RUHPOLDING, Germany – What Norway is to skiing, Germany is to biathlon. And the thousands of German fans filling the Chiemgau Arena today wanted only one thing: German gold.
They’d been denied that pleasure in Thursday’s mixed relay, where a combination of shooting errors and a last-minute time reduction for the Norwegians bumped the German team from what seemed like a sure win down to third place.
And in the men’s sprint earlier today, the top German was Andreas Birnbacher in 16th. The race – which like so many this year turned out to be between Martin Fourcade and Emil Hegle Svendsen – was exciting, but it wasn’t what the crowd had come for.
In the women’s 7.5 k sprint, however, the fans’ appetites were finally satisfied: as the late afternoon sun slowly but surely slipped into the mountains, Magdalena Neuner, who last year was named Germany’s female Athlete of the Year, picked up a 15-second win over Darya Domracheva of Belarus.
Neuner, who turned 25 in February, claims to be retiring at the end of the season, and she made the most of her last World Championships sprint.
“I did enjoy the atmosphere,” she said through a translator in the postrace press conference, refusing to bow to the usual protocol of speaking English now that she’s here in her home country. “I was very relaxed. I was looking forward to the race and I really tried to soak up the atmosphere. I focused on myself, and I focused on what was important. That really brought me to victory today.”
The top five competitors all shot clean, an unusual occurrence this season and especially rare in sprints. Neuner won six of eight sprints in the World Cup season so far, and half of those victories came with a penalty. (Olga Zaitseva of Russia won the other two, but finished 16th today.)
Domracheva, starting 12 bibs ahead of Neuner, shot clean and had reason to believe that she might win. A regular podium finisher, she usually has more penalties than the German.
“I am really excited about my clean shooting today,” she said. “It is the best shooting for the season. When you have a clean shoot, it is always fun and a good emotion for you.”
Domracheva had the fastest ski time of the day as well. But what stopped her from climbing the final step of the podium was slow shooting: she took 28 more seconds to shoot over the course of the two stages than Neuner, her frequent rival.
“In my prone shooting, I had some problems with my first bullet, and then I tried to be concentrate more on my next shoot,” Domracheva said.
Knowing that Domracheva had shot clean may have put more pressure on Neuner, but she said she was unaware of what had happened on the range before her.
“I didn’t know what Daria had done,” Neuner said. “I really focused on myself. I didn’t know the shooting scores, but I knew that with no penalties on the shooting I would be sure to get near the top. It was a great feeling especially with the crowds around me.”
The one thing that could have made Neuner’s day better? She said she wasn’t a fan of the soft, slushy ruts that developed in the seemingly tropical sun here in Ruhpolding.
But it didn’t slow her down much.
“I am in good shape, we have seen that during the last two competitions,” Neuner said. “If the course was a little bit harder it would be better, because I don’t like the deep snow too much. But I would say I am very close to 100 % right now.”
Vita Semerenko of Ukraine was the final podium finisher; this is the second World Championships bronze of her career. But even though she was third in the individual race at last year’s event, Semerenko was not expecting to match that today. Only six different women have finished on the podium in the eight World Cup sprints this season and she was never one of them.
“This year, it is really a surprise for me,” said Semerenko, whose season-best finish before today had been fifth. “It was a very fast competition and I am very glad to have won bronze.”
Semerenko had a few demons to overcome on the Ruhpolding range. Despite being seeded third, the Ukrainians finished a disappointing 14th place in the mixed relay on Thursday. While nobody on the team had a banner day, Semerenko was the only one to ski a penalty loop, after an error-filled prone stage.
“After the relay I was really not satisfied, and today it was really difficult for me in the shooting because I knew what had happened two days ago,” she said. “The most important part was shooting clean and I managed to do that.”
Semerenko finished 37 seconds out of gold, and today Neuner and Domracheva were truly in a class of their own. Only five competitors managed to finish within a minute of the German; that group was capped by another perpetual foil, Tora Berger of Norway, who missed one shot and finished 52 seconds back in sixth.
Helena Ekholm of Sweden and Marie Laure Brunet of France, who usually get on the podium if they shoot perfectly, were out of luck today and finished fourth and fifth.
“I’m very happy,” Ekholm, who has had one of her worse seasons in recent years, told Swedish broadcaster TV4. “When the best shoot cleanly, I’ve still got a chance. It’s a very good position – I’m just in the running for a medal tomorrow, instead.”
Svetlana Sleptsova and Olga Vilukhina of Russia shot clean to finish seventh and eighth, followed by Marie Dorin Habert of France and Anastasiya Kuzmina of Slovakia rounding out the top ten.
Before leaving the press conference, Neuner requested to make an unsolicited statement.
“There’s just something I’d like to say,” she began, before addressing the assembled journalists regarding teammate Arnd Peiffer’s penalty in the last stage of the mixed relay.
“There was an article in the Bild Zeitung, which is a German tabloid, and it said that ‘Arnd ruined Lena’s gold medal’,” Neuner said. “And I think this is not something one should write. I think Arnd did a great race, he made sure that we would win bronze, and maybe next time people might want to think more about what they are going to write.”
Then she sat back in her chair and looked at the hundreds of media workers typing away on their computers, daring them to disagree.
The message was clear: don’t mess with Neuner, on the trails or off. She’s not just a good biathlete, but a teammate, too.