Remember when it was a big deal when Sweden won a Biathlon World Cup? The team in bright yellow has made it a habit at the 2018 Winter Olympics, winning their first Olympic relay gold and fourth medal over the last two weeks on Friday — the last biathlon race of the PyeongChang Games.
“It’s dreams coming true at that moment,” Fredrick Lindström, the Swedish men’s 4 x 7.5-kilometer relay anchor said in a post-race press conference on Friday. “It’s my third Olympics and to be on top with these guys feels great. I don’t know what to say.”
Lindström had taken gold in perhaps the most ideal way for an athlete in his position, by heading out on the last 2.5 k loop in first place, almost 41 seconds ahead of anyone else. While he had missed his first shot in the final standing stage of the race, Lindström cleared it with the use of one spare bullet. Meanwhile, his closest challenger for the win — Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen, who had followed him into the range and lined up alongside him to shoot — missed his first two targets and went on to miss more, ending up with a penalty lap after using all three spares.
That was the end of gold for Norway and for Svendsen, who was all too familiar with the penalty lane in the closing moments of an Olympic relay. Four years ago in the men’s relay in Sochi, Russia, Svendsen as Norway’s anchor had been in the medal hunt until the final shooting. There, he used all of his spares and still left a target standing, which sent him to the penalty lap. After leading by as much as 20 seconds in the middle of that race, Norway finished fourth.
But as they say, that’s biathlon. And on Friday, it was Sweden’s day and Lindström skiing on his own for a 2.5 k victory loop around the course. But he didn’t slow down. As the 28 year old skated up the final climb, he was greeted by several members of his team bowing up and down in a unison to celebrate the history that was about to be made. Lindström descended down into the stadium, not looking back and still pushing toward the line, before skiing to the sidelines a few meters before the finish to grab a small Swedish flag.
It wasn’t like the oversized French flag Martin Fourcade had been seen waving earlier in the Games, in the pursuit and again in the mixed relay. It was understated, like Sweden’s biathlon team before these Olympics, but he waved it proudly as he crossed the line to a sea of swarming teammates.
Sweden (with Peppe Femling, Jesper Nelin, Sebastian Samuelsson, and Lindström) finished first with a cumulative time of 1:15.16.5 hours and a total of seven spares and zero penalties. Skiing alone and finishing 55.5 seconds behind them, Svendsen crossed the line in second for Norway (with teammates Lars Helge Birkeland, Tarjei Bø, and Johannes Thingnes Bø), after tallying 12 spares and one penalty.
In stark contrast to Lindström’s wide-eyed smile as he finished, Svendsen, 32, who had previously earned bronze in the mass start and silver with Norway’s mixed relay in PyeongChang, hung his head. His teammates met him at the finish and tried to improve his mood, but he was down.
“It was a good battle. We wished each other luck before the start and it was a good fight,” Lindström said of contending with Svendsen for two out of three loops.
Johannes Bø had tagged Svendsen in first at the last exchange, 0.4 seconds ahead of Sweden, with Samuelsson handing off to Lindström. In the prone stage that followed, both Lindström and Svendsen cleaned without a miss. They left the range together, more than a minute clear of Germany’s Simon Schempp in third (who had missed three but avoided a penalty three spares). Germany had been 13.7 seconds back at the last exchange.
“Emil had to go first the first loop, I went first the second loop, and on the shooting we were equal until that standing,” Lindström reflected. “I don’t know, I was the lucky man today. I feel proud that I managed that situation and to bring the gold to Sweden.”
Even without gold, Svendsen is the third-most medaled biathlete in Olympic history, according to the International Biathlon Union (IBU). A four-time Olympian, he has eight medals, four of which are gold.
“I think that’s awesome,” Svendsen said when asked about his medal tally at the press conference. “It feels very good and yeah, what can I say? Thank you.”
Finishing more than a minute after Norway and exactly 2:07.1 minutes behind Sweden, Germany (with Erik Lesser, Benedikt Doll, Arnd Peiffer, and Schempp) placed third after Schempp incurred a penalty in the final standing stage. While he was still far enough ahead of Austria’s Dominik Landertinger to hang onto bronze, that penalty put Schempp nearly a minute behind Svendsen at the start of his last loop.
While he waved to the crowd as he finished, Schempp later said he wasn’t happy with his performance. The German team accrued 10 spares and three penalties (two of which came in Doll’s second leg).
“I just was disappointed in my race,” Schempp told German broadcaster ARD of his finish-line body language, according to a translation. “But at the end of the day we won the medal. That is the most important thing, that’s what matters, but of course, I can’t be satisfied with my shooting bouts. It was so incredibly gusty … I waited crazily long with my spare shots today because I thought the gusts would be over soon and then I could shoot. But unfortunately that was not the case, so I was on the range forever, losing a lot of time and then still didn’t hit every target. It was like a vicious cycle.”
