Whistler, British Columbia – Evgeny Ustyugov (RUS) won the first biathlon Olympic men’s gold for Russia in 16 years, skiing away from bronze medalist Paval Hurajt (SVK) in the final lap.
Martin Fourcade (FRA) overcame three misses, including two in the first prone stage to take the silver.
Emil Svendsen (NOR) and Simon Eder (AUT) set the pace early, leading the pack that still numbered 16 strong after the first shooting stage.
Fourcade was not part of the group however. With his two early misses, he was 50 seconds back. Usually it can be very hard to reach the podium with three misses, so it was not looking good. But he proceeded to couple fast skiing with clean shooting over the next two stages. And his final miss came in conjunction with misses from a number of his competitors.
“I told myself, ‘It’s impossible, I don’t understand,’” said Fourcade of his two early misses. “I looked at my coach and I got back in the race.”
Ustyugov and Hurajt both shot clean, skiing in the lead pack the entire race. At each shooting stage, more skiers would drop off as they missed shots.
Heading out for the fourth ski lap, a pack of four, led by Hurajt, held a gap on the field. Daniel Mesotitsch (AUT), remained in striking distance just 7 seconds back, and Svendsen, with a single miss was also in range, 20 down.
But as is often the case, it all came down to the final shooting stage. Only Ustyugov and Hurajt cleaned, with Vincent Jay (FRA) and Bjorn Ferry Sweden missing one and two shots respectively.
It appeared to be a two-way race for gold, but Ustyugov attacked out of the stadium, and was clearly the stronger skier at this point. He quickly left Hurajt behind.
Fourcade missed a shot in the final stage, but was on fire on skis. He quickly caught and passed Christoph Sumann (AUT), a pre-race favorite, who sat in 3rd, and appeared to have the best chance of catching Hurajt.
Fourcade did not settle for bronze and continued to attack, rapidly closing on the fading Slovakian. He made the pass with authority, and quickly opened a safe cushion.
“I felt tired [on the last lap],” said Hurajt. “And Evgeny is a better skier than I am. I was also expecting a challenge from Sumann and I was surprised to see Fourcade come by.”
His bronze was the first Olympic medal won by a Slovakian biathlete, and the first Slovakian Olympic bronze ever.
Ustyugov, meanwhile, cruised down the homestretch to his first Olympic medal.
“I only started to think about the gold when I got to the stadium and could see the line.”
Hurajt was happy to hold on for the bronze. “This is the biggest sport achievement of my life, and it feels fantastic!”
He continued, “I knew before the start it would a fast race and that I would have to hit 20 of 20 shots to do well. When I hit all 20 targets I was very happy and I knew I had a chance for a medal.”
For Ustyugov, on the other hand, his victory had not fully registered. “It hasn’t sunk in yet. I still don’t understand that I have won the gold. Honestly, after the last Olympics, I wouldn’t have even dreamt that I would be here.”
According to Tim Burke (USA), the pace was relatively slow, and several athletes mentioned that the field seemed tired. This was the fourth race of the Olympics, and the last individual format. Only the relay remains.
The Russian champion knew heading into the race that the crux would be the final shooting stage. He shot deliberately, taking especially long on the last target. “I can’t remember what I was thinking,” he said following the race. “I just shot…It was the most important part of the race.”
The strong Austrian and German teams were shut out of the medals again. They only have one medal to show between the two this Olympics – Sumann’s silver in the pursuit.
Norway also had a tough day. The great Ole Einar Bjorndalen struggled out of the gate, missing one shot on the first stage. That was just the beginning as he went on to accrue seven total penalties.
“On some days it is just not working,” said Bjorndalen. “Today certainly was a horrible day. These Olympics have been very disappointing. Horrible.”
He does have a silver medal to show for his efforts, from the 20km individual.
Svendsen was in the race until the final shooting stage where two more misses sent him out of the top-10.
Canadian Jean Philippe LeGuellec, who has had a stellar Olympics thus far, had a tough day. After cleaning the first shooting stage, he missed four shots the next time around. He cleaned again, but then missed three more.
His struggles did not deter the home crowd. Another warm and sunny day made for a festive atmosphere. Each time LeGuellec came through the stadium he was greeted with a boisterous roar. The hill above the range was packed, multi colored flags of all nations waving, noise-makers and a marching band providing energy to the excellent stadium commentary.
LeGuellec good-naturedly waved to his supporters as he cruised down the finish stretch in last place. Only 30 men start the mass start, limited by the number of targets in the range. So despite bringing up the rear, the lone male Canadian biathlete here picked up 11 more World Cup points, capping the best week of his career.
“This race is…a bonus,” said LeGuellec’s coach Jean Paquet. “He did what he can.”
Topher Sabot is the editor of FasterSkier.