RUHPOLDING, Germany – After two straight races with Martin Fourcade emerging victorious and familiar, tradition-rich countries like Norway, Sweden, and Russia rounding out the podium, it could be easy to forget that the world of biathlon is a broad one.
But in today’s World Championships 20 k individual race, Jakov Fak of Slovenia reminded the world that his tiny country, home to just two million people, has the talent to cut it on the world’s biggest stage – and that their silver medal in the mixed relay that opened this series was not a fluke. Fak skied to the first World Championship victory of his career by a margin of seven seconds.
Simon Fourcade of France, Martin’s older brother, set the time to beat, starting with bib four and missing only a single shot to finish in 46:55. Accurate shooting is particularly important in this discipline, which punishes each missed shot with a minute of added time rather than a trip to the penalty loop.
Behind Fourcade, the Slovenians were charging hard. Klemen Bauer in bib nine was clean through three stages and appeared poised to kick Fourcade out of the top spot. After missing a shot in his final stage, he ultimately finished fifth.
Not long after, teammate Jakov Fak in bib 15 pulled into the shooting range for his final stage. Like Bauer, he had cleaned the first three bouts and was ranked first. But Fak, too, missed a shot in that last stage, leaving him 14 seconds behind Fourcade. With just a kilometer and a half to go, Fak was still down seven seconds, and a win seemed impossible.
Fourcade, however, had faltered at the very end, and thanks to his later start, Fak knew exactly what he had to do to beat the Frenchman.
“I had problems on the last kilometer, I lost seven seconds there,” Simon Fourcade said after the race. “My brother Martin waited for me and wanted to help me, but I said he should do his own race.”
Perhaps he regrets that now. Martin Fourcade had started a minute behind Simon, and made up that gap on his skis. The triple World Champion, however, had his worst shooting day in recent memory, missing five shots and finishing 25th – hence the willingness to do little brotherly favor. Simon Fourcade, however, said later that he was so tired that a pull probably would have netted him only an extra second or two.
In the end, Fak was able to attack the last kilometer and finish with a seven second lead. And despite their early bibs, the pair was able to hang onto their spots while the remaining 124 competitors finished. Bauer was bumped off the podium by Jaroslav Soukup of the Czech Republic, and Andreas Birnbacher claimed fourth for the home country.
“I think it came from good pacing from the start of the race,” Fak said of his last-loop effort. “We talked with the coaches a lot about how it was very important to pace yourself well.”
Fak had never won a World Cup race before today, although he had two bronze medals in championship racing: one in this event at the 2009 World Championships, and one in the notoriously weather-marred sprint at the 2010 Olympics.
Asked whether he thought that this victory would quell mumblings that those medals were just lucky, Fak said yes.
“With this medal and the medal in the mixed relay, I have shown that I have a little bit of a talent for biathlon,” he laughed. “Now everything is going to be okay.”
Fak has been through tough times recently, after nearly losing a finger to frostbite incurred at the Fort Kent, Maine World Cups last season.
“I thought after the races in the U.S. that it was almost the end of my career,” Fak said. “It did not look so good. This is a very special day for me, and this medal means a lot.”
It was a career day for Fourcade, as well, who has also never won a World Cup. He has finished fourth in this event at World Championships two separate times; in 2009 he was bumped off the podium by none other than Fak.
“Thank you, Jakov, for bringing me just to second place this time,” he joked in the press conference. “It’s really a big feeling for me today to be on the podium. I finished two times fourth in the Championships, so when you know that it’s so close… today I really appreciate my medal.”
Fourcade has been on a demon-slaying spree since his catastrophic collapse in the mixed relay. After finishing fifth in the sprint and sixth in the pursuit, this was the icing on the cake.
“This medal, I give a bit of this medal to Marie Dorin [Habert] and Marie Laure Brunet, because it is because of me that they miss the medal in the mixed relay,” he said.
Soukup, too, is a new face for the medals ceremony. He has only a single World Cup podium in his career. Like Fak, he put in a furious final loop, in his case to pass the time of Birnbacher.
“They told me that I am eight seconds behind him, and I tried to beat him,” Soukup said. “And I did it, and it was very hard. The 20 k is a long way. I was in pain.”
Michal Slesingr finished sixth, putting two Czechs as well as two Slovenians in the top ten. Arnd Peiffer and Emil Hegle Svendsen placed seventh and eighth, scoring a few points for the establishment, followed by a clean-shooting Sergey Novikov of Belarus and finally Fredrik Lindstrom of Sweden rounding out the top ten.