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Stunning bronze for cross-country team

The Swiss team celebrate an amazing achievement

(Keystone)

Switzerland's women's cross country team have won their first ever Olympic medal after an amazing third place finish in the 4x5km relay.

The team of Andrea Huber, Laurence Rochat, Brigitte Albrecht-Loretan and Natascia Leonardi-Cortesi, crossed the finish line in Soldier Hollow just behind Germany and Norway to grab one of the most unexpected medals of the Salt Lake City Games.

"It was a very big surprise and I am very, very happy," a delighted Rochat told swissinfo. "This is my first Winter Olympics and to win my first medal is just a dream."

"I still don't believe it," she added. "I never thought we would do it."

As well as being Switzerland's first ever Olympic medal in women's cross country, Thursday's bronze was only the fourth for either gender.

Josef Haas (50km classical, 1968), Andreas Grünenfelder (50km classical, 1988) and the men's 4x10km relay team of 1972 were the only previous Swiss to make their mark in a sport traditionally dominated by Nordic nations and countries from the former Soviet Republic.

Prime time success

Usually overlooked in a nation which prefers the downhill variety of skiing, the Swiss cross-country team on Thursday grabbed some rare attention, with national television even interrupting its broadcast of the men's giant slalom to cover the race's closing stages.

Huber laid the groundwork for Thursday's incredible performance, finishing the opening classical section in second place. Rochat then recorded the fifth quickest time among a second leg field which included Norwegian legend Bente Skari to see the Swiss team drop to third place overall.

Any fears that the Swiss would then lose their momentum proved unfounded, however, with Albrecht-Loretan and Leonardi-Cortesi fighting off strong challenges to maintain the third place.

Leonardi-Cortesi, in particular, faced a tough time fending off the Czech Republic's Katerina Hanusova but was able to pull away in the closing stages to complete the Swiss sensation.

"Really crazy"

With none of the Swiss women having reached the top 15 in any of the individual competitions, national coach Marcus Cramer told swissinfo that even he was amazed by the team's performance.

"Going into the event I said I'd be happy with sixth place," Cramer recalled. "But to win the bronze - well, I haven't really taken it in yet.

Incredibly the Swiss team were not even due to take part in the relay. It was only after during the Games that they were invited to compete and even then Cramer had a job on his hands persuading the Swiss Olympic association that it was worth it.

"I had a discussion about it with the chief of the Swiss delegation," Cramer told swissinfo, "and he told me the team could take part if I thought they were able to finish in the top nine. After a long talk, he said we could start, and now we have the bronze!"

Russian rage

Thursday's race was also the source of international controversy, after strong medal favourites Russia and Ukraine were disqualified shortly before the start.

Russia's removal from the event followed a blood test on team member Larissa Lazutina which was reported to contain unusually high levels of haemoglobin.

Shortly after the team's disqualification, Russia's Olympic Committee president Leonid Tyagachev insisted that Lazutina was not guilty of doping and threatened to withdraw the country's entire delegation from the remainder of the Games.

Tyagachev said he was allowing the International Olympic Committee 24 hours to address the Russian concerns.

The Russian team had already expressed their anger over last week's controversial decision in the figure skating pairs competition.

On that occasion Russia's Elena Berezhnaya and Anton Sikharulidze were forced to share their gold medal with the original silver medallists from Canada, following allegations of corrupt judging.

by Mark Ledsom with agencies


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