Germany was front and center for the first race of 2017 International Biathlon Union (IBU) World Championships on Thursday in Hochfilzen, Austria, but there was a sideshow that stole a good chunk of the limelight between France (namely Martin Fourcade) and Russia (namely Alexander Loginov).
The action began with the 2 x 6 + 2 x 7.5-kilometer mixed relay, a co-ed event where teams start women for the first and second legs, followed by men for the third and fourth legs.
Germany ran away with the lead with a rock-solid performance from third-leg Arnd Peiffer, who cleaned both his prone and standing stages without using any spare rounds, but the team had to credit second-leg Laura Dahlmeier, who built the lead in the first place.
Dahlmeier, the World Cup Total Score leader, raced from sixth to first after getting the tag from her teammate Vanessa Hinz just 9.8 seconds out of first. Dahlmeier used two spares to clean prone and another two to clean standing, yet she avoided the penalty lap and remained in third for much of her race — behind Italy’s Dorothea Wierer and France’s Marie Dorin Habert.
As she left the range for the last time and embarked on her last loop, Dahlmeier remained in third, nine seconds behind Wierer in first. Dorin Habert remained on Wierer’s heels, 1.6 seconds back.
Dahlmeier caught both by the second exchange and tagged Peiffer in first, 0.8 seconds ahead of France and 3.8 seconds ahead of Italy.
The rest was history as Peiffer extended the gap to 11.1 seconds over Italy’s Lukas Hofer after the first shooting stage on the third leg. With another clean bout one loop later, Peiffer was up to 20 seconds ahead of Hofer, who used one spare in prone and cleaned standing without a miss.
“After the prone shooting I was alone on the loop, that is a pretty thankless job,” Peiffer told German broadcaster ZDF after. “Then I tried to focus on my tempo, to keep pushing into the standing shooting, and that worked well. But it was not clear to me while on the course that it would work out like that.”
Peiffer tagged German anchor Simon Schempp 21.2 seconds ahead of Italy’s last leg, Dominick Windisch, and 46.5 seconds ahead of France’s Martin Fourcade in third. Russia entered the final exchange with France, with Loginov tagging Anton Shipulin just 0.9 seconds behind France.
That’s where things got interesting. Schempp executed as needed to secure the win — cleaning prone without any spares and using just one in standing — and Windisch as his most immediate threat fumbled on the last stage when the he missed two and left the range in fourth, 32 seconds behind Schempp.
There, Fourcade moved into second with his second-straight flawless stage (0+0, 0+0), 17.9 seconds behind Schempp, and Shipulin remained in third (+18.6) after cleaning both stages as well (0+0, 0+0). Fourcade and Shipulin started the race together and jockeyed between third and fourth for the first two loops, until both moved ahead of Windisch and had the opportunity to battle for second place on the last loop.
For Fourcade, who had already won 10 races (including relays) this season and entered the World Championships mixed relay as a defending champion with France, it wasn’t so much about the silver. It was about beating Russia.
As Fourcade and Shipulin descended a downhill together on the last loop, Fourcade took the lead by the bottom and attacked on the long uphill that immediately followed. Shipulin remained on his heels as the two came within view of Schempp, who was skiing what appeared to be a casual pace off the front — although Schempp would later say he was going full speed.
“I think you could see that they wanted to get back up to [Schempp],” German men’s head coach Mark Kirchner told ZDF of Fourcade and Shipulin on the last loop. “But when they reached the highest point of the course it looked like they rather skied tactically, who becomes second and who becomes third. Then I was sure that this would end well for us.”
About 100 meters before the finish, Schempp glanced back to see Fourcade and Shipulin charging hard. Schempp appeared unfazed and maintained his pace, holding his arms up to celebrate before he crossed the line first.
Germany took the relay gold in 1:09.06.4 hours, while Fourcade finished 2.2 seconds later to secure silver for France. One second later, Shipulin anchored Russia to bronze (+3.2).
“Fourcade really attacked enormously,” German men’s assistant coach Andreas Stitzl told ZDF. “Thank God Fourcade and Shipulin were not totally in agreement, so it went our way.”
Schempp later said he realized those two were getting closer, “but there was a bit of a buffer,” he told ZDF. “I wasn’t certain, so I still skied full speed … Of course this is an enormously cool start for our team into the World Championships, immediately with a first place. And I think I am speaking for everyone that we are overjoyed.”
It was the first mixed-relay win for Hinz and Dahlmeier.
“These are big emotions, winning it all in a team together with the men,” Dahlmeier told ZDF. “I have never won a mixed relay before, and this is only my second one ever. I think this means a lot to the whole team, that we became world champions right in the first race.”
“I am still a little bit speechless,” Hinz said. “I was very happy that the coaches trusted me with this assignment, and it means quite a lot to me.”
During the flower ceremony, Germany’s four racers stood on the highest step of the podium. France followed them to the second step, with Anais Chevalier, Dorin Habert, Quentin Fillon Maillet, and Fourcade, and Russia was introduced third, with Olga Podchufarova, Tatiana Akimova, Loginov, and Shipulin.
As the four Russians approached the French team to shake hands in usual fashion, Fourcade shook the hands of the two women, but did not come in contact with the two men. As Russia proceeded to its spot on the podium, Fourcade clapped sarcastically, then stepped down from the podium and attempted to leave the ceremony. Not long after, he returned, likely having been instructed to.
“I’m a bit sad,” Fourcade said at the post-race press conference. “I just want to remember that one week ago the president of the Russian federation asked the IBU to take disciplinary sanctions against me because I did a tweet about Loginov and today they decide to not shake my hand on the podium so I’m a bit surprised the president of the Russian federation wants to disqualify his own athletes.”
