Season start? Season started.
The elite biathlon field hit the tracks in Sjusjøen, Norway, which hosted not only the Norwegian national team but the Germans, Austrians, Ukrainians, French, and others for the first international competitions of the season. The races were big: 103 men and 68 women toed the line in the sprint races, and half were from outside the host country. With the World Cup kicking off in Östersund, Sweden, next weekend, many of the teams will use these races to finalize team selections.
On the men’s side, the Norwegian team came out winners – hardly unexpected, given their dominance in the last few years. Emil Hegle Svendsen had one penalty and skied the fastest course time to take the win in the 10 k sprint over teammate Ole Einar Bjørndalen by seven seconds. The “king of biathlon” shot clean, but was unable to match Svendsen’s speed. Simon Desthieux of France took third place, also with clean shooting.
“I started out quite controlled, and it worked out fine,” Svendsen told NRK broadcasters. “It wasn’t top speed…. if I’d had a harder last round, I would have had more to go on. Instead it was an easy passage… especially the standing shooting was good. I’m happy.”
Bjørndalen was also pleased with his efforts.
“When Emil shoots clean, he is so fast that he beats me,” he told the interviewers. “Today I should have taken him, but he was fast and on a roll. I’ll try tomorrow…. I had expected to be skiing better today, but not to shoot clean. It was fun to go today and it meant a lot to me to shoot clean.”
Last season’s overall World Cup winner, Martin Fourcade of France, was fifth with one penalty, just one second behind a clean-shooting Andreas Birnbacher of Germany. Alexander Os and Johannes Thingnes Bø of Norway were just behind, more good news for the home team.
In the women’s 7.5 k race, Andrea Henkel of Germany opened with a bang: despite a penalty in standing, she sped to a huge 27-second win over Marie Dorin Habert of France. Norway’s Ann Kristin Flatland and Tiril Ekhoff were third and fourth, with the top four competitors all accumulating a penalty.
Tora Berger, the Norwegian favorite who was so dominant last season, placed sixth after missing three shots in her prone stage.
“Three penalties can happen to anyone,” Henkel told NRK. “Tora is just a human being.”
Canada’s Megan Heinicke competed – the only North American to do so, as the rest of the Canadians haven’t left for Europe yet and the Americans are already in Östersund – but was disqualified for violating shooting safety rules.
Racing continues in Sjusjøen tomorrow with mass starts.
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.