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Stefania Belmondo of Italy claimed the first gold of the 19th Winter Olympics on Saturday, winning the women's 15 km cross-country skiing event.

The 33-year-old won in a sprint finish from Larisa Lazutina of Russia, who had been hoping for a sixth gold to equal the women's Olympic record.

Belmondo, due to retire to start a family after the Games, won in 39 minutes 54.4 seconds.

Third place went to Katerina Neumannova of the Czech Republic.

The mass start ensured some early drama as the top contenders tried to force their way to the front, but Lazutina and fellow-Russian Yulia Chepalova, another major medal hope, were soon forcing the pace on the first 7.5 km lap.

Chepalova led at halfway but was closely shadowed by a large pack containing the pre-race favorites.

The lead group was still nine-strong 10 minutes from the finish before Belmondo and Lazutina made their break for home.
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