Slovenia Is First Across the Line, but Norway Takes the Win in World Championships Opener

Chelsea LittleMarch 1, 20127
Norway’s Ole Einar Bjørndalen leaving the range; he skied a penalty loop that he later found out was not required.

RUHPOLDING, Germany – There were plenty of errors at the IBU World Championships mixed relay today, mistakes that were big enough to have a surprising and significant impact on the outcome of the race.

France’s third-leg racer, Simon Fourcade, received the tag from Marie Dorin Habert in second place, just 11 seconds behind Norway. But he imploded in spectacular fashion, using all six of his spare rounds, hitting the penalty loop, and losing almost two and a half minutes to the leaders; France dropped to 12th and was never able to recover.

Peiffer in the mixed relay in Ruhpolding.

Arnd Peiffer, too, finishes this race as an unpopular figure in his home country. The German anchor began skiing with a 40-second advantage over Norway, which grew after the prone shooting stage. Peiffer choked in standing, however, using all three spare rounds and still skiing a penalty loop.

But the most notable error wasn’t by an athlete. It was instead by the eletronic target system, which inexplicably failed to record Ole Einar Bjørndalen’s first shot of the standing stage.

The third skier for Norway, Bjørndalen later said that he had felt like it was a good shot. The target, though, stayed black. Bjørndalen struggled through the rest of the stage and ended up skiing a penalty loop, dropping his team several places.

“It is a shame that the target system didn’t work for Ole, because maybe the race will have gone differently if you didn’t miss your first shot,” German third-leg skier Andreas Birnbacher told the media.

Both a Norwegian trainer who had scoped the shot and a jury member noticed that Bjørndalen’s shot should have been a hit. They brought it to the attention of Max Cobb, the technical delegate for this series and also the president of the U.S. Biathlon Association, who walked out, examined the target, and saw that it was indeed a on the mark. He, in turn, went to the jury.

Magdalena Neuner of Germany, working to give the men a lead.

“It was not recorded – there was no signal coming from the target to the computer which scores the competition,” Cobb said in a press conference after the race. “Fortunately, both the Norwegian trainer and one of our jury members had scoped the shot… We told the trainers on the shooting range that Norway would receive a credit, first for the penalty loop and then for the extra shot that had to be fired. The jury discussed this and awarded a time credit of 28.4 seconds.”

That information was not relayed to staff on the range until before the final stage of the anchor leg, and the exact amount of time wasn’t clear at that point. By that stage, Peiffer was in the lead, with Norway’s Emil Hegle Svendsen and Slovenia’s Jakov Fak trailing by a significant margin.

When Peiffer missed his shots and hit the penalty loop, Fak took the lead. It was shaping up to be an exciting race: Germany trailed by several seconds, and Norway by about 15. Given the ski speed of Svendsen in particular, the race was likely to come down to a sprint finish.

But while Fak managed to hold off the Svendsen by eight seconds, it didn’t matter: as soon as results were posted on the board, the second-place Norwegians had a star next to their time, indicating that something unusual was happening. Later, the team – who won this event last year but came into the race ranked 20th after starting a “B” squad in the two World Cup races this season – finished as the victors by a margin of 20 seconds.

Emil Hegle Svendsen, knowing that he was winning even in third place.

The Norwegians were happy for the gold, but not pleased with the way they got it.

“It was a little bit strange today,” Bjørndalen said in a press conference. “When I came to the finish line I was told that I had hit one more target… It is not a good feeling, when you do not cross the finish line first, but you win.”

As to whether the problem was addressed appropriately, he said only that it was a matter for the jury.

The rest of the team might have felt more like winners. Both leadoff skier Tora Berger and second leg Synnøve Solemdal tagged off in first place. And while Svendsen wasn’t the first one to finish, he had enough information to know that he was winning.

“I heard on the last loop that we had maybe some time cut off, so I knew that if I was within 15 or 20 seconds of Slovenia we could have the gold,” he said. “I just tried to control that.”

Jakov Fak embarking on the anchor leg.

The Slovenians put on a happy face and quelled any lingering discontent they might have about the time adjustment.

“This is when dreams come true,” leadoff racer Andreja Mali said of the silver medal. “After all these years this is my first medal at World Championships.”

The Slovenian men, too, were able to look on the bright side. Fak said that he hadn’t even thought a medal was possible today, much less gold, based on the team’s 19th-place ranking in the event.

And for Bauer, a speedy skier who is less reliable on the range, today’s performance was certainly something to be happy about.

“It’s been a while since I left the shooting range without a penalty loop, so I was quite happy today,” a smiling Bauer said at the press conference. “Even though I spent five spare rounds, I made some progress in the rankings. I guess also my competitors missed a little bit more than me. It went out perfectly.”

