Cross-Country Sprint Makes Olympic Debut

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Midway, Utah (AP by Mark Long)--Cross country's newest Olympic event made its debut with frantic finishes, fallen favorites and charges of foul play.

Exactly what the skiers expected.

In the end, Julija Tchepalova of Russia and Tor Arne Hetland of Norway won their first gold medals of these Winter Games, capturing 1.5-kilometer sprints.

``This was fun,'' Hetland said. ``It's good for the sport that something new is coming.''

In the fast-paced sprints, athletes ski a little less than a mile, making it easier for fans to follow than longer cross-country races.

``It's so easy even the Americans can understand the sprint,'' Hetland said.

The fields were narrowed during qualifying. The fastest 16 skiers moved into four elimination heats. The top two skiers from each four-person heat advanced to the semifinals. The top two skiers in each semifinal then advanced to the four-person final.

There was plenty of contact and controversy. It looked a little like speedskating and a lot like NASCAR on snow.

``Today was just my lucky day,'' Tchepalova said. ``I was very surprised I won the gold medal in that race.''

Especially with such a chaotic Olympic debut. There were dozens of upsets, several close calls, a few photo finishes and two protested races.

Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic, favored to win the women's event, was eliminated in the second round. Six other top female skiers failed to qualify for the elimination heats.

It was the same on the men's side.

Sweden's Thobias Fredriksson, Austria's Marc Mayer and Finland's Ari Palolahti failed to qualify. Then the top qualifier, Norway's Haavard Bjerkeli, broke a pole in the final straightaway and was eliminated in the second round.

The races were full of other surprises.

Tchepalova dusted off a pair of skis she hadn't used in two years and rode them to victory for her second medal of these Olympics. She jumped in front at the start and pulled away at the end.

``I took a lot of risks today,'' said Tchepalova, who won bronze in the 10K classical event. ``It was my husband who suggested tactics for today's race. He told me I'd be able to hang on at the end, and that's what I tried to do.''

Evi Sachenbacher of Germany won the silver and Anita Moen of Norway won the bronze.

Claudia Kuenzel of Germany finished fourth and protested the results, claiming Moen cut her off by illegally changing lanes in the final stretch. A competition panel overruled the complaint shortly after the finish.

Unlike Tchepalova, Hetland saved his burst for the finish. He started his final in third place, patiently waiting to make a move. He passed Italy's Cristian Zorzi in the final 100 meters. Germany's Peter Schlickenrieder then did the same thing, edging the Italian by the tip of his skis.

Schlickenrieder won the silver and Zorzi took the bronze.

``A medal is always a great thing,'' said Zorzi, the favorite who also was edged by Norway in the final leg of the 40K relay.

The men's final also had a protest. Schlickenrieder contended that Hetland cut him off by illegally changing lanes in the final stretch. Schlickenrieder tried to withdraw his complaint after talking to team members, but the competition panel already had overruled the grievance.

``This is about what we expected,'' Hetland said. ``I hope it was as much fun to watch as it was to race.''

Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press

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