback by the Soviet women, who failed to win an individual race in each of the last two Nordic World Championships and were blanked in the 1984 Winter Olympics at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.
Finland's Marja-Liisa Kirvesniemi, who retired in 1985 and began a comeback only eight months ago, finished ninth, 48.7 seconds back of the winner.
Leslie Krichko of Portland, Ore., led the U.S. team, placing 36th among 51 finishers in 33:25.1. "I was a little bit disappointed with my placing," Krichko said.
Other U.S. finishers included Dorcas Denhartog of Lebanon, N.H., 40th in 34:26.1; Nancy Fiddler of Crowley Lake, Calif., 41st in 34:31.1; and Leslie Thompson of Stowe, Vt., 45th in 35:17.7.
The race, which counts in the season-long World Cup standings, moved Ventsene into first place with 63 points. Simone Greiner Petter of East Germany, the previous leader, remained at 51 after failing to score. She finished 21st, 1:41.9 back of Ventsene. Smetanina moved into third with 50 points.
Racing conditions over a trail covered mostly with man-made snow were nearly ideal, with a temperature near 30. The track also wasn't icy, as it was during training earlier in the week.
Jens Mueller, a 22-year-old East German student who dominated practice sessions all week, easily beat Austrian Markus Prock's course record twice to take the lead halfway through the Olympic men's luge singles.
Mueller, runner-up to Prock in the 1987 World Championships, completed the 4,104-foot course at Canada Olympic Park in 46.301 seconds on his first run. He followed with a time of 46.444 for a total of 1:32.745 going into today's final two heats.
"Track conditions were perfect," Mueller said. "I was very satisfied with both my runs. I knew I could run these kinds of times in competition after the week of practicing. I am very confident I can win the gold medal."
Georg Hackl, 21, of West Germany, who won the European championships last month, was less than two-tenths of a second behind at 1:32.908 after runs of 46.355 and 46.553. Iouri Khartchenko, 24, the Soviet national champion, was third at 1:32.996 (46.391 and 46.605).
Defending Olympic gold medalist Paul Hildgartner of Italy, who is competing with a new type of sled, was 10th in 1:33.698.
Prock saw his course record of 46.792, set last February, beaten a total of 16 times in the two heats. He improved upon it twice himself with runs of 46.637 and 46.632 for a fifth-place total of 1:33.269. Thomas Jacob of East Germany was fourth at 1:33.064.
The top U.S. competitor was veteran Frank Masley, 27, of Newark, Del., who was 11th at 1:33.703.
Bonny Warner, the top U.S. hope for a medal in the luge, finished fifth behind three East Germans and a Soviet in the final women's singles practice run at Canada Olympic Park.
Ute Oberhoffner, Cerstin Schmidt and Steffi Walter ran 1-2-3 in practice, followed by Ioulia Antipova of the Soviet Union and Warner, of Mount Baldy, Calif.
Oberhoffner completed the 3,543-foot course in 45.841 seconds. Schmidt was at 45.869 and Walter was also within a split second at 45.891. They were the only women under 46 seconds on the track.
Antipova slid down the course in 46.084, followed by Warner at 46.215. Cammy Myler of Lake Placid, N.Y., was sixth at 46.260.
The women's competition will be held Tuesday and Wednesday, with two heats each day.