Even Martin Fourcade is a mere mortal who can’t win every race he competes in. After winning the first three sprints of the 2016/2017 season and five races in a row, for once the French biathlon star had to settle for an eighth place after uncharacteristically missing three targets in his standing shooting stage.
That left an opening for other athletes to shine on Thursday afternoon in the men’s 10-kilometer sprint at the International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Cup in Oberhof, Germany. Austria’s Julian Eberhard seized the opportunity and won the second sprint of his career in a time of 26:57.5 minutes, skiing the second-best course time, ahead of the Czech Republic’s Michal Slesingr (+10.8) and Italy’s Dominik Windisch (+40.3). All athletes on the podium had to ski one penalty lap.
“I rescued myself into the finish with my last power,” Eberhard told Austrian broadcaster ORF. “The competition could not have been any longer. Of course I am overjoyed now. That was an important victory, also regarding the World Championships at home in Hochfilzen [in February].”
A year ago, all races in Oberhof had to be canceled due to a lack of snow. After the organizers invested significant resources in snow-farming and storage capacities over the summer to prevent that from happening again, ironically two days ago the first heavy snowfalls of the season and one of the most severe winter storms in a decade that devastated the northern coast of Germany posed different challenges for the organizers: additional volunteers were needed to help prepare the tracks overnight, or simply to sweep snow off the seats in the arena.
“The conditions were really difficult,” Eberhard said during the post-race press conference. “Because there was a lot of fresh snow, and a lot of wind. But I like that. So I think it was a difficult but really good day for me.”
“Today, I was quite relaxed during the race,” Slesingr said at the press conference when asked about the difference to last racing at home in Nove Mesto. “Because I did not think about that race before too much. It was like I’m just going around the stadium and think ‘whatever, let’s do the race’. So I didn’t feel any pressure today.”
Slesingr smiled when asked if training in Oberhof during the summer maybe gave him an advantage, clarifying that his team mainly comes there to train in a ski tunnel near the venue.
“We don’t use the shooting range outside too much, so I can’t say that it helped us. In the tunnel you always have perfect conditions for shooting. No wind, no snowing like today.”
Late in the field in bib 70, Italy’s Lukas Hofer challenged for the podium after shooting clean, but he missed the time set by his teammate Windisch by one-tenth of a second at the finish (+40.4). It was Hofer’s best individual result since the 2013/2014 season, and Windisch’s second-career podium.
“Like an old saying… Start your day right… we just say “Start your year right” Hofer posted on social media with a picture of the Italian team celebrating the third and fourth place.
“I watched it while I was in the changing room,” Windisch recalled during the press conference. “When I saw that he was with me, at the same time, I thought maybe he will beat me. But at the end of the competition maybe I was a little bit faster. I am happy, but most of all I am happy for the whole team because this is a really good position for Italy. […] I really thought that someone would beat me, so until the end I was very surprised. And I still am.”
Behind Windisch and Hofer, Germany’s Erik Lesser finished fifth (+41.2) with two penalties in standing, after shooting clean and taking the lead following the prone stage. He was satisfied with the result, but the athlete living and training near Oberhof gave some insights into how difficult it can be to race in front of a raucous home crowd.
“I can’t complain about the fifth place,” Lesser told German broadcaster ZDF. “Especially with two misses I absolutely have to be satisfied with the result. On the course everything I worked for during the last days panned out. […] But I am a little annoyed about the two misses in standing. In Nove Mesto, we talked about the home field advantage for the Czech Republic, and then you see Gabriela Koukalová shoot 0+3 [in the sprint there], and I believe that’s how I also felt today in the standing stage. It was very quiet, I hit the first shot, and then there comes such a noise [from the stands] to the shooting range that it got me a little bit out of my concentration, which must not happen, so I am a bit angry about that.”
“Conditions were not easy,” Martin Fourcade told ZDF about his shooting woes with three penalties on his way to an eighth place (+51.3). “I was struggling with the wind. It was not easy. This is not an excuse, but I had my zeroing on the [lane position] target number one and it was quite easy for the prone shooting, but we had no wind for the standing [in target practice] and it was something I didn’t succeed to manage for my standing position in real wind conditions.”
Fourcade limited the damage for the following pursuit by once again skiing the fastest course time.
Three North Americans Onto the Pursuit
The best North American in the difficult conditions was Tim Burke, who finished 35th (+1:51.8) with two penalties (0+2).
“The heavy snow and gusty wind made for a challenging race today,” Burke said according to a US Biathlon press release. “We were lucky that the snow stopped right before the start today, but this also made for some challenging conditions on the track throughout the race. I feel like I was lucky in prone with having little wind, but standing was a real fight with strong wind and it took me a long time to get all five shots off.”
“Overall, I was pleased with my shooting performance today considering the windy conditions,” he added. “Unfortunately, I am far off my normal ski shape. I had one of my best training years, so I am a bit confused as to why I have been so flat racing, but I am confident that it will eventually come around. If we continue to have strong winds here in Oberhof, Saturday’s pursuit should present some great opportunities to move up.”
