PYEONGCHANG, South Korea (Reuters) - Switzerland’s Dario Cologna crushed the field in the men’s 15km freestyle race to take his third successive Olympic title over the distance, winning gold in a time of 33:43.9 minutes at the Alpensia Sports Park on Friday.
Norway’s Simen Hegstad Krueger finished 18.3 seconds behind the Swiss, with Denis Spitsov, representing Olympic Athletes from Russia, in third another 4.7 seconds further back.
Known in his home country as “Super Dario”, the 31-year-old Cologna burst into tears and was comforted by his coaches as it became clear his victory was secured.
“It’s very big to win a gold medal at the Olympics. It’s always a lot of hard work and then I saw my family who were here as well, so there were a lot of emotions,” he told reporters.
With the 14 seeded athletes choosing to start in the middle of the 119-strong field, Sweden’s Calle Halvarsson put down a marker with good early split times, but he was soon swallowed up as the specialists over the distance got out on the course.
France’s Maurice Manificat, who leads the World Cup distance race table, set off at a cracking pace and took the lead at the first split, but by the second split Cologna had moved ahead.
Manificat finished fifth, 27 seconds behind the Swiss.
Norway sent out another strong team in the hope of plundering more Olympic gold but only Krueger, who won the skiathlon event on Sunday, made the podium.
Team mate Martin Johnsrud Sundby looked like he was in with a chance for bronze, but a strong late spurt by Spitsov gave the Russian third place.
Cologna said he had felt strong on his way to a fourth Olympic gold medal.
“Maybe it’s the toughest event and you have to know your body very well and find the right speed. In the World Cup I didn’t win the 15km so many times, but in the Olympics everything is perfect,” he said.
“I had a very good feeling from the beginning ... when I had around 20 seconds gap I was quite comfortable that it should be enough to win,” Cologna said, adding that he still felt nervous as he crossed the line.
“I knew it but you always want to see it first to be sure,” he said.
Editing by Ed Osmond