PYEONGCHANG, South Korea — In its four-card-deep deck, the French biathlon team had an ace. Anchoring France’s 2 x 6 + 2 x 7.5-kilometer mixed relay was Martin Fourcade. The 29 year old had already taken two individual gold medals at these Winter Games. The final leg of Tuesday’s race presented the opportunity for another.
Coming through the last exchange, it was Germany’s Erik Lesser tagging off to Arnd Peiffer. Without Fourcade chasing them, Germany’s chances of a medal would have seemed certain.
Peiffer, who learned around 1 p.m. that afternoon that he would start the relay in place of Simon Schempp, who reportedly was feeling under the weather, was first into the range after one loop for his round of prone shooting. There, Peiffer missed two shots, but using two spares, hit the remaining two targets and stayed out of the penalty lap.
Then came Fourcade. The Frenchman shot clean. Skiing into the range with France was Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen and Italy’s Dominik Windisch. Svendsen and Windisch both used one spare each to clean and steer clear of the penalty lap as well.
Out on course, Peiffer had a 6.1-second buffer between himself and Fourcade. Windisch was the third racer to depart the range, 16.3 seconds out of first, and just 0.1 seconds behind him was Svendssen.
The 6.1 seconds separating the two frontrunners was soon down to zero. Fourcade attacked on the first uphill, passing the German and was the first into the range for the standing shooting — exactly the type of stage Fourcade craves.
Five days ago, Fourcade was in a similar situation. During the men’s 20 k individual race, he skied into the range for the final round of shooting with a comfortable lead. The almost-always clutch Frenchman missed the last two targets, losing the gold and finishing fifth on the day.
During Tuesday’s mixed relay, Fourcade was on his A-game. Five pings heard throughout the stadium and five targets down. With his remaining 2.5 k to go, another medal for France and Fourcade was certain. Not long after, it became clear that medal would be gold.
Back in the range, Peiffer struggled, using three spares and having to ski a penalty loop. Meanwhile, Svendsen used one spare to clean and Windisch two. Svendsen slid into second place, 34.3 seconds behind an already long-gone Fourcade.
Windisch left about 15 seconds after the Svendsen. After emerging from the penalty lap, Peiffer skied up behind Windisch. In a moment of déjà vu, Fourcade carrying France’s fluttering flag crossed the finish line first in a time of 1:08:34.3 for the gold medal. Svendsen held his own with the third-fastest anchor lap to secure silver for Norway, 20.9 seconds behind Fourcade.
For Fourcade, it was his fifth gold medal in two Olympics and his first in a team event. France last won the mixed relay at the world-championships level at 2016 World Championships in Oslo, Norway.
Asked what it was like capturing his fifth Olympic gold, Fourcade responded at the press conference, “Tonight it’s not about numbers, it’s not about personal, it’s a team adventure that began in 2009 in the world champs in [PyeongChang] Korea, and tonight it’s a really big emotion for the team and all the crew because we are individual athletes and the emotion of an individual Olympic gold medal is amazing, but when you can share it with your teammates it’s something really much more incredible.”
“I think for the Norwegian team, we have a big priority on this relay,” Svendsen said at the press conference. “We really like it a lot, great to race both women and men together. You can see the best biathlon nations … so great event, it was very exciting.”
The battle for third and fourth came down to a contentious last 100 meters.
As they rounded into the finishing straight, Peiffer was skiing in the left lane and Windisch in the right. In one final push to the line, Windisch crossed over into the Peiffer’s lane and took third place and bronze medal by 0.3 seconds ahead of him, 26.9 seconds after Fourcade.
Peiffer crossed in fourth place (+27.2) and Germany subsequently filed a protest that Windisch obstructed Peiffer. Ultimately, the protest was denied and the results stood.
Speaking to German broadcaster ARD after the race, Peiffer initially said Windisch’s move was within the rules. However, after viewing the replay, he changed his mind.