While it’s tough to pin down exactly which tweet Fourcade was referring to, he wrote on Twitter, “We didn’t think it was possible so they did it………….” on Wednesday, the day before the opening race of World Championships, likely when he learned Loginov would be starting the relay. Loginov is coming off a two-year ban for EPO use and dominated the competition at last month’s IBU Open European Championships.
Whether the Russian men didn’t shake Fourcade’s hand on the podium, or vice versa; whether they were upset about his tweet or the fact that he appeared to go out of his way to trip Loginov in the exchange zone on Thursday (after Loginov had tagged Shipulin right after Fourcade), one thing is clear: there is some definite tension between Fourcade and Team Russia.
And it’s not all on Fourcade; this has been months in the making after World Cup athletes demanded that the IBU implement stricter anti-doping policies and measures. Fourcade walked out of a meeting last month, telling NRK, “I am pissed off.” The next day, the IBU Executive Board announced it would hold an “Extraordinary Congress” before World Championships to vote on rule changes. The IBU announced the Congress decisions on Wednesday, which included plans to impose higher fines and reduced quotas for nations that violate anti-doping rules. Moreover, 2021 World Championships will not be held in Tyumen, Russia.
An IBU press release on Thursday didn’t get into details beyond the mixed relay itself: “Today is not the best example of a sprint finish battle that I could have done,” Shipulin said, according to the release. “I hope the rest of the World Championships it will be better.”
In terms of shooting performance, Russia was the best of the 25-team field with a total of four spares (three of which came on Loginov’s standing stage) and zero penalties. France had eight spares and overcame one penalty (on Fillon Maillet’s standing stage), and Germany used a total of seven spares but avoided the penalty lap.
“I was expecting us to be in the mix and fight for the medals,” Kirchner told ZDF, “but you can’t plan it working out like this, standing on the first position is always a surprise.”
Italy (Lisa Vittozzi, Wierer, Hofer, Windisch) placed fourth, 28.7 seconds out of first and 25.5 off the podium, with six spares and zero penalties.
Vittozzi initially put the team in first at the first exchange, 1.8 seconds ahead of Norway’s Marte Olsbu in second. There, Austria’s Lisa Theresa Hauser followed 5.7 seconds back in third, and American Susan Dunklee was fourth, 7.6 seconds out of first.
Dunklee used two spares to clean prone and another two in standing (0+2, 0+2), but posted the second-fastest course time of the first-leg skiers to stick with the leaders through the first exchange. While Vittozzi hit all 10 of her targets (0+0, 0+0), Olsbu used a spare (0+1, 0+0) and Hauser required two (0+2, 0+0).
“It wasn’t overly tricky wind but there is more mental pressure in championship situations,” Dunklee wrote in an email about the conditions and why many of the top racers struggled on the range on Thursday. “The days when it matters most can be the days that it’s hardest to perform normally.”
She explained that she was disappointed with her shooting percentage but happy with her speed.
“My skiing feels sharper than it has all year and my body feels ready. That’s a big confidence booster going into the rest of the week,” Dunklee added.
The U.S. finished 16th (+3:20.2), with two penalties and 13 spares. Second-leg Clare Egan remained in the top 10 until her standing stage, where she skied a penalty lap (0+1, 1+3) and slipped to 17th by the exchange, 2:01 minutes out of first. There, Lowell Bailey took over and used one spare in each stage (0+1, 0+1) and skied the sixth-fastest third leg to hand off in 16th, 2:24.2 back. The team’s anchor, Sean Doherty had the team’s second penalty in his prone, but cleaned standing without any spares (1+3, 0+0) to finish 16th.
“We had a disappointing result as a team, but the Championships are long,” Dunklee wrote. “The most important thing is to take one day at a time and come to the venue fully focused and ready to make the most of each opportunity.”
Canada finished more than a minute ahead of the U.S. in 13th (+2:18.2), with nine spares and zero penalties. Julia Ransom started the Canadians off and used four spares (0+3, 0+1) to tag Rosanna Crawford in 18th, 59 seconds out of first. Crawford used three spares as well in prone but also avoided the penalty lap, and cleaned standing (0+3, 0+0) to tag her boyfriend Brendan Green in 15th, 1:29 back.
Green improved one place to 14th, using just one spare in his prone stage (0+1, 0+0) and tagged Scott Gow 2:06.8 out of first. Gow cleaned prone and used one spare in standing (0+0, 0+1) to finish 13th, just 0.6 seconds ahead of Switzerland in 14th.
“The goal during my leg was to ski hard and push the shooting as much as I could,” Gow wrote in an email.
Both his shooting and range times were sixth-fastest among the anchor legs.
“My shooting was good, and all I can attribute it to is my prep the last two weeks,” Gow explained. “Shooting conditions were quite good, a little bit of wind here and there, so the environment wasn’t too much of a factor. I spent the last two weeks adding extra stress to my shooting and making sure all the fundamentals were in place, and that is what helped me today.
“I’m happy with my race and our team is optimistic for what is to come,” he added. “There were a lot of positives from the past two weeks within the whole team, so there a lot of possibilities.”
Personally, Gow’s main focus for the championships is the men’s relay after Canada earned a historic bronze in the event at 2016 World Championships.
“Last year our team had an incredible result in the relay and it would be great to have another awesome team result at these championships,” he wrote. “Aside from the relay, I’m looking most forward to the sprint. I’ve had some great sprints this year and I’d like to continue the good trend.”
IBU World Championships continue Friday with the women’s 7.5 k sprint at 8:45 a.m. Eastern time. Watch it live on Eurovisionsports.tv.
— Harald Zimmer contributed