RUHPOLDING, Germany – Remember when Austria was one of the best biathlon teams in the world?
The Austrian men do, too. All four members of today’s 4 x 7.5 k relay team were also on the team that finished second in the Nations Cup standings in 2009, and won a silver medal in the relay at the 2010 Olympics.
In the last few years, it has seemed unlikely that the Austrians would be able to match that feat in Sochi. For various reasons, their stars were no longer shining so bright. They underperformed and only returned to the podium three times since Vancouver, all third-place finishes.
Today, though, they signaled that they are back in the most dramatic fashion: outsprinting the host team Germany in a showstopper of a relay competition here at one of the biggest venues on the World Cup. For Germany, this loss in its heartland must have been like a stab in the heart – especially after Russia did the same thing to the women’s team, more or less, yesterday.
It was Dominik Landertinger, the best-ranked Austrian last season who ended up third in the World Cup Total Score, who did the heaviest damage, although the entire Austrian team was smooth throughout the race. Landertinger, though, shot a calm and clean final standing stage, leaving along with Anton Shipulin of Russia.
When Simon Schempp of Germany caught them, making up the five-second deficit he had accumulated by using a spare round, he must have thought he had a chance at the win. He almost did: Landertinger took off on the last uphill and got a small gap, but in an impressive show of determination, Schempp caught up and led the way down the hair-raising downhill for the last time.
Landertinger had the last laugh, though, dueling Schempp all the way to the finish for a 0.1-second victory for his team.
Just how big was that win? Ask Christoph Sumann, the anchor in Vancouver who skied leadoff today.
“This was our first win ever in Ruhpolding so that alone is a very big deal,” he said in a press conference. “[And] winning 30 days before the Olympics makes us one of the favorites.”
Sumann had the fastest course time of all the leadoff skiers, but had to use three spare rounds in standing. Despite the scare, he was still in third place when he tagged off.
“We saw the relays have been close in every competition; it was a good day for us and we are absolutely lucky,” Sumann said.
Daniel Mesotitsch used a total of four spare rounds to drop the team to fourth place, before Simon Eder used just one to move back up again, handing off to Landertinger in second, five seconds behind Germany. For all the things that the Germans did right, they did collect one more spare round than Austria – which is enough of a difference in a relay race.
As much as the German fans felt robbed, the Russians were even more deflated. With seven spare rounds – one less than Germany and two less than Austria – the Russian men had been in the lead for several points during the race, including coming out of the very last shooting stage. But Shipulin was unable to find his legs, and was left behind as the Germany-Austria duel intensified.
Sweden settled for a distant fourth place after being in podium position for much of the race. A penalty loop by Fredrik Lindstöm kept them out of the top three. With a remarkable two spare rounds over the entire relay, the Czech Republic finished fifth.
Two favorites were out of the running. Norway climbed back to ninth after a disastrous first leg by Johannes Thingnes Bø, who missed all five of his targets on his first try in prone. Even after using spare rounds, he had to ski three penalty loops. That left him in 24th place – last place. His teammates worked hard to make up the gap, with both his older brother Tarjei Bø and anchor leg Emil Hegle Svendsen shooting perfectly.
France, often a relay podium finisher, placed one spot behind in tenth. Martin Fourcade did not race, and in his absence, his teammates all had fine races – the team had just five spare rounds over the course of the whole race – but none of the spark that often elevates them to the front.
The Canadian team finished eighth.
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.