In biathlon, the individual format is often described as a shooter’s race. With a minute of added time penalizing each missed shot, the consequences for a single mistake while shooting are even higher than in any other format. There are many great biathletes – World Cup winners and even World Champions – who have never won an individual race.
In Khanty-Mansiysk, Russia, on Tuesday, young Norwegian Tarjei Bø proved that while the individual is a shooter’s race, it’s also a skier’s race. With one penalty and the third-fastest ski time of the day, he picked up a 40-second victory and the first World Championship gold that he can claim wholly as his own.
Bø is part of a strong Norwegian team, perhaps the strongest in years. While teammates Ole Einar Bjorndalen and Emil Hegle Svendsen were favorites coming into this season, and Lars Berger was, as always, a threat to win if he could just put together a good shooting race, Bø was at 22 years of age the wild card.
But although all three of his famous teammates have won World Cups this year, Bø outdid them by winning four and wearing the overall yellow leader’s bib for almost the entire season.
(You can read Nat Herz’s interview with Bø to find out how he’s done it.)
In Khanty-Mansiysk, his first World Championships, he anchored the winning Norwegian mixed relay team and picked up bronze medals in both the sprint and pursuit. Finally, on Tuesday, he won gold on his own.
“To win in the relay with your friends is very special, but this first individual Gold medal in the World Championships has a more special feeling,” he told IBU News. “I was happy to win the relay but when I win alone it is more emotional; a special moment for me.”
Bø made things look easy, but in reality they were not.
“I had steel control over the shooting, and tried to keep a steady pace and keep quiet,” he told NRK News. “Today I was the boss of myself.”
He elaborated on his shooting in a press conference after the race.
“My plan was not shoot so fast today,” Bø said. “But on that last shooting, I was very nervous. So I decided that I had to shoot fast so I did not have to think too much. Suddenly the shooting was over and I had five hits; it was a fantastic feeling. It might have looked perfect, but it was not so perfect in my head. I had a bit of luck I think.”
It was an emotional day for the young racer, who cried upon learning that he had won. In the end, he was satisfied.
“I have heard that you aren’t properly a man until you have won a 20 k,” he told NRK. “Now I have.”
Maxim Maksimov finished second, collecting the first Russian medal of the Championships. He edged out Christoph Sumann of Austria by just five seconds.
Sumann, who at 35 years old was picking up his fourth World Championships medal, just like Bø, said that he felt like an old man.
“I was in my first World Championships when you were in primary school,” he told the Norwegian in the press conference.
For the U.S., too, the team would not have guessed at the beginning of the season that it would be led by a youngster at this World Championships. But just as in Saturday’s sprint, 21-year-old Leif Nordgren (who was featured earlier this year in our Pros of Tomorrow series) was the top American finisher, and he again had a career-best finish. This time, he placed 21st thanks to a single penalty.
“Last night’s race went really well for me,” Nordgren told FasterSkier in an e-mail. “I was a little surprised actually how well it went. I don’t think I could be any happier.”
When asked how he achieved his stellar result, Nordren said it was just basic biathlon.
“There wasn’t really much to it,” he said. “I got a nice ride skiing behind Lars Berger for the first couple of loops, and that really set up a good pacing for me for the rest of the race. The individual is a shooting race though, so I wasn’t really concerned about how fast or slow I was skiing, I just wanted to make it around the loop each time, hit all my targets, and go full gas on the last loop.
“It worked out pretty well I’d say- I missed my first shot on the last stage, kind of a bummer but that’s biathlon, and the last loop I pushed as hard as I could.”
He was followed by veteran Tim Burke in 30th place. Burke has had a tough season- today’s race was merely “okay”.
“My shooting was better than it has been, but it was still not good enough for a top result,” he told FasterSkier. “The individual is so heavily weighted towards shooting that you really can’t afford to miss more than one shot. Of course, I am not satisfied with a 30th place. I know I am capable of much more so this has been quite frustrating for me.”
Lowell Bailey and Jay Hakkinen struggled on the range, missing six shots each and finishing 78th and 80th.
Hakkinen had been one of the best-ranked shooters on the World Cup up until this week.
“I think that might be past tense now,” he said in an e-mail. “I almost missed more today than I have all season, but that is biathlon.”
For Nordgren, his career-best result had some extra bonuses, too.
“21st is a really good result for me, but perhaps the coolest thing is that I’m now qualified for the mass start race on Saturday,” he said. “Only 30 men make it into the mass start, the top 15 from the overall World Cup, and the next best 15 from the Championships.”
It will be Nordgren’s first mass start at the senior level, since he didn’t qualify for any of the World Cup mass starts this year.
Unfortunately for the U.S. team, though, the mass start situation has been disappointing as well, thanks to an error on the part of the IBU.
“After the race yesterday the IBU put out the list for the Mass Start,” Burke explained. “On the list I was the last qualifier in 30th place. This was a huge relief to me and I was so excited to get another opportunity. I felt like my ski speed was very competitive and my shooting was finally getting back on track. It seemed like the first time this season that I was going to finally get a break. Our entire staff was thrilled and we were all cheering in the wax cabin when the list was posted after the race.”
But it was not to be.
“I was informed this morning that the IBU had made a mistake and I was actually number 31,” Burke said. “It’s hard for me to believe that a ‘professional organization’ could make a mistake like this at World Championships. This was absolutely devastating to me.”
While he was clearly suffering, Burke was still able to look on the bright side and say some kind words about his teammate.
“At least Leif will get to race the mass start and I am very happy for him,” Burke told FasterSkier. “He has worked really hard all year and he has definitely proven himself here this week. I am very impressed by his composure on the range in his first year on the World Cup and at his first World Championships. He has been one of the best shooters here in Russia during some very challenging conditions.
“I expect that we will see great things from him in the future.”