As France’s Martin Fourcade remarked after winning the 20 k pursuit in Nové Město na Moravě, Czech Republic, the biathlon stadium at World Championships was electric on Thursday. Denied the most coveted prize in every other race last week, Fourcade finally stood at the top of the podium after finishing the individual event in 49:43 with a single shooting penalty in the final standing stage.
“I was confident this morning,” Fourcade said. “There was a lot of electricity in the atmosphere… I was so focused. I knew that I just had to listen and follow my body.”
It was a thrilling 20 k for the entire podium, in fact. Tim Burke (USA), in the best race of his life, took silver for the second podium showing ever at World Championships in U.S. biathlon history. Burke only made one error in the final shooting stage and skied a blisteringly fast final lap to finish 23.5 seconds off Fourcade’s time.
The bronze medalist, too, earned some redemption on Thursday. Fredrik Lindström (SWE) finally reached the podium after missing it all year — he finished 33.7 seconds off the winning mark with just one penalty.
The men’s field was blessed with clear skies and no wind on the range, making for just the kind of fair conditions everyone likes to see at such a high-stakes competition.
“It was almost easy to shoot clean; we saw a lot of guys shoot very well,” Fourcade said. “I love these conditions where everyone can shoot clean, it’s fair for all competitors.”
Though the newly crowned world champion did end up making one mistake in the final stage, he chalked it up as part of the sport. Emil Hegle Svendsen (NOR), his biggest challenger, was out with a cold on Thursday and didn’t race, and the notable absence set up Fourcade as a strong race favorite.
After cleaning his shots and leading the field through the first four laps on the track, Fourcade was confident that with a strong final kick he would overcome the single mistake on the range and the gold medal would be his.
“I knew it would perhaps be enough to win so I gave my best on the last lap,” he said. “I watched the Alpine skiing today and saw a countryman (Tessa Worley) win the gold and thought, ‘It is a beautiful day for French skiing today.’ And I hoped to continue this beautiful day.”
Fourcade came through the finish in bib 29 in a 133-man field and held a comfortable lead as the rest of the top-seeded skiers finished.
By the time Burke crossed the line and collapsed in exhaustion on the other side, 67 athletes had finished and his hold on the second position was reasonably strong, but the American wouldn’t let himself believe what had happened until almost every competitor came through. Even after standing on the podium and smiling for dozens of cameras, Burke still wasn’t quite sure how he’d just won a silver medal.
“I need to spend a few days away from biathlon before this really sets in,” he said. “I’ve been on the World Cup podium before but this is different. You don’t get a medal on the World Cup, you don’t get your flag raised, so of course this is incredibly special for me.”
Burke makes a point of not paying attention to splits in the middle of a race, but he couldn’t ignore the stadium announcer’s voice as he informed the thousands gathered in the stands that the American was in second as he reached his final lap. Burke remained calm at the feedback, only missing one shot in the final standing stage, and left the range to ski the third-fastest final lap, two seconds off Fourcade’s split.
“I wasn’t thinking so much at that point,” Burke said. “I knew Fredrik wasn’t far behind and I know he’s very strong on the skis, so I was just trying to go as hard as possible all the way to the finish. I was trying really hard not to focus on the result at that point.”
After a disappointing season thus far, not once reaching the top three in the regular season, Lindström was pleased with a bronze medal. Like Fourcade and Burke, his made his only error in the final standing stage. Positioned in the top five as he headed into the last lap, Lindström skied a final split only 0.2 seconds behind Fourcade’s to propel himself onto the elusive podium.
“I’ve had a tough season so far, no podium until now, so it was perfect timing to make a podium at world champs,” Lindström said. “It was slow conditions so I didn’t feel that good on the track, but after three times around there I heard and saw I was in the very top group, so on the last loop [I] just to gave it all. To have a bronze medal is super.”