Also for the U.S., Russell Currier placed 46th (+2:15.1) with three penalties (1+2), qualifying for his second pursuit of the season.
In his return to the IBU World Cup after missing the first races of the season due to mononucleosis, last year’s junior world champion Sean Doherty finished 80th with three penalties (+3:20.2), missing out on the top 60 to qualify for Saturday’s pursuit.
Lowell Bailey is skipping the races in Oberhof for a training block at home in Lake Placid, N.Y. He plans to join the team again next week for the World Cup in Ruhpolding, Germany.
“I planned to skip Oberhof earlier this year when we laid out the seasonal training plan,” Bailey explained in an email to FasterSkier. “I wanted to put in a solid three-week block of training during the middle of the season so that I’m hopefully set up well for World Champs and the last half of the season. It’s tough to voluntarily sit out, but I think it is the right decision, and I hope it will pay off later on in the season.”
For Biathlon Canada, Scott Gow had the best result of the day in 43rd (+2:11.9) with one miss (0+1) and was the only Canadian to qualify for the pursuit. Macx Davies finished 68th (+2:51.1) with two penalties (0+2), just ahead of teammate Brendan Green in 69th (+2:58.0) with four misses (3+1).
In his second World Cup after one appearance last season in Presque Isle, Maine, Canada’s Matthew Hudec finished 90th (+3:50.8) with one penalty (0+1), and Christian Gow with three penalties (1+2) was 92nd (+3:54.7) in the field of 102 starters.
The other regular North American team members, Canada’s Nathan Smith and US Biathlon’s Leif Nordgren, have not yet returned to the World Cup.
Athletes-Only Meeting Regarding McLaren Report
On the eve of the races in Oberhof, about 50 athletes from various teams reportedly gathered for an athletes-only meeting for about 90 minutes to discuss the current status of the IBU investigation into the findings of the report by World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) special investigator Richard McLaren, which also lists 31 biathletes. From the side of the IBU, Secretary General Nicole Resch was present for about 15 minutes to discuss the current status of the internal IBU investigation and answer some of the most pressing questions from the athletes, before she was asked to leave the meeting again.
Afterwards, few athletes in attendance wanted to go on record to the media about any details of questions and demands made towards the IBU before a concrete, common position had been agreed upon and written up for communication.
From public statements by several athletes after the race on Thursday, it could be inferred that nations losing starting quotas in cases of multiple doping violations or organized manipulations could be one of them.
Slesingr, reportedly one of the organizers of the meeting, along with Martin Fourcade and some others, told the gathered media members that the athletes don’t plan to boycott World Cup races, at least in Oberhof, but that “depending on how the IBU reacts [to our demands] we will then decide how we can increase the pressure again.”
Furthermore, Slesingr explained that they have asked the IBU to state how many of the biathletes mentioned in the McLaren report are still active in IBU-sanctioned events, seemingly a topic that is contentious among the athletes potentially having to race against athletes under investigation.
“We don’t want exact names, but a number,” he said. “Our demands mostly deal with how to protect our sport from doping and corruption in the future.”
From the Russian team, the most prominent athlete present was Anton Shipulin, according to reports by German broadcasters ARD and ZDF.
“I was asked many questions, but I also have more questions than answers myself,” Shipulin afterwards told the media, according to a translation. “I don’t want to wash dirty laundry in public. I asked all athletes for patience and to wait until after the IBU investigation. I can only say for myself: I have never doped. All my samples are clean.”
“I don’t want to make statements regarding individual names,” Secretary General Resch told ZDF after the athletes’ meeting and a second one with team coaches. “We currently have to generate proofs out of the evidence, and I don’t know yet for which ones we will be able to succeed with that. And for someone where we don’t have concrete evidence available, dragging that name through the media as a positive doping case would be irresponsible and unprofessional. We don’t want to do that.”
“It was a really constructive meeting yesterday,” Germany’s Schempp told ZDF when questioned about the situation after the sprint race. “Because the whole procedure was explained to us, the athletes, by the side of the IBU. That they are also not having an easy time with that, and that one should keep calm for some time. They are doing their best to clear that up, and to really not draw premature conclusions. I also believe that would be the wrong approach. We will see how that progresses, and will closely observe that, but I think this won’t have been the last meeting.”
“In general this is not about pointing fingers at the Russians,” his teammate Lesser told ZDF. “This is about fighting the basic evil of doping with all force. The IBU has to define its own marching order for that, how it internally wants to deal with that. And I hope that this will be tackled with maximum force, that starting quota spots are being taken away after multiple offenses, and then you have to punish the nation and not just the individual athlete. And I hope the IBU will figure that out some time and go after that.”
Races in Oberhof continue on Friday with the women’s 7.5 k sprint, followed by the men’s and women’s pursuits on Saturday. The times back to the winner from the sprint carry over into the pursuit race.