Legkov leads Russian sweep of podium in men's 50K cross-country race at Sochi Olympics

The Associated Press

Russia's Alexander Legkov skis to win the gold during the men's 50K cross-country race at the 2014 Winter Olympics, Sunday, Feb. 23, 2014, in Krasnaya Polyana, Russia. (AP Photo/Matthias Schrader)

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By MATTIAS KAREN, AP Sports Writer

KRASNAYA POLYANA, Russia (AP) — Alexander Legkov led a Russian medal sweep in the men's 50-kilometer cross-country race Sunday, giving the host nation its first gold in the sport at the Sochi Olympics.

Legkov won a four-way sprint to the finish at the end of the freestyle mass-start race, pulling away from teammates Maxim Vylegzhanin and Ilia Chernousov on the final straight.

On a perfect final day for the hosts, Vylegzhanin was second after beating Chernousov in a photo finish, 0.7 seconds behind Legkov. Martin Johnsrud Sundby of Norway was fourth, one second behind the winning time.

"This is priceless," Legkov said. "It's more valuable than my life, I can't express how I feel. For 15 years I've been trying for this result."

The sweep cemented Russia's position atop the medals table of the Sochi Games, with 12 golds and 32 medals overall.

Russia had fallen short of expectations in the cross-country competition until the final race, with only two silver medals from the men's relay and team sprint events.

But like the country's biathlon team — which won the concluding men's relay for its first gold on Saturday — the Russians got it together in the last event.

Legkov demonstrated his form in the men's relay last weekend, when he set the fastest time of all skiers on the third leg and helped Russia to get the silver.

And after most of the leading contenders stuck together for 48 kilometers on Sunday, Legkov upped the tempo and created the four-man breakaway group. Legkov led coming into the stadium and stayed in front

Vylegzhanin earned his third silver medal of the games, having been part of both the relay and team sprint.

"I didn't even consider this as one of my strongest races," Vylegzhanin said. "I'm happy to make people happy. Even though we've lost in the past, we've won now."

Yelena Valbe, the former Olympic champion who is now head of the Russian ski federation, said the medal sweep in the last event was beyond the team's expectations.

"Yesterday lots of people said we will have the podium but I was thinking that it was a joke," Valbe said. "Still, I was believing in the guys and they have proved they are good enough to win."

It was the second straight podium sweep in cross-country, after Norway finished 1-2-3 in the women's 30K race on Saturday.

Aside from Sundby, the overall World Cup leader, none of the other pre-race favorites could match the Russians' speed toward the end. Johan Olsson of Sweden, the 50K world champion, was 32.1 seconds back in ninth place, while defending Olympic champion Petter Northug of Norway came 18th, 44.5 back.

The race capped a miserable Olympics for Northug, who leaves Sochi without a medal after earning four in Vancouver in 2010, including two golds.

Dario Cologna's chances for a third gold in Sochi ended when his left ski broke shortly after the 45K mark. The Swiss skier received a new one, but had lost too much time to the leaders to catch up and finished 27th.

Sergei Dolidovic of Belarus was fifth, 14.3 seconds behind.

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