By Julien Pretot and Krystal Hu
BEIJING (Reuters) -China kicked off their home Winter Olympics in style when they claimed the short track speed skating mixed-team relay title in dramatic fashion on Saturday.
Ren Ziwei, Wu Dajing, Fan Kexin and Qu Chunyu clocked two minutes 37.348 seconds over 2,000 metres in the final to beat Italy and Hungary, second and third respectively, at the Capital Indoor Stadium.
Wu, who won China’s only gold medal at the 2018 Games in Pyeongchang, beat Italy’s Pietro Sighel to the finish line by 0.016 seconds, or half a skate blade, while Hungary took bronze.
China won five titles at the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver and three in Sochi in 2014.
“I have been through many ups and downs in the past four years. Thanks to my team for not giving up on me. I also want to thank myself for not giving up on myself,” Wu told reporters.
“I could feel being chased closely during the race. My team mates were cheering for me out loud and asked me to push my limits. The team really trust me to let me run the last few laps.”
Having won two of the four World Cup events this season, China were the favourites, especially after the Netherlands were knocked out in the first semi-final.
But they finished their semi-final in third place behind Hungary and the United States, which would have barred them from entering the final, only for the race to come under review for possible infringements.
All eyes were on the referee as he reviewed the action.
After five minutes, the Russian Olympic Committee (ROC) ended up being disqualified for obstruction, along with the U.S. who were penalised for blocking.
The final was also a nail biter, with another review after a tight finish.
Although the race result had been shown on the stadium’s screen, the Italians — Arianna Fontana, Martina Valcepina, Andrea Cassinelli and Sighel — draped themselves in a national flag, just like the Chinese.
The only announcement that came after the investigation, however, was a penalty for fourth-placed Canada, and the few hundred spectators raised the volume at an otherwise quiet stadium.
Italy, however, had another achievement to celebrate as Fontana became the only short track speed skater, male or female, to earn nine Olympic medals.
She now has one more medal than the sport’s greats Apolo Ohno of the United States and Russian Viktor Ahn.
Fontana, who made her Olympic debut at her home Games in Turin in 2006, also started the defence of her 500-metre title with a smooth qualification for the quarter-finals.
(Additional reporting by Krystal Hu; Editing by Ed Osmond and Clare Fallon)