After several athletes in the men’s 12.5k biathlon pursuit started early, Swedish coaches were seen yelling at event officials, trying to get them to stop the race.
You can bet they’re glad nobody listened, as one of their athletes, Bjorn Ferry, caught and passed France’s Vincent Jay on the final loop to take gold.
Ferry become the first Swede in 60 years to win Olympic gold in biathlon, coming out on top in a race featuring starter errors, numerous changes in the top-3, and some great comebacks.
The biathlon pursuit format is one of the most exciting events in endurance sports. With athletes starting based on finish time from the sprint, and four shooting stages, the 12.5km race is a nonstop extravaganza of excitement. Each shot can change the race, and with five 2.5km ski laps, there is plenty of time on course to make up ground.
Christoph Sumann (AUT) took silver, the first Olympic medal for the Austrian veteran, and Vincent Jay, the gold medalist in Sunday’s sprint, held on for the bronze.
The story getting all the attention, however, was the error by race officials that allowed American Jeremy Teela and Canadian Jean Phillippe LeGuellec to start 30 seconds early. A full report on this issue can be read here.
Ferry, wearing bib 8, at first looked confused as he watched Teela at number 9 take to the course ahead of him, then started arguing with the starter and pointing at the video monitor counting down start times. But once he was on course, he focused on the task at hand.
Jay, who won the sprint, in part aided by a mid-race snowstorm, led out, closely followed by Emil Svendsen of Norway. Svendsen closed the 12-second gap by the first shooting stage, and LeGuellec, aided by his 30 second “bonus,” was not far behind. All three athletes shot clean and with several others missing shots, LeGuellec headed back on course just ahead of Svendsen, buoyed by a roaring crowd unaware of the 30 second time penalty.
From this point on, Jay was the only constant in the top-3. The chase was on, and the rest of the field gunning for the medals.
Jay skied away from Svendsen on the third lap when the Norwegian missed a single target in the second prone stage, while a number of the usual big guns, starting further back due to the funky conditions on Sunday, started climbing in the standings.
Simon Eder (AUT), Sumann, Micahel Greiss (GER) and the amazing Ole-Einar Bjorndalen, all starting outside the top-10, moved consistently through the field with a combination of solid shooting and fast skiing.
Ferry started slowly, posting just the 42nd fastest time for the first loop, but from there on he turned on the jets, and paired with flawless shooting in the first three stages, put himself in medal contention. His big move came in the range during the first standing stage. With his nearest competitors, including Jay, missing at least one target, the tall Swede suddenly found himself in 2nd, just 5.5 seconds back.
That is the allure of biathlon. So much can change so quickly. Ferry entered the range for the third time, even with Sumann, and 25 seconds down on Jay. But both Sumann and Jay missed a shot and it was a whole new race.
His skis were running well, and he was able to ski relatively relaxed for the first half of the race. With Jay now in his sights, he wasted no time closing the gap
“It was in the 4th loop that I began to think ‘now I can win this race,’” Ferry said while describing his day.
The Frenchman held on for that lap, and the two were even for the final standing shooting. With the crowd nearly drowning out the pop of the rifles, and the smell of gunpowder strong in the air, the two men shot for the gold. Ferry missed first, but Jay was unable to take advantage. They headed out, still together, for a penalty lap.
“In the penalty loop I saw that he [Jay] was tired, so I went full speed directly from the start on the final loop,” said Ferry.
And Jay could not hang. Ferry skied away, opening a large gap, and the only question was whether Jay could hold on to the silver.
Sumann was coming fast. He ended the day with the second fastest ski time, and he easily made up the 16 seconds, blowing by Jay and skiing clear to the silver. The race ended just in time for Jay, who crossed the line 2.8 seconds ahead of Eder.
Sumann was helped a bit by an unlikely choke by Bjorndalen. The Norwegian was in third entering the final shooting stage, 7 seconds up on the Austrian. But Bjorndalen, who had shot clean all day, missed two shots to Sumann’s one, and was out of medal contention.
“It wasn’t a great day for me physically,” Jay told media at the post-race press-conference. “After my gold medal, there were many demands on my time. But that is to be expected, and I tried my best to stay on the podium. I am perfectly satisfied with the bronze today.”
Ferry, who was part of the Swedish relay team that barely missed a medal in 2006, didn’t see his performance as any sort of redemption. “That was also a great race. Our goal was always to make the medals, and then we were so close, and that showed we could make it. My goal remained to make a medal…you have to believe in yourself, and today I did it.”
Sumann overcame a stomach bug that has bothered him for some days. “I went straight from the toilet to the start line,” he laughed, but not joking. It didn’t seem to affect his performance or his enjoyment of the experience.
“Of course I am” he said in response to a question of whether he was having fun. “I wasn’t so depressed after the sprint. I did not have a good race, but I had a good result – 12th place at the Olympic games was my third best ever. The expectations for today were not that big as I was 1:30 down. I tried to be calm and do my best, and I had really good skis today.”
He was also impressed with Bjorndalen, who just missed a medal, after starting in 17th. “I think he did a good job, since he came down from 17th. But I could hear him on the range next to me, crying, after his two misses,” he said laughing. “I had one, so I said to myself ‘I am good shape to be in front of him at the finish line.’ But he did a very good job. Obviously 17th in the sprint was not good for him – he is a 5-time Olympic medalist – and he did much better today, and 7th from 17th is very good.”
LeGuellec continued to shoot very well, and ended the day with just two penalties. Each time he left the range, the crowd greeted him with a roar. But unfortunately he was not really in the running for the medals, due to the starting error. He still ended the day in 11th, and coupled with his 6th on Sunday, is off to a great start at his home Olympics.
“I came out of the start gate a little early, but whatever, it is still fun to be in that pack,” LeGuellec said. “And I kept it together for the standing, which is really the turning point of the race. I wasn’t feeling all too peppy in the skiing like in the sprint, but I was always around fast people that kept me in the game.”
His skiing time was just the 46th best on the day, but he still scored another 30 World Cup points – unlike cross-country, biathlon Olympic races do count toward the World Cup standings.
Teela had a different perspective on the starting issue. “In this race you race head-to-head, not against the clock. So when you hear you are going to get a time addition, it really changes things. At that point it is a different strategy. If I knew I was racing against the clock from the start I would have played it a little differently.
“This never happens,” he continued, clearly upset and baffled. “Maybe some guy will push out a second or two early, but when they let you out a complete person ahead, that never happens.”
Teela skied up as high as 7th in terms of physical place, buoyed by clean shooting in prone, but his actual place was somewhere just out of the top-10. Two misses on each of the standing stages ended his chances at the top-10 though he finished a still solid 24th.
“I didn’t feel as good as Sunday, and when this happened [found out about his time penalty], it just zapped the energy out of me.
“It’s a real big bummer. For each athlete it happened to, we will be upset, but this will blow over by tomorrow morning, but for me, I will hang on to it for a couple more days.”
Lowell Bailey (USA) maintained his position, starting and ending in 36th. He had three penalties and the 33rd fastest ski time.
“I was happy with my performance. I stayed in it until the end, and happy to be here fighting it out.”
Bailey shot clean in the sprint, but was foiled by the mid-race snowstorm.
Tim Burke continued to struggle on the range, missing five targets. He was treating the race as a training run given he started back in 46th. His ski time was still 26th best. “I really had no expectations for this one, but I will be looking for the podium in the mass start.”
The final American starter, Jay Hakkinen, missed six shots and finished 57th. “Just a really bad day,” he said at the finish.
Nat Herz contributed reporting.