Midway, Utah (AP by Landon Hall)--Spain's Johann Muehlegg staged a strong comeback over the final 10 kilometers of the 50K classic-style race Saturday, winning his third gold medal by overtaking Russia's Mikhail Ivanov.
Muehlegg, who became a Spanish citizen in 1999 after he had a falling out with the German ski federation, lunged across the finish line with a time of 2 hours, 6 minutes, 5.9 seconds.
Ivanov, who led the staggered-start race most of the way, was 14.9 seconds slower. Estonia's Andrus Veerpalu won the bronze.
Regarded by Nordic skiing enthusiasts as the most grueling race of the entire Winter Games, the 50K was set up as a coronation for Muehlegg, who also won gold in the 30K freestyle and 10K pursuit.
Muehlegg, however, started slowly and began to fall further behind. By the 33.4K mark, Ivanov's lead had grown to nearly 39 seconds. Muehlegg had a sudden burst of energy, though, getting within 16.4 seconds with 9.5 kilometers to go.
Ivanov, a slight 6-foot, 154 pounds, tried hard to dig his poles into the snow and pump his legs over the final stretch, his face wound in a tight grimace. But he simply couldn't match Muehlegg's strength.
In his most recent victory, Muehlegg had enough time to grab a Spanish flag from the grandstand and carry it to the finish line. This time, however, he had no such cushion. When he came across, he was doubled over in pain and exhaustion.
Norway completed a frustrating 15 days at Soldier Hollow. Three Norwegians were expected to challenge Muehlegg for the gold, but the best they could do was fourth, by Odd-Bjoern Hjelmeset.
Norway won four of the five cross-country races in Nagano but has just two golds in six events at these games: the relay and the new, up-for-grabs sprint.
Before these games, Spain had won just two medals at the Winter Games, and its last gold was Francisco Fernandez Ochoa's 1972 slalom victory. Ochoa has denounced Muehlegg as a ``mercenary,'' but Muehlegg has proclaimed his loyalty to his adoptive country. Still, there is speculation that Muehlegg, 31, might one day go back to competing for Germany, where he lives most of the time.
Copyright © 2000 The Associated Press