Host City: Lillehammer, Norway
Venue(s): Birkebeineren Ski Stadium, Lillehammer
Date Started: February 22, 1994
Date Finished: February 22, 1994
In 1992 Norway had won the gold medal in the relay, defeating Italy fairly easily. Norway had also been World Champion in 1991 and 1993, with Italy second in 1993. The 1994 relay would take place in and around the Birkerbeineren Stadium and over 150,000 ski-crazy Norwegians came to watch the spectacle, expecting to root their boys on to another gold medal. Italy had different plans. There were 14 teams in the race, but seemingly only Norway and Italy mattered, although Finland would put on a brave struggle and stay with the two leaders for 3½ legs.
On the opening leg, Sture Sivertsen put Norway slightly in the lead with Finland second and Italy third, almost 10 seconds back. But the second runner for Italy was Marco Albarello, who had won a bronze medal in the individual 10 km. Albarello faced Norway’s Vegard Ulvang, a Norwegian ski hero, but one who was struggling in Lillehammer, as it came a few months after the death of his brother in a ski accident. Ulvang, who had missed weeks of training searching for his lost brother, could not match the Italian and at the second exchange, Italy led, with Norway second and Finland third, although only 1.1 seconds separated the leaders. The medals were decided as Russia was in fourth, almost 1½ minutes behind.
The third leg skiers were Thomas Alsgaard for Norway, already winner of the 30 km, Giorgio Vanzetta for Italy, and Jari Räsänen for Finland. Räsänen hadn’t been told that the race was supposed to be between Norway and Italy, as he skied the fastest third leg and put Finland into the lead at the anchor exchange. Italy was second and Norway third, but again, only 1.1 seconds separated the three teams. On the final leg Finland would drop back, unable to keep pace with Bjørn Dæhlie for Norway and Silvio Fauner for Italy. Fauner skied on Dæhlie’s back throughout most of the 10 km leg, refusing to take the lead, even when Dæhlie almost stopped, trying to force Fauner to go ahead, in accord with skiing traditions. But Fauner refused to set the pace, leading Alsgaard to later comment, “We hate them for that.” On the final turn into Birkerbeineren Stadium, Fauner moved just ahead of Dæhlie. The 150,000 Norwegians were screaming, and cowbells were ablazing, but as Dæhlie made his move 100 metres from the line, Fauner matched it and Italy won by 4/10ths of a second in the greatest ever ski race.
It is said that the Italians celebrated for two months over their victory, while all Norway mourned. In 1998, Norway and Italy would go at it again, this time Norway winning by an even closer margin, 2/10ths of a second. In 2002, the result was the same – Norway 1, Italy 2 – with the margin still only 3/10ths of a second. Over three Winter Olympics, the two teams would race 120 kilometres, with the total winning margin less than a second, and Norway ahead in cumulative time by 0.1 seconds. But they had lost the one they really wanted, on their home snow, in their hallowed ski stadium, and it would always hurt. It has been called “The Great Race,” and if you mention just that to a Nordic skiing fan, preferably not a Norwegian, they will know what you mean.