As for the Germans, well, they too acted happy with their bronze, although the pressure to win gold has been intense leading up to these home World Championships. Even while the athletes were warming up, the stadium, full of thousands of people not even counting those lining the trails, would explode with noise every time a German racer skied by.

When Birnbacher was leading during the third leg, the stadium was completely silent as he shot, and would then explode in a single, unified roar with every hit. The cheers echoed up and down the narrow valley that houses the Chiemgau arena; even the mountains themselves seemed to be urging the Germans toward victory.

But it was not to be.

“I knew that the Norwegian team got a time bonus of 30 seconds, so I had no hassle,” Peiffer said. “I knew they were in front of us. I thought about my shooting, not about Emil.”

Full results

The German team leaving the range after their bronze medal.

Chelsea Little

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  • davord

    March 1, 2012 at 2:21 pm

    What a dumb way to win a World Championship race. How do you figure 28+ seconds subtracted from Norway’s time, when it took him less than that to ski it? Even the British Eurosport commentators were flummoxed. The decision, unlike the Fourcade/Pfeiffer debacle in Nove Mesto, came awfully quickly too. Obviously you can’t predict what would have happened if Bjoerndalen’s target went down, but you can’t deny that if the Slovenians knew what happened, they would have skied much harder. Not that Bauer and Fak were skiing slow, but I am not 100% positive Norway would have won the gold, hindsight is 20/20 afterall. Give both teams a gold medal, that seems fair to me. One did everything right and finished first, the other had misfortune of the target not falling, yet finished second. What about Sumann?? He forgot (somehow) about the spare rounds and did a couple penalty loops instead of using his extra ammo, yet he was penalized 6 minutes rather than his time being subtracted! What’s up with that? Do we not care about teams that finished way back?

  • Chelsea Little

    March 1, 2012 at 3:08 pm

    Hi Davord – Max Cobb’s description of the time bonus was that they checked the timing system to see how long the penalty loop took (20 seconds) and then checked the target system to see the time between shots, and deduced how long he spent shooting at the target that should have been white (8.4 seconds).

  • davord

    March 1, 2012 at 3:23 pm

    Thanks for the clarification Chelsea, that certainly makes more sense. Thanks also for doing such a phenomenal job covering the biathlon races for us the last couple years. It’s definitely refreshing to see how much all these events are covered. Comparing what FS was when the only thing we would hear was that Svartedal forgot to brush his teeth one morning before a sprint race and that’s why he didn’t win or that Hjelmeset chipped off a part of his finger working on his summer boat or whatever it was, to now, there is really no comparison!! The interviews and race previews are also intriguing.

    Just to go back to the race today, did Mr. Cobb mention anything about the Sumann (AUT) incident? That seemed a bit confusing to me.

  • Chelsea Little

    March 1, 2012 at 3:28 pm

    Hi Davord, the Austrian penalty did not come up in the press conference, but I just looked in the IBU rules and under the list of offenses that will earn a two minute penalty is the following:

    two minutes for “every round not fired if athletes recommence skiing before they have fired all five shots in an individual, sprint, pursuit or mass start competition, or all eight shots in a relay competition, having not hit all targets…”

  • xcskier

    March 1, 2012 at 3:30 pm

    Davord; that you don’t understand the rules in Biathlon doesn’t mean it’s dumb. Bjorndalen hit the target and that was easily proven. The time was taken off as described which is by the rules. That Sumann doesn’t use his spare is a huge mistake and is penalized 2 minutes per round not used. This has been in the rule book for years.
    Even Fak said he couldn’t have skied a sec faster and that the desition was correct.
    It’s and unfortunate way to win a race but it was the correct desition.

  • davord

    March 1, 2012 at 4:00 pm

    Perhaps you should change your name to ‘biathlonskier,’ since you know so much…jk. I am not implying that Norway didn’t deserve the win. I saw the race, and two of the officials went over the targets and saw where the bullet hit, so they obviously were doing their job, but this is the second time this year this has happened. Hopefully it doesn’t happen for a while, because, like Bjoerndalen said, it’s not a great feeling to win a race while not finishing 1st across the line, and it also beggars belief this happens once already and now in Germany, what’s more. I guess as astute as the Germans are with technology, even they are prone to some mistakes. I am not doubting what Fak said, but where did you hear/see that?

  • monica

    March 2, 2012 at 1:33 pm

    Davord, I didn’t see or hear Fak’s comment but I’m perfectly sure Fak was skiing flat out after his last shoot–he would have been pumped full of energy over prospect of Slovenia getting a medal, never mind winning (and pumped as well over somehow getting all 5 down in the stand) and have wanted to make sure of the win. Shame that things took the turn they did, but time adjustment was only fair.

    Chelsea, thanks again for a good report and for giving link to IBU coverage, as well as for having separated race report from reports on North Americans’ results.

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