“I believe he [Windisch] would have beaten me if he’d just remained straight ahead in his corridor and not skied such a curve,” Peiffer later told ARD, according to a translation. “That’s what I also told him. I told him I congratulate him because I believe he was better today. I just did a poor job today, that’s how it even came to this situation…
“I took another look at it now, and to me it’s a rule violation,” Peiffer added. “But from experience I know that the jury never makes any decision or generally denies appeals. Just because they don’t have the courage, I believe. I am sorry for the other three, because they did a great job. I don’t believe I would have deserved a medal today, but it’s always sad if rules get broken.”
During a post-race press conference, the issue of Italy’s move was raised again. One reporter directed a question at Windisch, asking about his thoughts on the filed complaint.
“It happened realy really fast because it come down from the downhill and I was convinced to do the right thing because I was in front of Peiffer,” Windisch said.“The jury had a long, long meeting to take this decision and they decided for us. I am really happy about this, so I think they had their reasons and I am happy for Italy.”
The same reporter posed the question to Fourcade, stating that the move seemed like one the Frenchman has done in the past.
“As Dominik Windisch told you it happened really fast in a situation we are not fully able to decide really quickly because we already have 7.5 kilometers in the legs,” Fourcade said. “When you are looking a the picture you can see it’s probably not the best decision Dominik took, but in the end it changes nothing because Dominik is stronger than Arnd in the sprint and he didn’t change anything with the final results. I think and I’m sure if it happened again he would choose another line.”
Italy’s Strong Start
In the first leg of the race, Italy’s Lisa Vittozzi and Germany’s Vanessa Heinz tagged off in first and second, respectively, with Germany 2.2 seconds back at the exchange after both skiers shot clean without any spares. Vittozzi hanged off to Dorothea Wierer, while Heinz tagged Germany’s strongest leg Laura Dahlmeier, who took gold in the sprint and pursuit to start the Games and placed third in the 15 k individual.
Dahlmeier shot clean in the first prone and used one spare to clean standing, tagging Lesser in first, 29.9 seconds ahead of Italy, at the second exchange.
Norway’s ascent to second place involved a strong third leg from Johannes Thingnes Bø. Using just a single spare to clean his two stages (0+0, 0+1), Bø overcame two less-than-stellar legs from teammates Marte Olsbu (0+2, 0+1) and Tiril Eckhoff, who had a penalty (0+2, 1+3). When Eckhoff tagged Bø, he was in 10th, 1:24.4 minutes behind Germany in first. With the fastest third-leg course time, Bø handed off to Svendsen in fourth place, 33.1 seconds behind the Germans and half a second behind Italy.
Canada 12th, U.S. 15th
Canada finished the relay in 12th (+2:36.7) after skiing three places up from their bib number.
Rosanna Crawford skied the opening leg, using two spares, one each in prone and standing, to avoid the penalty lap.
“I tried to be super focused in prone,” she told FasterSkier after. “I went on to have one miss, that was just a bad trigger pull on my part. Skiing wasn’t great, but I just tried my best to stick with the women around me and give Julia the best chance I could.”
Crawford tagged teammate Julia Ransom in 11th, 34.7 seconds out of first. Ransom shot without a miss in prone and used two spares to clean standing. She maintained 11th while tagging Brendan Green 1:44.7 minutes behind the leaders.
After what Ransom considered a less-than-ideal personal start to the Olympics, she was pleased with how she felt racing on Tuesday.
“Today I felt like I could actually push a little harder and have fun racing,” she said.
Green used three spares in total (0+1, 0+2) but remained clear of the penalty lap. He came through the last exchange in 14th, 2:27.9 out of first.
“I thought the wind would make it a little bit challenging today,” Green said after finishing his leg, with Canada’s fourth-leg skier, Christian Gow, still on course. “It was up a bit from the other days, [but] thankfully it was fairly consistent. This won’t be the result we are hoping for but it’s a good primer for the men’s and women’s relays later this week and so looking forward to that.”
In his first mixed relay and first time anchoring a championship relay, Christian Gow headed out on the final leg to pick off some places.
