There was a time when Italy dominated the men’s 4x10km. In a long-standing rivalry with Norway that dates back to the 1992 Albertville Winter Olympics, the Italian team has since seen their success in the event fade as Norwegians maintained their tight hold on the event. The Norwegian team, now spearheaded by Johannes Hoesflot Klaebo, continued to elevate the skills of their athletes into the 21st century far beyond what Italian skiers were capable of in the 90’s.
The golden era of the Italian 4x10km relay reached its highest intensity in the 90’s when the men’s team was led by Marco Albarello in the first half of the decade. Albarello went up against Norway’s star skier Bjorn Daehlie at the 1992, 1994 and 1998 Winter Games. The Italians stopped a Norwegian three-peat from happening at Lillehammer 1994 and won their last gold medal in the 4x10km relay at Torino 2006.
While the Italians only won one Olympic gold medal in the relay during 1994 on Norwegian home turf, they took home silver every other time to keep Finland at bay. In the four Winter Olympic Games where Norway and Italy had secured the first and second spots on the podium in the men’s relay, less than a second separated them over 120km.
The Italian skiers established themselves as threats to the Scandinavians starting at the 1992 games in Albertville.
Giorgio Vanzetta, who would become an integral part of the Italian relay team, won individual Olympic medals prior to the relay including the 50km freestyle with teammate Maurilio De Zolt, and 15km freestyle pursuit. The Italian team proved they had the physical capabilities in their freestyle and classic skiing techniques to clinch gold in the 4x10km relay, but fell short. Norway took gold at the start of their rivalry with a time of 1:39:26.0. This was Bjoern's Olympic debut and he finished the 1992 Games with three gold medals. Their win was the first time the Norwegian team won Olympic gold since 1968. Sweden had won the last two 4x10km relays in 1984 and 1988.
On Norway's home turf, the Scandinavians were expected to take home gold again for a repeat of their 1992 Olympic performance in the men’s 4x10km relay. Similar to the Italian's performance in Albertville, the Norwegians found the podium in cross-country skiing events including the 30km freestyle event prior to the relay. Their success led fans to believe they would secure Olympic gold with no problem. There was no noticeable leader at the beginning and middle of the race. It all came down to a nail-biter showdown in the last quarter.
Italy’s Silvio Fauner beat Norway’s Daehlie at his own game. Daehlie, up until that point, had been the master of distance events and previously took home gold in the pursuit and 50km in 1992. Daehlie had been leading Fauner up until the final sprint when he lost grip on his skis and Fauner beat him to the line. Norway had been dethroned on home turf in less than half a second.
Nagano 1998 and Salt Lake City 2002
After their humiliating loss at home at the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics, Norway surged to take back-to-back golds in the 4x10km relay. They reclaimed first place at the 1998 Nagano Olympics, two tenths of a second ahead of Italy. A new race plan that switched Daehlie and Alsgaard in the Norwegian lineup aided in their return to gold. In their last relay race for the Italian team, Albarello and Fauner took silver.
The Winter Games in 2002 at Salt Lake City was a turning point for Norway and was the first time they competed in the relay without legend Daehlie. They went into the event with a new lineup of Andres Aukland, Frode Estil, Kristen Skjeldal and Thomas Alsgaard. Skjeldal was a part of the 1992 relay team and Alsgaard was the lone member from the glorious run the Norwegians had in 1998. Like the competition at Albertville, this time the Norwegians came out on top, downing the Italians after Alsgaard beat Zozi to the line with a time of 1:32:45.5.
Turin marked the first Winter Olympics where Norway was off the podium. Italy’s Cristian Zorzi made his second appearance at the Winter Olympics and widened the gap between first and second to solidify their first relay gold since 1994. Zorzi paced the field 15.7 seconds ahead of the German team who took silver. The Norwegians were out of striking range of the podium and ended the race in fifth. They had not yet won a gold medal in cross-country skiing at these Games prior to the relay.
Advance 16 years later and a lot has changed. Italy hasn't been on the 4x10km relay podium since 2006. Sweden became the new relay champion and won back-to-back gold medals in the event in 2010 and 2014. Daniel Rickardsson, Johan Olsson and Marcus Hellner were staple members on the Swedish relay team, but could not maintain the momentum they had in the early 2010’s. Norway came back to win the relay in 2018 in PyeongChang after missing out on gold for three Olympic cycles. Norway took silver at Vancouver 2010.
The men’s 4x10km relay gets underway on Sunday Feb. 13 at 2:00 a.m. ET to crown a new relay champion.