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The younger brother of seven-time Olympic medallist Manuela, Italy’s Giorgio Di Centa has maintained a proud family tradition, making a name for himself by winning double gold at Turin 2006.
Going into the final straight of the last cross-country event at the Turin 2006 Winter Olympic Games, the 50km mass start, seven skiers were still in contention. Among them was home favourite Giorgio Di Centa, who spurted clear on the short climb leading into the stadium and took the line by just 0.8 seconds from Russia’s Eugeni Dementiev, with Austria’s Mikhail Botvinov a further 0.1 seconds behind. It was the closest finish in the event’s Olympic history and prompted jubilant celebrations in the crowd, who heaped acclaim on Di Centa as he collected a second gold to go with the one he had won a week earlier with Fabio Valbusa, Pietro Piller Cottrer and Christian Zorzi in the men’s 4x10km relay. Reflecting on the win years later, he said: “People still speak to me about the excitement they felt and how much they identified with my victory.”
Born in Paluzza, Giorgio is the third child of Gaetano and Maria Luisa Di Centa and belongs to a sporting family. His older brother Andrea’s promising career was cut short when he suffered a serious scooter accident at the age of 18, while his sister Manuela became a champion cross-country skier, winning seven Olympic medals, two of them gold. An asthma sufferer as a boy, Giorgio took up sport thanks to his father, who took him on walks in the Carnia mountains, in the Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region bordering Austria and Slovenia: “He did it so I could breathe pure air. That was one of the reasons why I got into sport and fell in love my wonderful mountains.” Nevertheless, he still found it hard to understand all the hard work his brother and sister put into their training and racing schedules, once telling them: “All that effort and fatigue! I’ll never be as stupid as you are.”
It was not long, however, before Giorgio was struck down by the same fever as his siblings, and at the age of 16 he forced his way into the national junior cross-country team. He also joined the carabinieri, Italy’s military police force, a move that allowed him to devote more time to his sport. He made his World Cup debut in 1993, aged 20, and secured his first podium finish when he finished second in the 15km freestyle in Hakuba, Japan, in 1997. Di Centa won a number of relay races with the Italian team and collected his first Olympic medal alongside Fabio Maj, Pietro Piller Cottrer and Christian Zorzi, when the Italians claimed silver behind Norway in the 4x10km at Salt Lake City 2002.
Di Centa enjoyed the best form of his career to date in his mid to late 30s. Building on his exploits in Turin with a string of top-three finishes in the 2007/08 and 2008/09 World Cup seasons, he eventually scored his first win in the competition in the 15km freestyle in Canmore, Canada, on 5 February 2010. A few days later he carried the Italian flag at the opening ceremony of the Vancouver Games. Though he failed to pick up a medal in his third Olympic appearance, Di Centa pressed on with his career and has continued to spearhead the Italian cross-country team. Now 41, he is full of optimism as he prepares for his fourth Winter Olympic Games, proclaiming: “I can do well in Sochi because my body responds well at 1,500 metres altitude.”