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.
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.
“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.
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.”
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.”