Elena Vaelbe, who swept all five cross country titles at last year's Nordic world championships, made a decisive run to help Russia win the gold medal of the women's 4 x 5-kilometer relay event Monday.
The Russians, also featuring Nagano individual gold medalists Larissa Lazutina and Olga Danilova, completed the relay in 55 minutes, 13.5 seconds at the rugged Snow Harp course in Hakuba -- 24.5 seconds in front of silver medal winner Norway.
Italy took the bronze finishing 1:39.8 behind winner Russia.
Vaelbe played a key role in Russia's triumph by turning a one-second deficit into a comfortable 22.8-second lead before double-gold medalist and anchor Lazutina started the final leg.
Lazutina held steady on the tough, hilly track to snare a third Nagano gold for herself, a second for Danilova and the first in Nagano for Vaelbe, who had been fighting the flu and missed chances to capture her first ever individual Olympic gold.
At a post-race press conference, Vaelbe and first leg skier Nina Gavryliouk expressed their intention to retire after the Nagano Olympics.
''I felt in better form today, but this is not the good one,'' said the 29-year-old Vaelbe, who still has an opportunity to claim an individual gold in Friday's 30-km freestyle race.
''It is said hope dies last,'' she added.
Lazutina said, ''I felt responsibility because of everybody's trust and hope. We did not want to fail our fans.''
The relay victory earned Lazutina a fourth medal of the Games with her gold in the 5-km classical and 10-km pursuit and the silver in the 15-km classical which was won by Danilova.
Gavryliouk edged Norway's Bente Martinsen by 0.5 second to give Russia a thin lead after the first leg before Marit Mikkelsplass turned the tables for Norway by taking a 1-second lead in a thrilling race before Vaelbe set up victory for Russia.
Lazutina's steady run held off a challenge by Norwegian anchor Anita Moen-Guidon.
The Soviet Union, including the 1992 Unified Team, and its successor Russia has won the relay event for four consecutive winter games.
Switzerland finished fourth, followed by Germany in fifth and the Czech Republic in sixth. Host Japan was 10th.
Tomomi Otaka and Sumiko Yokoyama kept Japan in sixth place before its third runner -- Fumiko Aoki -- slumped back into 10th and anchor Kumiko Yokoyama failed to regain any ground.
''I'm tired both physically and mentally. I must have felt the heavy burden on my shoulders,'' said Aoki, considered Japan's top cross country skier going into the Nagano Games.
Aoki posted disappointing showings in the three individual events held so far in Nagano. Her best finish was 29th in the 10-km freestyle pursuit. (Kyodo News)
Results of women's 4x5-kilometer cross country skiing Monday in the 18th Olympic Winter Games at Snow Harp, Hakuba, Nagano Prefecture:
1. Russia (Nina Gavryliouk, Olga Danilova, Elena Vaelbe, Larissa Lazutina) 55 minutes, 13.5 seconds
2. Norway (Bente Martinsen, Marit Mikkelsplass, Elin Nilsen, Anita Moen-Guidon) 55:38.0
3. Italy (Karin Moroder, Gabriella Paruzzi, Manuela di Centa, Stefania Belmondo) 56:53.3
4. Switzerland (Sylvia Honegger, Andrea Huber, Brigitte Albrecht, Natascia Leonardi) 56:55.2
5. Germany (Kati Wilhelm, Manuela Henkel, Constanze Blum, Anke Schulze) 56:55.4
6. Czech Rep. (Jana Saldova, Katerina Neumannova, Katerina Hanusova, Zuzana Kocumova) 56:58.7
7. Finland (Tuulikki Pyykkonen, Milla Jauho, Satu Salonen, Anita Nyman) 57:34.3
8. Sweden (Antonina Ordina, Anette Fanqvist, Magdalena Forsberg, Karin Saeterkvist) 57:53.7
9. Ukraine (Valentyna Shevchenko, Irina Taranenko Terelia, Elena Gayasova, Maryna Pestriakova) 57:54.8
10. Japan (Tomomi Otaka, Sumiko Yokoyama, Fumiko Aoki, Kumiko Yokoyama) 58:22.8
12. Kazakstan (Svetlana Deshevykh, Oxana Yatskaya, Svetlana Shishkina, Olga Selezneva) 59:11.3
(February 16, 1998)