SEEFELD IN TIROL, Austria
In his address to the competitors and spectators who packed the bleachers of the Bergisel stadium during the Opening Ceremonies of the inaugural Winter Youth Olympic Games in Innsbruck, IOC President Jacques Rogge emphasized the importance of the Games with respect to the core Olympic values. “You have a chance to be true champions, not only by winning medals, but by conducting yourself like Olympians,” Rogge told the 1,078 Youth Olympians in attendance.
Today in Seefeld, the true spirit of an Olympian was epitomized by young Canadian Stuart Harden who crossed the line in first position, but was regulated minutes after his finish to 7th place after being penalized for failing to ski his single penalty loop of the day. Gold went instead to Germany’s Niklas Homberg. Rene Zahkna of Estonia took Silver, finishing 9.5 seconds behind Homberg, and Fangming Cheng—yesterday’s winner—added a Bronze medal to his collection, finishing 14.6 seconds off the pace.
How it unfolded–
For today’s Biathlon Pursuit, the 50 competitors completed four laps of a 2.5km course and shot four times during two prone and two standing stages. Yesterday’s champion, Fangming Cheng of China, set out first with a 21 second advantage over Rene Zahkna of Estonia and a 27 second cushion on Aristide Begue of France.
But it was the fourth starter, Stuart Harden of Calgary, who would prove to be biggest threat to the top starters. Harden and Coach Chris Lindsay devised a pre-race strategy in which Harden would combine progressively more aggressive skiing with his reliably consistent shooting to fight for the podium. Both had high expectations coming into the event.
“Stu was very happy with his race [yesterday’s Sprint]. Deep down, I think he’s anxious because he knows there’s an opportunity to be the first Canadian to come away with a medal here [at the Games]. Stu knows that if he has another race like he had yesterday, the medal will come to him,” Lindsay explained to FasterSkier in a trackside interview before the race start.
“The reality is, there’s nothing to protect here. 4th or 10th, it doesn’t matter. He [Harden] is going to ski a strategic race in the first half, and then ramp it up and see what kind of damage we can do,” said Lindsay moments before the race started, under the same ideal conditions which graced Seefeld for the past three days: crisp, firm tracks, blue skies tainted by nothing other than jet contrails, and calm winds.
As the competitors headed into the range after the first lap, it was clear that Harden was doing some serious damage indeed.
When race leader Cheng and sixth placed Homberg both missed two penalties on the first prone stage, Harden cleaned. And then he cleaned again, and again once more during the first shooting stage. The massive crowd began to rally behind the young Canadian who turned heads with his mechanically precise shooting.
“He’s a methodical shooter, not a speed shooter,” noted Lindsay.
By the time the racers headed up the sharp uphill heading into the range, it was clear that the final standing stage would determine the winner. The crowd went silent as Cheng and Harden stood side by side, taking their final shots of the day.
Cheng missed, and missed again. Harden, who opted to take several breaths in between shots, missed the first shot but nailed the final four. Cheng took off first towards the penalty loops, having missed three shots, with Harden following close behind. With a penalty loop taking competitors roughly 15-20 seconds, Harden realized that he’d have a 30 second advantage on Cheng for the final 2.5km of racing. Gold was in his sights.
But then Harden turned left, onto the course, instead of right, which would have sent him onto his required penalty loop. It was a mistake that would cost him the victory.
No one recognized the error in time, and Harden continued his final loop, oblivious of his mistake and focused on holding off the notoriously fast Cheng.
“I think I can say I was having the race of my life,” explained Harden to FasterSkier after the race, “My mindset was go-go-go, and I simply missed the penalty loop. It cost me a penalty, and that’s what happened.”
As Harden raced up the final steep climb before the descent to the finish, the young Canadian seemed destined for a textbook victory. 2002 Gold Medalist and Canadian YOG Team Leader Beckie Scott was cheering with Harden’s parents at the finish, ready to congratulate the Calgarian. The crowd roared as the North American grabbed a flag from a fan and coasted to the line, no rivals in sight.
Yet the stadium quickly fell silent as Harden’s name appeared atop the score board with an asterisk beside it. Lindsay confirmed that his young skier had indeed failed to complete his final penalty loop, and he was penalized 2 minutes—the standard penalty for failing to complete a loop.
Harden stood in the finish pen after the race surrounded by three of his biggest supporters: his parents and his coach. The young athlete was clearly rattled, having gone from experiencing the euphoria of his first international win, to suddenly learning of the penalty and its effect on his result. Despite the commotion, Harden demonstrated experience beyond his years in recounting how his race unfolded.
“Despite the penalty, I could feel worse. I’m pretty happy with how I feel,” Harden told FasterSkier post race. Asked how he might learn from the incident, Harden replied, “I’m learning a lot from it, and I’m sure I’ll learn more. It’s only been a few minutes. I already feel better about it. You know, it’s never going to happen again. It’s just one more thing on my way to the World Cup, the World Championships, and the real Olympics—if I get there. I’m building up, and I’m still really confident in myself.”
Harden wasn’t the only North American to experience ups and downs on the course today. Sean Doherty, who began the race in 12th, moved up to 7th place after missing one target in each of the first two prone stages. But in the first standing stage, Doherty dirtied, missing all five shots.
“I kind of made a major mistake there. Obviously. But then I put my head down and just skied really, really hard, and worked my way back up to 14th. So the day ended up alright,” Doherty told FasterSkier.
“I just lost it mentally a little bit,” explained the young American about his collapse in the first standing stage, “I didn’t feel that off, but just didn’t hold it together. Kinda wish I could have that one back.”
Doherty and teammate Nick Proell stood together after the finish, supporting one another after a challenging day. But like Harden, they’d each learned valuable lessons which would help them on their way towards success at the “real” Olympic Games. Proell ended up finishing in 40th place, with a total of 8 penalties. Canadian Aidan Millar finished 32nd, finishing 5:33 back of Homburg.
But both teams remained positive, optimistic and highly motivated for the upcoming Mixed Relay. Proell and Doherty joked that some serious Wiener Schnitzel for dinner might be just what they’d need to deliver strong performances later in the week.
While they didn’t manage to claim spots on the podium today, the North American biathletes personified perhaps what are the primary goals of this unique event: to give it all on course, to be part of the event, and to be a supportive member of a strong team.
“Stuart is the anchor for our team here. I think the actual happening here, the situation that Stuart found himself in, has actually buoyed up the spirits of everyone on our team,” reflected Coach Lindsay after the finish. “I think the rest of the team— because we’re very tight as a group—is anxious to help him realize the dream it’s obvious he had as he crossed the line today.”
If today’s performance was any indication, we’ll have plenty to look forward to from the strong North American biathletes at these Youth Olympic Games, both in the upcoming relay, and on the world stage in years to come.