The cyclists had been on the road for nearly 200km, but it was clear that victory would go to whoever of them was able to produce a sprint when it really counted. The stage was set for a truly spectacular finish.
There was heavy rain on the day of the cycling road race, which slowed the pace considerably. It was already predicted to be a closely-bunched finish, because the 24km circuit was not believed to be arduous. And so it proved, with most of the riders still in contention for a medal as the race entered its eighth and final lap.
The peloton had not been broken. There were attempts from various riders to forge a breakaway, including one from the sport’s upcoming star, the Belgian teenager Eddie Merckx, but none succeeded. Merckx only managed to generate a gap of around 25m before he was caught by the pack.
As the finishing line approached, one rider nosed ahead from the pack. There were probably only 20m or 30m to go when Mario Zanin, a mechanic from Treviso in Italy, took the lead, but he did so at the most important moment. As the field swept across the line, it was his front wheel that – just – reached the line first.
That was the margin of victory – Zanin’s front wheel. Behind him, the placings were proving difficult to decide. Kjell Akerstrom Rodian of Denmark had clearly taken silver, just 0.02secs behind, but after that many cyclists were almost impossible to separate. The blanket nature of the finish made it incredibly difficult to divide rider from rider.
Eventually Walter Godefroot, Merckx’s Belgian teammate, was awarded silver, 0.11secs behind Zanin. The same time was awarded to the next 25 finishers. The Iranian athlete Sayed Esmail Hosseini, who finished just 0.2secs behind Zanin, was classified in 99th position, despite being less than a tenth of a second away from the podium.
It was to be 24-year-old Zanin’s only Olympic Games, but he will always be remembered as the man who fought through one of the closest mass finishes in Olympic history.