LILLEHAMMER, Norway — It was obviously a setup for the Norwegians.
They had the home-snow advantage, about 100,000 screaming compatriots backing their efforts, and as dreamy a Dream Team as any Nordic skiing buff could hope to see in Tuesday's 40-kilometer men's relay.
Sture Sivertsen, who won the 10k classical race in the 1993 World Championships, led off. Vegard Ulvang, winner of three gold medals two years ago in the Albertville Olympics, was up next. And skiing the freestyle legs were Thomas Alsgaard, winner of the 30k race a week ago, and Bjorn Daehlie, who won two of three races here and was second in the other.
Surprise! He finished second again, along with his Viking teammates.
Finished second to Italy, a team that led off with 43-year-old Maurilio de Zolt.
In a race that had Europeans saying to North Americans, "That's what we like about cross-country ski racing," Italian anchor skier Silvio Fauner edged Daehlie by less than half a second.
Before a suddenly silent crowd--slalom star Alberto Tomba was one of the few yelling for his Italian teammates--Fauner, somewhat reluctantly, passed Daehlie in the hairpin turn leading to the stretch run, then outkicked a hard-charging Daehlie at the finish, winning by about a yard.
"For three years, they have been the strongest in the world," said Marco Albarello, who skied Italy's second leg. "The biggest satisfaction was to come into the stadium and hear that the crowd was silent. We were able to shut them up."
Daehlie said: "I think we disappointed 4 million Norwegians today. Maybe some of them broke their TVs. But we made good entertainment. It was good promotion for cross-country skiing, I think."
That it was. For nearly two hours--Italy won in 1 hour 41 minutes 15 seconds--the Norwegian and Italian skiers raced as if they were on a tandem bike, Finns joining them for three-quarters of the way. On the last leg, though, Finnish anchorman Jari Isometsae was unable to keep up with Fauner and Daehlie, and they had the race to themselves, every grueling stride of it.
First Daehlie would pull away on the uphill portions, then Fauner would catch him on the flat. When he couldn't build a lead of any consequence, Daehlie changed the pace, slowing, trying to entice Fauner into a premature sprint. If Daehlie wasn't skiing on Fauner's tails, Fauner was skiing on Daehlie's.
When Fauner took the lead for good, it was at Daehlie's invitation. The skiers exchanged looks at the top of the hairpin, then Fauner moved slightly ahead.
"Bjorn had tried to open a gap on me but I stayed right behind him, and then he wanted me to go into the lead (and set the pace for the finish)," Fauner said. "I was tired. He wanted me to go by but I didn't want to."
Daehlie said: "I wanted to go as No. 2 to the finish area. I knew Fauner is a little bit faster so I wanted to go behind (conserving strength), then go quite fast when there were 100 or 50 meters left and beat him at the finish line. (In that situation,) it's a little easier to go behind."
As they entered the stadium for the final kick, they were matching strides, as usual, in tandem, Fauner ahead. Then Daehlie jumped over to the left side of the track and kicked.
He got almost even with Fauner, then the Italian found his own kick and got home first.
Daehlie had nothing but praise for the Italian team, notably de Zolt.
"In the 1992 Olympics, I thought, 'He's old enough to be my father.' I don't think I'll ski as fast as that when I'm 43."
Each skier went 10k, the first two legs in the classical manner, the last two in freestyle. And de Zolt's opening leg was as surprising as it was impressive.
Sivertsen was first out and led much of the way but couldn't shake Mika Myllylae of Finland or de Zolt. After the first 10k, Sivertsen and Myllylae were even, but de Zolt was only a stride behind.
"For me, the day was very hard," de Zolt said. "If I ran well, the others would be able to run well. If I ran badly, it would have been very difficult for others to catch up so I tried to run as fast as possible. I never got (an Olympic) medal and I thought this might be my last opportunity."
Albarello kept pace with Ulvang on the second leg, then Giorgio Vanzetta skied against Alsgaard on the third, Finns Harri Kirvesniemi and Jari Raesaenen making it a three-nation race.
Isometsae dropped off early in the last leg--Finland got the bronze--and it came down to Fauner and Daehlie.
"I was lucky enough to take gold in the earlier races," Daehlie said. "I have no excuses. It was just nice to have so many people there."
Quiet people, as it turned out.