Anyone watching knew that it was going to be close.
When Sergey Novikov (BLR) left the range after his final round of shooting in the 20k individual start, he led Norwegians Emil Hegle Svendsen and Ole Einar Bjoerndalen by seven and 26 seconds, respectively. But Novikov’s lead was due to good shooting, not fast skiing, and the question was whether he could hold on.
For the two Norwegians, who had already finished racing, the nine minutes and eleven seconds Novikov took to ski his last loop must have felt like an eternity. As the Belarusian came back into the stadium, it was clear that Svendsen would win. But the battle between Bjoerndalen and Novikov would come down to the wire.
Novikov finally crossed in 48 minutes, 32 seconds, and zero tenths—the exact same time as Bjoerndalen’s. The race for silver was a tie—the first time in the sport’s Olympic history that had ever happened.
“It’s amazing that they can be so close. I think this is good for biathlon,” said Mikael Lofgren, the Norwegian biathlon coach, adding that the result today speaks to the depth and competitiveness of the men’s field.
Svendsen shot clean in the first three stages, and combined with some blistering skiing, the race appeared to be his to win. Novikov didn’t miss a shot all day, but his skiing speed wasn’t even close to either of the Norwegians.
But in the final shooting stage, Svendsen couldn’t quite seal things, and missed a single shot, setting up some suspense after his finish as he waited for first Bjoerndalen and then Novikov to come to the line.
Bjoerndalen was actually ahead of Svendsen after the latter’s penalty in the last stage, but then Bjoerndalen had a miss of his own.
He left the range seventeen seconds behind Svendsen, and given Bjoerndalen’s superior skiing speed, it looked like the pair could finish in a dead
Bjoerndalen took a glance at the scoreboard on the way out of the stadium, and he said afterwards that he knew just how far behind he was.
“We have four kilometers on the last lap, and I was a little bit afraid to start too fast,” he said. “Maybe I waited a little bit too long—if I could have started a little bit earlier, maybe I could have taken three or four seconds more. But ten seconds [the gap that remained at the finish] was too much.”
Novikov didn’t succumb to the pressure on his last round of shooting, both entering and leaving as the leader after hitting all five targets. As he went
out on course for his final loop, he enjoyed an eight second advantage over Svendsen and 25 seconds over Bjoerndalen. But Novikov’s fitness isn’t close to that of the Norwegians, and he said that he got over-excited and went out a little too hard up on the first climb.
“Indeed, the energy was depleted,” he said through a translator.
He wasn’t fast enough to beat Svendsen, but the effort was exactly enough to match Bjoerndalen, although Novikov didn’t appear to lunge for the line—which could have made the difference.
He and Bjoerndalen shared the second step of the podium during the flower ceremony. Both will receive silvers.
Nathaniel Herz is a reporter for FasterSkier, who also covers city government for the Anchorage Daily News in Alaska. You can follow him on twitter @nat_herz.