RUHPOLDING, Germany – Martin Fourcade of France and Emil Hegle Svendsen of Norway have butted heads all season, passing the yellow World Cup leader’s bib back and forth; each has won three races so far and owns several more podiums.
Svendsen started today’s World Championships sprint with bib No. 1 and wanted to end that way. Fourcade started with both the yellow bib and the red discipline leader’s bib, and he wanted to finish that way, too. Svendsen trailed him by just 21 points in the overall standings.
After 10 kilometers and ten bullets, Fourcade emerged on top by 15 seconds. Both men had missed two shots, one in standing and one in prone. Given those errors, neither expected to land at the top of the results sheet – but they did, taking gold and silver in the first individual race of this series.
“I never expected to win with one penalty, so with two it was amazing,” Fourcade said in a press conference. “I am really proud of my shape today and how the team was also, they did a really wonderful job on my skis.”
Fourcade navigated the sloppy, slushy trails like an expert, skiing the fastest course time by 8.8 seconds over Svendsen. As the temperature once again swung towards the 50s, Fourcade brought his own heat to the course.
For the Frenchman, the win was especially gratifying given the difficulties he and his brother had in Thursday’s mixed relay. France sat in second place after the women finished their work, but when older brother Simon Fourcade took over, he used six spares, skied a penalty loop, and dropped the team to 12th. Martin Fourcade, the anchor, used five spares and was only able to climb one spot to 11th.
Simon Fourcade finished fifth today, also with two penalties.
“It was very difficult for Simon and me after the mixed relay, we did really bad races,” Martin Fourcade said. “It was really hard. So we are both really happy.”
He added that while the men’s strong performances probably didn’t make the French women any less irritated about the relay, he was confident that Marie Laure Brunet and Marie Dorin Habert would “catch some medals of their own” in the women’s sprint later this afternoon.
Svendsen also said he was not expecting to do this well once he started missing shots.
“I think I have to say thank you to my start number today because I had perfect tracks on the first loop,” he explained. “With two mistakes you shouldn’t be on the podium, but still with this early start number and maybe better conditions than the ones coming later, I have to say I’m happy with that.”
However, starting first was no picnic, he said.
“It was a special feeling to be the first one out of the start today… it was a big crowd and I felt like everyone was looking at me, so it was a little bit scary.”
The venue was once again sold out at around 30,000 tickets; because of the narrow valley traversed by the road to the stadium, and the space limitations in the stadium itself due to this topography, race organizers have limited the number of spectators.
Svendsen, whose shooting this year is actually somewhat worse than it has been in the past, said that despite having six World Championship gold medals already, he was edgy during today’s race.
“I was really nervous on the shooting range,” he admitted. “A sprint is only two shootings and not so much time to make up mistakes if you make mistakes, so it was a tough day.”
When Fourcade climbed to the top of the podium, the 23-year-old jumped in the air with joy. But it was actually the third-place finisher who seemed the most ecstatic to be there: bronze medalist Carl Johan Bergman of Sweden did that and more, screaming and even dropping his skis in the excitement (a volunteer retrieved them for the podium photo).
Unlike the two leaders, Bergman was clean all the way through his race. Starting with bib 41, significantly later than the others, he had both an advantage – he was receiving their splits and knew exactly where he stacked up – and a disadvantage, since the course only got sloppier as the day wore on. By the time Bergman was entering the range, competitors’ snowplows onto the shooting mat more resembled rollerskiing through a deep puddle than skiing on real snow.
But despite the deteriorating conditions, Bergman only got faster as the race went on. He had the 24th-fastest first loop, the eighth-fastest second loop, and finally, the third-fastest final loop as he charged towards the finish. He ended up edging Daniel Mesotitsch of Austria by ten seconds for the bronze medal.
“I can say I was tired in the final loops,” Bergman laughed. “I tried to focus… because it’s really soft conditions, and I tried to fight in the final hill, but I didn’t ski as well as I did on the first two loops. But overall I’m happy … I saved my energy pretty good during this race. I had power to push on the final loop. Not as much as these guys, but I’m overwhelmed with a third place. That’s fantastic.”
Bergman won two sprints earlier this season, but still came into today’s competition as something of an unknown quantity; he had fallen ill after the last World Cups in Oslo, and lost a significant amount of training time. But the break might have prepared him well.
“All right, I was sick,” he said. “After Oslo I was sick for 10 days, so I need to train, I have only 10 days to prepare for this race and it’s normally a little bit too short with such a long illness. So to be at home with nobody else, I think this was perhaps a really good preparation for this.”
Bergman’s team had perhaps its best day all season, with Fredrik Lindstrom and Bjørn Ferry finishing sixth and seventh. Markus Windisch of Italy, Alexis Boeuf of France, and Tim Burke of the U.S. rounded out the top ten.
All three podium finishers are ready for tomorrow’s pursuit, where Fourcade hopes to repeat his World Championship title from last year and the other two hope to win their first of the season.
“I still I have some things to prove tomorrow,” Svendsen said. “If I want to catch Martin I have to shoot good on the first few shootings, and maybe we can have a good fight for the win tomorrow as well, it would be very fun.”
Fourcade would expect nothing less.
“I am in good position, I think,” he said. “But I know that Emil and Carl Johan and others will fight hard for the title. Emil said that he wanted to catch me on the first loop, so I think it will be a nailbiter.”