Finally, on the last day of racing at the new Laura Biathlon Stadium in Sochi, Russian fans got what they were looking for: not Martin Fourcade coming around the turn, but instead a Russian finishing the relay with a huge lead to land a victory for the home country.
The crowd was roaring as first Dmitry Malyshko – who took the team from tenth to first with the fastest ski time of the third leg – then anchor Evgeniy Ustyugov cleaned their targets without relying on any spare rounds in the men’s 4 x 7.5 k relay. By the time Ustyugov skied into the stadium with a 40-second lead and grabbed a flag to wave across the finish line, the fans were going crazy.
Still, though, Russian fans are fickle. In the post-race press conference, a Russian journalist stood up and chided first- and second-leg racers Anton Shipulin and Alexandr Loginov for not interacting with their fans enough or rewarding them for their loyalty. Another journalist then admonished Loginov for holding his skis to close to his face in the photo-ops, and not providing the best picture.
It was ironic considering that just a day before, Ustyugov had commented on the fans in an interview with Russian website Chempionat after finishing second in the sprint.
“We tried to please our fans with wins and even with a hat trick,” he said. “But recently we didn’t please them for a long time, so hopefully this second place is a joy for us and them, especially in a place like this.”
Loginov seemed like an especially unfair target, given that he is a junior and this is only his second week on the World Cup; realistically, he hasn’t yet learned the ropes. Or, he said, even gotten over the stress of representing his country on the sport’s biggest stage.
“Before the competition I am trying to keep calm, and so I am trying not to pay attention to the fans,” he told the journalist. “The same goes for the time after the race – I am really tired and I am trying to analyze what is going on in my head, what was the race about. Mostly you’re just really tired. And also I guess it is my character, but at least this year I have learned to smile sometimes! That’s really progress for me.”
Shipulin, who missed the last week of racing in Oslo, kicked things off for the Russians with a strong effort: despite two spare rounds, he tagged off in third, just a second and a half behind first place.
“I felt better than yesterday, and I believe that in Khanty-Mansiysk I will do even better,” he said through a translator in the press conference, clearly happy to have turned in a good race. “Being sick influences me a lot and impacts my shape. It’s very sad, but it happens to everyone, and hopefully I’ll be able to avoid it in the future and next season.”
From there the weight shifted to Loginov, who was in his very first World Cup relay. As he said, he didn’t find the experience easy.
“This is a very, very stressful event, but I tried to stay calm and relaxed and not to think about the fact that there were lots of fans and that they were all hoping for me,” he said. “I tried to act like it was a standard race.”
Nonetheless, the young racer struggled on the range, using all three spares in prone and still skiing a penalty loop. Then in standing he used another spare round. By the time he tagged off, the team was in tenth place, 40 seconds back.
But luckily for Russia, some other teams had trouble as well. Austria, which had been leading coming into standing, had used spares; Jakov Fak of Slovenia, who had been in second, had to hit the penalty loop. That left space for some other teams to catch up.
And once Malyshko took the tag, it was off to the races for the home team. Malyshko did the kind of skiing that earned him a few wins this season, and soon Ustyugov set off with a slight lead over Germany. The gap to third was large, with France, Slovakia, and Italy battling it out about 35 seconds back.
The fight for first place hardly seemed fair, however. Ustyugov matched up agains Benedikt Doll of Germany, who was in his first relay of the year; unlike the Russian, he hasn’t won any World Cups, or been on the podium. Just 22 years old, he was a bit more nervous than the veteran Ustyugov.
“My goal was that I wanted to hold the place that the skier before me gave to me,” Doll said in the press conference. “And of course I wanted to have a good and stable shooting. In the end it didn’t work out perfectly.”
That slight lack of confidence showed, as he used two spare rounds in prone and three in standing. It allowed Ustyugov to skate away to his win unchallenged. Doll didn’t completely unravel though – skiing the fourth-fastest course time, he hung onto second place for Germany even though last weekend’s sprint winner Ondrej Moravec of the Czech Republic used a single spare and was charging forward.
But while the podium was a significant accomplishment for the Czech team, it was all about Russia today.
“We hope very much that during the Olympics we will be able to repeat today’s result and yesterday’s too,” Ustyugov said. “Yesterday’s sprint helped me a lot and gave me lots of confidence. In my case it was most important to prepare for clean shooting, and I managed to do that. I’m quite happy with my own result and very happy with the team – I’d like to thank our service team and especially our coaches.”
Chelsea Little is FasterSkier's Editor-At-Large. A former racer at Ford Sayre, Dartmouth College and the Craftsbury Green Racing Project, she is a PhD candidate in aquatic ecology in the @Altermatt_lab at Eawag, the Swiss Federal Institute of Aquatic Science and Technology in Zurich, Switzerland. You can follow her on twitter @ChelskiLittle.