Lesser and Canada’s Christian Gow Up Front
Sweden had positioned itself for a medal from the gun, with first-leg skier Femling tagging Nelin in fifth, 27.3 seconds back, at the first exchange. Germany’s Lesser had put his team in first on that leg with near-perfect shooting — cleaning prone and using one spare in standing (0+0, 0+1). Lesser tagged Doll 18 seconds ahead of Slovakia in second, which had put itself in contention with a flawless first leg from Matej Kazár. (Slovakia dropped to 15th on the second leg and was lapped on the third leg.)
Canada attracted some serious TV time when Christian Gow took the lead on the first climb out of the stadium. He went on to hit five targets in a row in prone and left the range in second, 1.2 seconds behind Lesser in first. One loop later, Gow had slipped to eighth and about 20 seconds back when he needed three spares to clean. He ended up tagging his brother and teammate Scott Gow in ninth, about 48 seconds out of first.
“It wasn’t planned, for sure,” Gow, 24, told FasterSkier after about his decision to lead on the first loop. “Right at the top of the first climb, everyone was kind of moving over to the right, staying in kind of two lines, and there’s quite a bit of space there, so I took the opportunity to move up just because I’ve done so many relays where you’re stuck in the middle of the pack. … I saw an opportunity to get to the front — I didn’t think it would be the front — but that’s what ended up happening, and I just did my pace and no one wanted to pass me.
“I’m really happy to have cleaned the prone for sure because it’s great if you can lead it, but if you can’t knock down the targets it doesn’t mean too much,” he continued. “In the standing I’m trying to be a bit easier on myself, just because it’s a new situation to be way up in the front like that and having a great day. I wish I would have held it together a bit better than I did. I think I let the nerves get to me a little bit more than I should of, but a lesson learned and I’m happy with the first two-thirds [of my race].”
Sweden’s Steady Rise
Nelin raced Sweden into second place, 16 seconds behind the Czech Republic in first by the second exchange. He cleaned prone with one spare and avoided a penalty with three spares in standing while Germany’s Doll, who had been skiing alone in first before the standing shooting, dropped to fifth and almost 38 seconds back with two costly penalties.
The Czech Republic’s Michal Šlesingr cleaned standing without a miss to take the lead with one loop to go in the second leg, 6.8 seconds ahead of Austria’s Simon Eder in second. Nelin followed another 8 seconds back in third, and tagged just 0.2 seconds ahead of Austria in the exchange.
The third leg saw Johannes Bø, who had been tagged 31 seconds back in fourth, put Norway in first with a clean prone and a single spare in standing. Samuelsson, who had previously taken silver in the 12.5 k pursuit and placed fourth in the 20 k individual race at these Olympics, put Sweden in a position to win gold, using just one spare to clean prone and shooting without a miss in standing. He latched onto Bø, leading the Norwegian on their final loop and handing off to Lindström just 0.4 seconds behind Norway.
Earlier this season, Sweden won the men’s relay at the IBU World Cup in Oberhof, Germany. The order was the same, except Martin Ponsiluoma skied the first leg, rather than Femling. While the win was a big deal for Sweden, it was against a slightly watered-down field, with some of the top biathletes opting to skip the Oberhof World Cup at the start of the new year.
Friday’s victory marked Sweden’s first Olympic relay gold in biathlon after it earned bronze in 1976 in Innsbruck, Austria, and again in 1992 in Albertville, France.
“It means a lot. It’s the first medal for men’s relay team in biathlon for Swede,” Samuelsson said. “Of course we are really satisfied. We did four good races everyone today and we’re super happy.”
U.S. Ties Olympic-Best 6th
While Austria finished Friday’s relay in fourth (+2:52.5), and France placed fifth (+3:26.6), the U.S. men tied its country’s best Olympic relay result in sixth (+3:50.2) with Lowell Bailey, Sean Doherty, Tim Burke, and Leif Nordgren. They had been 10th after Bailey’s first leg, in which he used two spares in each stage, and improved to sixth, then fifth on Doherty’s and Burke’s legs.
Doherty used just one spare in prone and cleaned standing without a miss, leaving the range in sixth and 42 seconds back with one loop to go. He then tagged Burke in sixth, about 54 seconds out of first, and Burke held that position with a flawless prone stage followed by three spares in standing. He picked off one place on his last loop to tag Nordgren in fifth, 1:38.8 minutes back.
“I’m real happy about that,” Doherty, 22 and in his second Olympics, said of his shooting. “I feel like I struggled with the prone earlier on [at these Olympics] and I got that kind of dialed in today, which was nice. Standing was good. I had a little break in the wind and I took full advantage. I shot pretty fast, pretty aggressive, but I hit all five from the clip and that’s what really moved things up.
“We had a few days after the individual [race] to go back to the drawing board, come back to some of the fundamentals of shooting,” Doherty explained. “It’s nice to kind of reinforce that I’m capable of hitting targets and fixing things. When you’re not shooting well, you don’t have to keep not shooting well, if that makes sense.”
Nordgren incurred the team’s only two penalties on his prone stage, but because of the strung-out field, he hung onto sixth, losing time to those ahead of him. He used three more spares in standing but stayed out of the penalty lap, finishing about about 24 seconds behind France in fifth.