“I knew there would be a bit more pressure depending on the position that we were in when I got tagged because all the teams were putting their strongest guys last,” Gow said after. “It’s some pretty big names when you’re looking at the list. You’re like, ‘OK, there are some of my idols,’ so there’s a bit more pressure there, but I have been feeling pretty good.”
The 24-year-old Gow shot clean and then used two spares in standing, racing the ninth-fastest last leg to put Canada in 12th at the finish (+2:36.7).
“I think Nathan [Smith] one time told me you can’t idolize your competition, which is very true,” Gow said of his teammate and fellow Olympian. “I think I get a little better at that every year, believing in myself a little more and not looking at the big names I’m racing as untouchable or anything like that. I am especially happy with how I have been doing that this year. You try to handle it just like any other race and it doesn’t matter who the guy is next to you, it’s what you do in the race to beat them.”
Four years ago at the Olympics in Sochi, Russia, the Canadian mixed relay finished 11th. As the race was still going on Tuesday, Crawford said a top eight would be a good result and top six would be “the dream result.”
Despite their goals, Ransom, a first-time Olympian, said they hadn’t felt any added pressure coming into the mixed relay.
“… Everybody on the team knows that we’re all trying our best and are gonna bring our best to the day,” Ransom, 25, said of the team’s effort on any given relay day. “It’s an unsaid sort of encouragement, I guess.”
For the U.S., Susan Dunklee skied a strong first leg, putting the team in fifth at the first exchange, 23.8 seconds out of first. She used two spares to clean prone and hit every target in standing (0+2, 0+0).
“I definitely felt better today than I did in the individual,” Dunklee said, referring to the 15 k race where she placed 19th. “I was closing on the lead group for the first kilometer or so and then by the top of the big hill, I kind of ran out of steam a little bit and was just trying to get into the finish.”
After being tagged in fifth, right behind the Czech Republic* in fourth, Joanne Reid hung in contention in sixth after cleaning prone without any spares. But in standing, she missed all five targets and used all three spares, ultimately having to ski three penalty laps. She went on to tag Tim Burke in 18th, 3:10 minutes back.
“It went poorly,” Ransom said after. “… The best I could do was just try and stick on and hand over with something they could work with, and that didn’t really work out for me today.”
“I guess the strategy was once I got tagged try to make some time, try to get in contact with at least one other team so that Lowell could have someone to chase,” Burke said.
Burke in fact caught two other teams, shooting without a miss in prone and using three spares to clean standing (0+0, 0+3), and tagging teammate Lowell Bailey in 16th (+3:24.4).
The U.S. anchor leg, Bailey used one spare in prone and none in standing (0+1, 0+0). He skied the seventh-fastest anchor leg and finished the race in 15th (+3:31.1) out of 20 teams.
“We actually had decent performances, it was really just one bad stage,” Bailey said. “Joanne had a good race otherwise and Susan had a great start, Tim had a solid race, I feel good about my race, so unfortunately, it’s eight stages not seven, but I think everyone gave everything they had and that’s the way biathlon goes. Some days go your way and some days don’t.”
Olympic biathlon racing continues Thursday with the women’s 4 x 6 k relay.
*Note: After her race, Dunklee told reporters about her collision with the Czech Republic’s Veronika Vítková as the two first-leg skiers came through the exchange with several others. The crash broke Vítková’s rifle right after she tagged off in fourth, just ahead of Dunklee.
“I feel really bad,” Dunklee said. “I tangled with [Vítková] in the tag-off zone and she tripped and broke her rifle and that just puts a real damper on everything. So that’s sad. … It doesn’t affect her race today, but it certainly affects her races going forward. Stocks are highly customized pieces of equipment and you can spend months tinkering with them to get them to fit you just right, so it’s not easy to fix them when they break.”
The Czech team went on to finish eighth (+1:39.3).
— Jason Albert, Harald Zimmer, Ian Tovell, and Alex Kochon contributed