HOCHFILZEN, Austria–As Lowell Bailey sprinted around the final four kilometers of the 20 k individual on Thursday, the stadium announcer told the crowd that they were witnessing something special.
Fans who had been watching the sprint and pursuit earlier in the World Championships had seen Bailey come oh-so-close to the podium, only to miss out, finishing fourth in the sprint and sixth in the pursuit.
This time, he was on track to stay on that podium – and the announcer explained that it would be the first top-level win ever for an American biathlete.
The crowd went wild.
As Bailey pushed towards the finish and back towards the stadium, the crowd was asked to urge him on. They responded, as loudly as the predominantly German and Austrian fans would have cheered for their own favorites. The roar was deafening.
And from deep in his pain cave, Bailey heard.
“I did notice all the cheering,” Bailey said once he was sitting down and could process having just won World Championships gold. “It made me want to cry. This is an amazing sport, all the support we have.”
The fans weren’t the only ones pleased to see Bailey finally break through. Other competitors, too, seemed happy to see him atop the podium. That even included Ondrej Moravec, the Czech who came so close to winning his first individual World Championships gold himself.
“I am really happy for his gold medal, because he waited for this for a long time,” Moravec, who finished 3.3 seconds back to take silver, told NBC’s Chris Dupre. “As he said, from 2000 he competed first here in Hochfilzen, and I started in 2001 in Khanty-Mansiysk. So I know him long time, and he is a really good guy.”
So you’re completely happy with silver? That was the question from Peer Lange, the International Biathlon Union’s Communication Director.
“Well,” Moravec laughed. “It is like — I already won other medals, bronze, silver — but never gold. And today I was really closer ever than I was. It was a big chance for me today, but I was not good enough.”
Martin Fourcade, the pre-race favorite who finished third, was also gracious. And while the reaction from some was a surprise that an American could possibly win, Fourcade was among those who saw it as a day that had long been coming.
“I think when someone is finishing fourth in the sprint and sixth in pursuit you can say it’s not a big surprise,” he said in the press conference. “I know Lowell a bit more from this year. I know the guy.”
Fourcade was referring in part to Bailey’s work as an Athlete Representative to the International Biathlon Union. Throughout the doping scandal which has built since the release of the first McLaren report, Bailey has been working to give athletes a voice in how their federation handles doping violations.
Fourcade has sometimes been right there beside him. He was among the nearly 200 signatories on a letter sent by World Cup athletes to the federation requesting action, has spoken out in the press, and led an athlete walk-out from a meeting with the federation where athletes felt that the sport’s leaders were not adequately answering their questions.
“I am really really happy for Lowell, a guy with amazing values on the track and outside,” Fourcade said in an interview with NBC’s Chris Dupre. “Lowell is our Athlete Representative for the federation. We fought together for more anti-doping rules, and it means a lot a guy like Lowell won today for the sport.”
“I really appreciated his working in the athletes committee, fighting for better conditions for the athletes, against doping,” Moravec agreed. “So that’s a great performance.”
Ole Einar Bjørndalen, the Norwegian legend who is also an Athlete Representative, said that Bailey’s commitment to representing athletes and fighting for clean sport made it even better to see him atop the podium.
“It was fantastic,” Bjørndalen said. “He is a fantastic guy, and it’s fantastic that he win in World Championship. I’m so happy for him. And he is a fantastic athlete. He is really a fair athlete, also, and I really like to compete with him.”
Germany’s Erik Lesser, who finished fourth, would have earned a medal if Bailey had missed even one shot.
“I don’t begrudge him this victory at all,” he told German broadcaster ARD. “Last year he had kind of retired already, he was at home on his bison farm or whatever, and now he comes here and becomes World Champion. He deserves that. He is a great guy with incredible experience. He has always been a good go-to guy for me when there have been any problems. That’s just the way it is.”
While Bailey could sometimes frustrate the German on the trails, that wasn’t the case on Thursday.
“In mass starts he can be a bit annoying squeezing himself into gaps, but today he pretty much squeezed himself into a gap left open by others,” Lesser said. “Four times zero, that has to be rewarded, just like Moravec. That just deserves to be honored with a medal.”
Fourcade also highlighted what all those people in the crowd who had cheered so loudly for Bailey had known: to see an American at the top of the sport, that’s not such a bad thing.
“I know how important it really is for biathlon,” Fourcade said of Bailey’s gold medal. “To see some people outside of Europe winning. I think that is the most we can do to make our sport bigger. I cannot be more satisfied about the guy winning today.”
Tim Burke was the last U.S. man to stand on a World Championships podium. He won silver in the 20 k individual in 2013, just as Josh Thompson did in 1987. Their medals had been the best-ever finishes for the U.S. – no more.
“I don’t look at like that, that’s not what it’s about,” Burke said of losing his record to his long-time training partner and friend. “It’s great for the entire team, especially for our program. You see we don’t even have a title sponsor this year. I’m sure we’re the only team that has a world champion that does not have a title sponsor, so it helps with things like that. It helps with the morale. It’s great for everyone.”
-Alex Kochon, Jason Albert, Chris Dupre, and Harald Zimmer contributed