“Honestly it is a little disappointing,” Nordgren said after. “I know we were gunning a lot more as a team. I had some mistakes there in prone, too. That hurt a lot since we were right there in contention with some top teams in the world…
“I will say we had amazing skis today so I pushed really hard on the first loop and I think I got a couple seconds on [Austria’s] Landertinger,” Nordgren added. “And then just in prone … I was just getting thrown around by the wind. It is has given me trouble the whole couple weeks here I obviously never quite figured it out.”
In addition to tying the best U.S. relay result at an Olympics (of sixth place in the men’s relay at the 1972 Olympics in Sapporo, Japan), sixth was a big improvement for this team, which placed 16th at the 2014 Sochi Olympics. It was also the best Olympic relay result for Bailey and Burke, after they placed eighth in the 2014 mixed relay and ninth in the 2006 Olympic men’s relay.
Asked whether this was his last Olympic race, Burke said it was.
“Today was a good for me so yeah, I would say yes,” the 36-year-old four-time Olympian said. “Biathlon is a crazy sport; it is so up and down from one race to the next. The emotional rollercoaster is amazing. I am done though.
“It has been my life for so long. It is what I know. It is what I love,” he added. “But it is time for the young guns to step up and take my place.”
Bailey told reporters while the race was still going on that he was glad to finish his Olympic career with a race that didn’t include any penalty laps.
“On a day like today, you saw that France was in the loop, now Germany, so the top nations are in there,” he said. “I cannot tell you how challenging this range is. It is so much different than most of the other ranges we shoot on.
“Every Olympics has been different,” Bailey, also 36 and a four-time Olympian as well as 2017 world champion, reflected of his career. “In Sochi I had my career best with eighth place in the individual, and I will always have that. I will always know what I am capable of. That said, I know what I am capable of and I didn’t reach the bar that I set for myself. But all four Olympics have been honestly an incredible honor to put on Team USA uniform and go out there and compete for my country.
“I know that it’s time to make the next step, to make the next transition,” he continued. “I’m really excited for our future, my family’s future. And I’m really excited for the future of US Biathlon.”
Canada finished the race in 11th (+5:40.3). Scott Gow had brought them up to seventh with perfect shooting on both his stages (0+0, 0+0) and tagged Macx Davies about a minute out of first.
“My race pan today was to really emphasize the wind flags, and if it changes direction don’t be afraid to correct for it,” Scott Gow said. “In standing when I came in, it was quite windy, so I just waited a extra couple of seconds and then started to shoot when I felt like it was calm. It is hard to remember that sometimes because you are in the race mode and you just want to get it over with so you can try and just get back on course, so I was happy with that execution.”
Davies, in his first Olympic race, needed three spares to clean prone and slipped to 10th, then had a penalty in standing to leave the range in 12th with one loop to go. He tagged Canada’s anchor Brendan Green in 13th, 4:29 behind. Green went on to use one spare in each of his shooting stages (0+1, 0+1) to bring the team up to 11th at the finish.
“It wasn’t a great race for me, but I fought through it and pushed myself so that’s all I can ever really do,” the 25-year-old Davies said. “Coming into this race I was kind of just excited to get an Olympic start. We didn’t know if I was in or not until yesterday morning. Then kind of sitting around today, slowing realizing that it was happening tonight and getting a little bit more nervous and a little bit more excited as it went on. That was exciting.
“Being part of the team, being part of Team Canada, it’s such a great feeling, great atmosphere,” Davies added. “Everyday you see someone do something amazing and that just inspires you to keep pushing yourself and do everything in your power to succeed.”
As for Green, he said it’s safe to say these were his last Olympics.
“I’ve been to three Games now and they’ve all been very unique and special in their own way,” the 31-year-old Green said. “I think Korea did a great job hosting. Volunteers are spectacular and so friendly. It’s too bad the weather didn’t cooperate a little bit more, but we did our best We all fought hard and I think we’ll be going away motivated and looking forward to more.”
While the IBU World Cup season resumes March 8-11 in Kontiolahti, Finland, then makes its next stop in Oslo, Norway, March 15-18, both the Canadian and U.S. teams have stated they will boycott the season-ending World Cup in Tyumen, Russia, March 22-25.
“The latest decision by the IBU was to send the World Cup tour to Tyumen, Russia for our World Cup final,” Bailey said on Friday. “Team USA is boycotting. The Czech team is boycotting. Canada is boycotting. We are trying to rally more support. I know that as an [IBU] athletes’ rep, we had almost every country had athletes that wrote letters to the IBU saying that we do not want to go to Tyumen. We don’t think it’s the right thing for clean sport, and still, the executive board with Anders Besseberg at the helm decided that it was in their best interest to go to Tyumen. So it’s time for a change. IBU leadership needs to change. Besseberg needs to step down. He’s lost the trust of the athletes.”
“We won’t go to Russia,” Green said. “Instead we’ll go back to Canada for nationals. … I think until Russia is compliant we’ll probably continue to take a hard stance until things change.”
— Gabby Naranja, Jason Albert and Harald Zimmer contributed